“The single most important thing that leaders do is to make good judgment calls … a keen sense of judgment makes or breaks a leader.” So write Noel M. Tichy, of the Ross School of Business at Michigan State University and Warren Bennis, of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in their book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. Based upon extensive research and interviews with world-class leaders such as G.E.’s Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt, Boeing’s Jim McNerney and others, the authors contend making judgments calls is the ultimate act of leadership.
Traditionally judgment calls are usually viewed as being an event: a leader makes a decision and then moves on. On the basis of their research, however, the authors argue that a good judgment call involves more than a single moment. It is a process, which starts with the leader recognizing the need for a decision, framing the judgment call and then continues through execution and adjustment. Furthermore, sound judgment calls are not a solo effort but involve input and advice from support teams. Although the ultimate responsibility and final accountability belongs with the leader (“the buck stops here”), engaging others in the process ensures more effective judgment calls. A necessary framework for success, however, is that the leader’s self-knowledge, social network knowledge, organizational knowledge and stakeholder knowledge (pp. 39-43).
The authors identify three key domains within the judgment call process: people, strategy and crisis. People judgments are the most difficult and critical because they have a huge impact on everything a company, organization or church achieves. Strategy calls are important, but when it comes down to it, it is the people who make things turn-out well or not. Those on the team must completely be aligned with the vision and values of the company and possess the competencies and gifts that match the requirements of the task. They must also be trustworthy and loyal. What makes people judgment calls so challenging is that they involve emotions, relationships, risks and possible personal pain, which even seasoned leaders frequently prefer to avoid. Yet, the authors write, “If the people judgments are not sound, it is very hard to have good crisis judgments” (p. 208).
This is why Tichy and Bennis argue that successful organizations are pro-active in building a leadership pipeline (p. 106). What this means is that a company (or church) has an intentional strategy for identifying and investing in promising emerging leaders from within its ranks. Their research confirms that such a strategic investment builds healthier and more effective organizations than an approach which recruits leaders from outside the organization. Consciously groomed candidates from within know and understand the culture, vision and values of their company. The negative to such an institutional leadership development process is that it can create “bureaucratic dinosaurs producing leaders for yesterday’s realities.” Leaders from outside bring a fresh perspectives and a detachment that has the freedom to identify and challenge bottlenecks within an organization, which “insiders” might not always see (p. 108).
Strategic judgments calls occur within the framework of what Tichy and Bennis the “big story line.” These storylines are a clear mental framework, which guide the leader’s thinking. They are stories running through the leader’s head about how the world works and how they want things to work out They include knowing what they are trying to accomplish, where they are headed and how they will get there. Such stories not only communicate the strategic vision but also stir the emotions needed to motivate passion and action. For example, when Jeff Immelt took over as C.E.O at General Electric, he respected the company’s storyline handed over to him by Jack Walsh. But he moved beyond G.E. vision as being a solid producer of appliances and industrial equipment into a new storyline of the company being a high tech provider of industrial and financial services. Most dramatically, he consciously adopted a strategy that radically transformed the traditional G.E. storyline to now G.E. as now being seen as a highly innovative global corporate citizen.
“Great leaders,” Immelt told a group of MBA students, “drive change. I tell people within GE, we’ve got enough institutional momentum that if all we were going to stay the same, you don’t need me. Leaders drive change. Leaders drive change. That’s you job. (p. 129).
According to the authors, strategic judgments require three steps:
Step 1: Look at your environmental threats and opportunities.
Step 2: Look at your internal strengths and weaknesses.
Step 3: Come-up with products and services that will win, etc.
Even within this context, the authors argue that bad strategic judgment calls can be made because of human problems such defensive avoidance (delaying decisions unduly); overreaction (making decisions impulsively in order to escape the anxious state and hyper-vigilance (obsessively collecting more and more information instead of making a decision). Good strategic judgment is more than a rationalistic process or a purely intuitive and political muddling process. Good strategic judgment is a blend (p. 134).
Crisis judgment calls provide what the authors call teachable moments. It is during a crisis that effective leaders use the opportunity to reaffirm the vision, the values and storyline of the organization by asking questions such as “where are we now?” “where are we going?” “how will we get there?” The ability to frame the nature of the crisis correctly is an essential skill. The most effective leaders prepare for a crisis before it occurs. Such preparation includes having an unwavering commitment to make judgment calls with integrity and character. Honorable judgment calls occur within the framework of prescribed moral principles and values, which set “clear parameters for what one will , and will not do” (p. 70). Character is about knowing right from wrong and having worked these issues out long before facing tough judgment calls.” It means knowing your values and sticking to them no matter what. Being clearly centered is necessary because many judgment calls are made on the fly. Without such internal standards of integrity, it is easy for a leader’s judgment to stray to settling for what is pragmatic and expedient (pp. 79-75). Such temptations occur especially within the waving, vulnerable moments that occur when confronted with a crisis.
Courage is also required for making successful judgment calls and especially in times of crisis. Within “big” judgments calls there is always much at stake and something big at risk. The authors state it is through a lack of courage that some leaders fall down. Through self-doubt, a leader might fail to remain true to his or her standards (assuming these are really his or her “standards.”). In every difficult decision there are always people who will disagree with the positions of the leader and who might instigate push-back or obstacles. This does not mean a leader will not listen to and weigh conflicting judgment calls. Indeed, the authors contend that a key principle for arriving at a sound judgment is for the leader to draw on the wisdom and insights of varied constituencies. But, the effective leader will ultimately be guided by ethical values, which place the well-being of the company above his or her own personal gain.
In their book, Judgment, Tichy and Bennis include many practical guides for making sound judgment calls such as judgment execution plans, typical judgment errors, identifying blind spots, how to design your own judgment calls and how to frame the judgment process etc. Among the most crucial insights is that even well construed judgment calls are meaningless unless they include a successful action plan of execution. The soundness of a judgment call ismeasured by its consequences and practical outcomes.
Among the most helpful insights come from the interviews with successful leaders such as Jack Welch (G.E.), Jim McNerney (Boeing) Jeff Immelt (G.E), A.G. Lafley (Proctor and Gamble) and others, as well as practical insights garnered from references to the judgment challenges that confronted leaders such as Joel Klein (New York Department of Education); Jacques Nasser (Ford) and others. By “putting a face” on the “nitty- gritty “realities these leaders confronted in making judgment calls within all of the complexities and uncertainties of leading their companies provide not only insight but even encouragement. As the authors constantly stress, even the most gifted leaders never bat 1.000 in making successful judgment calls. But, much of their success is rooted in their willingness always to learn and to grow and in the process become more effective leaders.
For Christian leaders, Tichy and Bennis overlook several valuable resources for making “winning” judgment calls, resources Christian tradition calls the process of spiritual discernment. These include prayer, insight from Scripture, Christian reason, experience and community, as well as the wisdom and counsel from mature Christians, whose judgment and insights are respected and valued. Of course, the authors references to the role of character and courage resonate with those, whose judgments would seek to live out the mind of Christ. As the authors note, even the most gifted leaders are aware that when it comes to making judgment calls, there is always room to grow and learn. One way is through reading , pondering and learning from books such as Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls.
Reference: Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls 2007.