Judgment: How winning leaders make great calls?

When you have two of the best authorities on leadership joining forces to write a book, the result can only be phenomenal. Both Warren Bennis ( On becoming a leader: A Leadership Classic) and Noel Tichy (The Leadership Engine ) have dedicated their long, illustrious careers to teaching and explaining leadership. ‘Judgment’ is their first book in collaboration.

Judgment plugs the gaping loophole in the leadership literature, i.e. an elaboration on Judgment capacity and how it can be built.  clubs no-nonsense style of  Bennis and Tichy with insightful case-studies and that’s what makes this book a must read. Bennis and Tichy define a good leader as someone who not only makes higher number of right calls but is also able to discern the consequential from the trivial. According to authors, judgment unlike decision-making is not one a-ha moment rather it’s a work in progress. And to facilitate readers’ understanding and accuracy of Judgment, authors provide a framework they call ‘Judgment calls matrix’. A Judgment matrix  contains three phases – a) Time b) Domain and c) Constituency. A major part of the book deals with the aforementioned phases to the process.

Authors assert that a leader’s most significant decisions happen in three domains – a) Key People b) Strategy and c) Crisis. And each time while dealing with these domains, a leader should ideally go through the following time modules – a) Preparation b) Call and c) Execution. ‘Preparation’ would comprise two parts – first, sensing and identifying the need for a judgment, i.e., ability to feel the problem before it raises its ugly head. Second, naming/framing an issue once you have identified it. Through the numerous case-studies in the book, most notably, those of the Royal Dutch/Shell and Exxon Mobil, authors drive home the point that merely identifying an issue is not important, how you frame it and present it to the world matters even more. Authors also highlight the importance of mobilizing issues within or outside the organization. Point is simple: you need people who could rally around your idea and act as catalysts.

A leader, in the authors’ viewpoint, should take the ‘Call’ on the basis of data gathered. Once a leader takes the call, it’s often followed by ‘Execution’. It’s the same phase where even the most astute executives could flounder. A case in point is Carly Fiorina. Fiorina had successfully called the merger of Compaq with HP (she got the ‘Preparation and ‘Call’ part right) but flubbed the ‘Execution’ part. According to ‘Judgment’,  execution has two parts – a) make it happen and b) learn and adjust. Consider a hypothetical example: let’s say that you as a CEO wish to turn your organization’s focus to ‘Green Energy’ from ‘traditional energy’. Sensing the need, you correctly frame the issue that world’s non-renewable energy reserves are depleting and that you need to go green in order to sustain profits and to save the planet. One thing you don’t do right, however, is to mobilize and align the right members in the organization in tune with your agenda. Consequently, the execution could turn into a horror show on account of your failure to get the backing of your principal stakeholders.

Bennis and Tichy emphasize the importance of a storyline in the judgment context. A good leader always have a vivid storyline and a teachable point of view (TPOV) for his/her organization. No matter how disruptive the conditions are, it’s imperative for a leader to use his TPOV to further his/her vision about the organization. In a chapter titled ‘character and courage’, authors profess that character without courage is useless and courage without character is dangerous. Good leaders have to have a judicious balance of both.

Each chapter in the book has its own importance and can be read in isolation as well. However, it’s the chapters on people judgment that I consider the backbone of this book. If you have to read only two chapters in the  book, I would say they have to be ‘People Judgment Calls’ and ‘People Judgment: CEO Succession’. The latter, especially, depicts the enormity of bad judgment that an incumbent CEO crashes into when he/she faces the sad reality of lack of able successive CEO candidates. Authors almost stigmatize the organizations’ decision to hire CEOs from outside. Calling it a failure on part of Board and incumbent CEO, Bennis and Tichy have presented the quest of Jack Welch to find his successor as an enlightening case-study. Book also has a trademark Noel Tichy Handbook inserted towards the end.

Finally, ‘Judgment’ is not for everyone. If you are not into strategy books, Judgment might be too cumbersome to contend with. For those who love leadership and strategy literature, this one could prove to be a reference manual. Both Bennis and Tichy have decades of experiences in the leadership domain behind them and in ‘Judgment’ they have shared the best pieces of their acquired wisdom.


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