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Truly Independent Thinkers Have These 5 Traits

Every business needs independent thinkers to help lead the team to success. Here's how to spot them.

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In today’s divided world where popular opinion only gives you choices in black and white, independent thinkers stand out as leaders because they appreciate the grays. This strengthens their thinking, and they can factor out all the loud noise and subjectivity to generate objective thoughts with a critical eye. 

Someone who can think independently has the confidence to take action and the focus and flexibility to solve problems, and that person has no problem being honest because he or she has no agendas to hide. For these people, their balanced input earns them credibility and respect among others, and other people turn to them as leaders. Independent thinkers add value to any business, so learn to pick them out and add them to your team. 

Here are five ways you can identify them.

1. Confidence 

Confidence removes fear, and independent thinkers need the confidence to explore alternatives that challenge popular opinions. Building confidence requires taking risks, encountering problems, attempting to overcome them and trying again if you fail. It takes a lot of guts to stand up and contradict a room full of people, but it was the confidence of independent thinkers like Copernicus that allowed us to advance our understanding of complex and amazing things like the solar system. 

The confidence of my current business partner helped us identify him 20 years ago. At the time, he was a sales professional in one of our territories, but like Socrates, he asked deep questions about everything and, as a result, learned from some of the brightest minds. Without any formal training, he grew from that position to become one of the best designers of optical-fiber connectivity. This is an example of how confidence lets independent thinkers grow into their best selves.

Related: 16 Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

2. Problem-solving

Independent thinkers embrace problems as opportunities for improvement. Problems are obstacles set in the way of wherever you want to go, but independent thinkers see them simply as information to be used toward building a solution. My independent-thinking business partner attacks a problem with confidence, but at the same time, he knows when to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective. 

Independent thinkers build their confidence through solving problems because even when they fail, they know that with patience and the right tools, everything has a solution. Imagine untangling a knotted necklace or used fishing line — if you let yourself get frustrated, those knots only get tighter. If you calm down, find the right tools and focus on identifying the knots, you can eventually remove them. Independent thinkers avoid frustration by starting small because solving even one problem brings them the confidence to solve another. 

Related: Stop Believing in the Power of Freemium Thinking

3. Focus

Focus removes distractions, and independent thinkers are able to make decisions without letting the noise of popular opinion and headlines infuse their agenda. Focus lets you think about what you want rather than what others are telling you to think. With so much access to global information and so much happening in the world, it can be easy to get distracted with subjective input, but independent thinkers have the focus to stay objective. 

Without distractions, independent thinkers see oncoming issues more clearly and come up with more appropriate actions than someone who is carrying an unrecognized bias. My business partner has the ability to keep us objectively focused on individual issues to create solutions, even when others start dragging the conversation in subjective directions. A business needs that focus from independent thinkers to anchor conversations in reality.

4. Flexibility

Flexibility removes roadblocks by enabling an independent thinker to create opportunities to go around them. Because of his independent thinking, my partner knows that instead of complaining about a negative trajectory, he can flex in different directions until he gets better results. When a roadblock causes problems that are outside of your control, flexibility allows you to find another way through a problem without letting the detour affect you. 

Independent thinkers evaluate obstacles from all sides. As a result, they know the difference between situations that they can get through alone and those that will require outside support. Their confidence lets them feel flexible enough to ask for input from others without fear or ego getting in the way. Instead of struggling to do more work with less, independent thinkers are flexible enough to invest in the necessary tools to do a job better. They even have the flexibility to turn around, reflect on how they arrived at the roadblock and brainstorm possible steps to avoid it in the future. 

Related: How 'Groupthink' Can Cost Your Business (and 3 Corporate Examples)

5. Honesty

Honesty removes FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), and when it’s present, independent thinkers know that others are less likely to second-guess the truth. In the workplace, transparency builds team confidence, so even when business gets overwhelming, a leader needs to be honest. My business partner can focus on seeing a project through to the end, but he will always be honest enough to acknowledge when that end isn’t going to work out. The sooner we remove the FUD covering up our mistakes, the faster we can actually fix them.

Not even with my children do I have tolerance for lies, but just like children, even entry-level workers may still try to hide their problems. All it takes is one lie for others to lose faith in what you do, and it starts a downward spiral of stress and doubt that becomes difficult to escape. Being honest, on the other hand, takes away the fear of being caught in a lie, the uncertainty about a situation and any doubts about your intentions. Start by being honest with yourself first, and it usually spreads from there. 

Independent thinking is a valuable trait, but independent thought takes time. Immediate evaluations made in the moment end up drawing conclusions from biased personal experiences, but an independent thinker takes the time to find out the whole story. Independent thinkers bring together new ideas for their company and drive their teammates to think more independently as well, leading to a more innovative, transparent and successful business.

Cheri Beranek

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Cheri Beranek is the CEO of Clearfield and a 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductee. Under her leadership, Clearfield has grown from a concept to a market cap of more than $500 million providing optical-fiber management and connectivity solutions across North America.