A decision must be made. The facts have been assembled, and the arguments for and against the options spelled out, but no clear evidence supports any particular one. Now people around the table turn to the CEO. What they’re looking for is good judgment –an interpretation of the evidence that points to the right choice.
Judgment – the ability to combine personal qualities with relevant knowledge and experience to form opinions and make decisions – is “the core of exemplary leadership” according to Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis (the authors of Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls). It is what enables a sound choice in the absence of clear-cut, relevant data or an obvious path.
To some degree we are all capable of forming views and interpreting evidence. What we need, of course, is good judgment.
A lot of ink has been spilled in the effort to understand what good judgment consists of. Some experts define it as an acquired instinct or “gut feeling” that somehow combines deep experience with analytic skills at an unconscious level to produce an insight or recognize a pattern that others overlook. At a high level this definition makes intuitive sense; but it is hard to move from understanding what judgment is to knowing how to acquire or even to recognize it.
In an effort to meet that challenge, I’ve talked to CEOs in a range of companies, from some of the world’s largest right down to start-ups. I’ve approached leaders in the professions as well: senior partners at law and accountancy firms, generals, doctors, scientists, priests, and diplomats. I asked them to share their observations of their own and other people’s exercise of judgment so that I could identify the skills and behaviors that collectively create the conditions for fresh insights and enable decision-makers to discern patterns that others miss. I have also looked at the relevant literatures, including leadership and psychology.
I’ve found that leaders with good judgment tend to be good listeners and readers – able to hear what other people actually mean, and thus able to see patterns that others do not. They have a breadth of experiences and relationships that enable them to recognize parallels or analogies that others miss – and if they don’t know something, they’ll know someone who does and lean on that person’s judgment. They can recognize their own emotions and biases and take them out of the equation. They’re adept at expanding the array of choices under consideration. Finally, they remain grounded in the real world: In making a choice they also consider its implementation.
Practices that leaders can adopt, skills they can cultivate, and relationships they can build will inform the judgments they make. In this article I’ll walk through the six basic components of good judgment – I call them learning, trust, experience, detachment, options, and delivery – and offer suggestions for how to improve them.