Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Analyzing the Function of Creative and Critical Thought in the Evolution of Leadership

By Dr.  Andree Swanson

In the world of leadership and management training, new managers must take a systems approach to analyze the needs of the organization.  To develop an effective management-training program, an incoming leader needs to have a wealth of information at his or her fingertips.  Through a systems analysis approach, the new training leader will be a motivator, coach, guide, collaborator, mentor and teacher to all members of the company.  In addition, leaders must be visionaries, resilient to the ever-changing global economy that exists today, thus, they must know how to gather resources and know how to tap into knowledge.  “Leaders are consumers of information” (Poet, 2003).

This approach is what enabled this writer to develop a managing training program for a national rental company.  Through critical and creative leadership, and an understanding of what Vaill (1996, p. 14) called “Permanent White Water”, this author will define:

a.     critical thinking,
b.     creative thinking,
c.     assess how leaders have traditionally treated creative and critical thinking,
d.     Permanent White Water, and
e.     systems learning. 
Leadership in Thinking

Consider some of the great leaders of the past, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln to name a few.   These people are considered great critical thinkers.  Let’s look at what constitutes critical thinking.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a process, which includes evaluating, synthesizing, applying, and conceptualizing (Scriven & Paul, n.d.).  When this writer was the newly-hired training manager, she was given a budget, made aware of low morale throughout the company, and unskilled managers at most stores.  It was through personal interviews, conducting a needs analysis, and evaluating the recurring issues that appeared, that she applied critical thinking skills to her task of designing a training program.

Creative Thinking

It is easy to think of the creative people throughout history, Leonardo da Vinci, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  He took old knowledge and added new.  Henry Ford thought creatively; he developed a mass production concept – build more cars, faster and cheaper.  “Ford revolutionized manufacturing.  By 1914, his Highland Park, Michigan plant, using innovative production techniques, could turn out a complete chassis every 93 minutes" (Bellis, 2003, ¶ 3).

As you can see, critical and creative thinking are not new skills.  People throughout history provide examples of strong thinkers, but how did these skills apply to the writer as she began her training position? First, look at the origins of the company, Rent-X.  It began as a small, locally-owned rental store, which slowly expanded to seven stores within the Denver metropolitan area.  The company’s scope and influence were limited to a specific area.  At this level, the “white water” was limited.

Second, the company began to grow, buying small “mom and pop” rental companies across the United States.  Along with the growth, so did the accompanying “white water”.  The waves were naturally growing larger because the company branched out in many directions geographically.  Finally, foreign ships in the storm from other countries entered the scene.  Rent-X looked as though it was weathering the “white water” with a strong position, so St. Gobain, a French company, purchased Rent-X.  Through all these changes, this writer was challenged to think critically to assess the situation, think creatively to help the managers and employees feel they were part of a team, instead of feeling as though they were clinging to lifeboats throughout this business storm.  This writer who wore the title of “National Training Manager”, actually she served as an Organizational Change Facilitator and personal coach.

Permanent White Water

Life is full of events that occur simultaneously as we proceed towards our goals.  In the example of Rent-X, the goal of growing the business was stronger than the goal of empowering the employee.  When the scope changes, the magnitude of the obstacles multiplies.  As individuals and leaders, the world is full of obstacles and unexpected occurrences.  A college professor, Peter B. Vaill, coined the phrase “Permanent White Water (PWW)” (p.  8) as a metaphor for an unpredictable world.  Vaill stated “Permanent white water consists of events that are surprising, novel, messy, costly, and unpreventable” (p.  14).  The key word in his phrase is “permanent”.  One does not make the externalities disappear.  It is impossible to operate in a vacuum isolated from world.  In fact, our world is expanding globally.  There will always be life events occurring outside our comfort zone.  Look at the example of Rent-X again.  The external influences (white water) began at a local level, expanded nationally, and then globally.

