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Book Review | 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: How winning leaders make great calls’ 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.

It clubs no-nonsense style of Bennis and Tichy with insightful case-studies.

The duo defines a good leader as someone who not only makes a higher number of right calls but is also able to discern the consequential from the trivial.

According to the 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, Bennis and Tichy provide a framework they call ‘Judgment calls matrix’.

Judgment Calls Matrix

Authors assert that a leader’s most significant decisions happen in three domains – People, Strategy and Crisis.

And each time while dealing with these domains, a leader should ideally go through the following modules

  • Preparation
  • Call
  • Execution


‘Preparation’ would comprise two parts. First, sensing and identifying the need for a judgment, i.e., the ability to feel the problem before it raises its ugly head. Second, naming/framing the 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.

Judgment: How winning leaders make great calls book review

Benny and Tichy 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 always take the ‘Call’ on the basis of data gathered. Not only that, he has to thoroughly explain the call to all the stakeholders in a shared language.

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. She had successfully called the merger of Compaq with HP (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 ‘conventional energy’.

Sensing the need, you correctly frame the issue that the 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 turns into a horror show on account of your failure to get the backing of your principal stakeholders.

A good leader stays involved during execution. He/She responds to resistance in the organization and measures all outcomes.

Teachable Storylines matter

Bennis and Tichy emphasize the importance of a storyline in the judgment context.

A good leader always has 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 of 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.

Two Chapters you must read

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 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.

The book ends with the trademark Noel Tichy Handbook. A handy manual to take the right calls.


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 experience in the leadership domain and in ‘Judgment’ they have shared the best pieces of their acquired wisdom.

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