Got Great Judgment?

Judgment…“the ability to make a decision or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action.”

In every election year—and in this one more than most—we ask for many things in the person who eventually wins our vote. We ask for honesty, experience, and integrity—and we ask for good judgment. We want to know that our leaders will make the right decision and choose the right course of action when the pressure is on, the stakes are high, and there’s either too much or too little information available. That’s a lot to ask, and few people have met that high standard in every situation they’ve faced. As Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

But it’s not just political leaders from whom we seek good judgment. We all hope to work in organizations in which the leaders consistently demonstrate an “ability to make a decision objectively, authoritatively, and wisely,” as the dictionary defines judgment. And we all aspire to be that kind of leader ourselves.

During my career I’ve had the good fortune to work for and with a number of leaders who were highly respected for their ability to exercise good judgment in complex, high stakes situations. They were certainly different in style: some were introverted, others were charismatic; some relied heavily on “the data” while others seemed to act more intuitively.  But when I think about it, they all had one thing in common: they all had the ability to imagine how each of the possible decisions on the table would actually affect a wide range of stakeholders they served.  And they insisted that their advisors break out of the box of previous training and functional expertise to take a similarly broad view.

Peter Mercury, the GM of the Global Services Division at Digital/Compaq Computer/Hewlett Packard and one of the best servant leaders I ever worked for, made this decision making process very explicit. When faced with a complex problem—for example, whether to carry out a reduction in force, or whether to take money from the marketing budget to increase the spend on training—Peter would call his “kitchen cabinet” together. He’d ask for our input, ask questions, and encourage debate. And he’d ask us: “OK, if we put 100 people in a room—employees, stockholders, customers, partners—how am I going to explain to those folks why we made this particular decision? If I can’t convince them all that this is the best decision we can make given what we know right now, then it’s not the right decision.”

So yes, good judgment definitely comes from experience and an ability to make sense of complex data. But I’m convinced that it also comes from a deep seated commitment to caring for the people who will be affected by your decision. Like so many aspects of great leadership, it comes down to values.

What about you? Are you clear about the core values that guide your decision-making? When you’re facing a tough decision, do you take the time to really think hard about its impact on the many constituencies you serve? I’d suggest that no matter how much pressure you’re under to “just go ahead and make a decision,” that would be time well spent.

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