Leaders of 50 years ago had fewer changes and outside turbulence, than leaders of today.  The work force is more unpredictable, technology is changing faster than companies can keep up, and the work environment is no longer locally based, but global in nature.  Leaders must be attuned to the events that influence him/her, the organization, and the environment of the organization.  Vaill inferred that it is not merely the events, but the meaning we attach to those events that creates the Permanent White Water.  There are five characteristics of PWW are:

a.        it is full of surprises,
b.        complex systems tend to produce novel problems,
c.        the conditions feature events which are messy and ill-structured,
d.        the events are often very expensive,
e.        they raise the problem of recurrence. (pp.  10-14).

Systems Learning
This writer is no longer with Rent-X, in fact it is out of business today, but as she revisits her time there as the Organizational Change Facilitator, she modeled Vaill’s systems learning approach in designing the management training program.  Vaill’s approach includes four strategies for learning: Systems learning, leaderly learning, cultural unlearning, and spiritual learning.  From the beginning, this writer considered all components of the organization when building the program.  Managers were not looked at as an entity on their own, but how they interact with customers, employees, and supervisors and even on how they took time for themselves (stress management, for example).  “The basic reason systems learning is so important, beyond its intrinsic delights, is its value to managerial leaders as they think about how to lead and manage groupings of people (Vaill, p.  119).”
Another goal for the training program was to create a paradigm shift from managers as merely paper and people pushers, but as employees who were empowered to grow the company.  The writer took a team-centered approach using motivational concepts from Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame football coach, and incorporating employee empowerment models from the US Navy, the Sheraton Berkshire hotel, and Federal Express.  The goal was for the managers not to see the training as a band-aid fix, but to instill passion.  Although some of the managers required specific task-related training, the main goal was to inspire passion…to as the match to the candle of leadership.  This is in keeping with Vaill’s premise of leaderly learning:

…managerial leadership is not learned; managerial leadership
is learning.  The relevance of learning to leadership is
that the behaviour we call leadership is, before it is anything else, an initiative from within oneself.  Leadership has self direction as its essence.  (Review of the Book Learning as a Way of Being, n.d., ¶ 17-18)
The final two common areas that this writer had with Vaill are the areas of cultural unlearning and spiritual learning.  It seemed quite natural to the writer that there were cultural differences to deal with when designing the program.  This idea was initially not received well, but as the writer began to actually implement parts of the program, she was able to provide solid feedback on how management styles and cultural differences made a difference.  A simple example is the time consideration for family and religious activities.  In the Denver metro area, the stores operate seven days per week, and they thought nothing of holding a training session on Sunday evening.  However, when the writer traveled to Oklahoma, South Carolina and Arkansas, the idea of training on a Sunday was not well received.  Another example of cultural unlearning was the specific training session that addressed cultural diversity and knowing that even stating something as feeling like a “red-headed step-child” may be offensive to some.  Vaill stated:

Even for those within a single culture—and certainly for those within the North American culture—the topics of spirituality and religion may not be easy to discuss.  Yet, perception of the particular spiritual nature of a culture may be one of the most important cultural keys to understanding it and continual learning and growth may be the most important kind of learning we can do in permanent white water.  (p.  175)
In keeping with the systems approach to learning, whether in a classroom setting or when developing a training program, spiritual learning is a vital element also.  From a holistic perspective, we are spiritual beings, ever-changing and dynamic.  To not consider this when approaching learning is to not consider the systems approach.


Leadership today is not an easy task.  We must be innovative yet analytical, motivating yet controlling, and learn to become consumers of information (Poet, 2003).  Leaders must be aware of the ever-changing world we live in and conscious of the permanent white water that surrounds us.  Leaders must accept and develop within themselves the concept of leaderly learning and make it not just a catch phrase, but also a value statement to live by as we progress on our learning journey.  Through constant refreshing of our critical and creative thinking skills, and the nurturing of our leaderly learning skills, this course is the backbone for all growth to become effective educational leaders.


Bellis, M. (2003). Henry Ford (1863-1947). What you need to know
      about.  Retrieved from
Review of the book Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for
      Survival in a world of permanent white water.  (n.d.).  Change
      Management Monitor.  Retrieved from
Scriven, M., & Paul, R. (n.d.). A working definition of critical
      thinking.  Retrieved from
Vaill, P.  B.  (1996).  Learning as a way of being: Strategies for
      Survival in a world of permanent white water.  San Francisco, CA:

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