Good Judgment

Intellectually capable leaders consistently make rational decisions and arrive at sound conclusions; they possess and employ good judgment.

In addition to using their experience and intuition - both very valuable assets - intellectually capable leaders apply simple methodical actions to prevent emotions, shortsightedness, and thinking traps from short-circuiting their problem-solving and decision-making.

Consider the following ten techniques, which may increase the likelihood of making sound decisions, and thus demonstrating good judgment.

Ten Techniques to Ensure Good Judgment

1. Consider the situation. Situational considerations may greatly influence what is and is not perceived to be sound, and therefore must be considered when making decisions. For example, while violence is generally not acceptable in our modern American society, it may be tolerated in a situation where an individual was protecting a victim from an attacker. Similarly, while a company’s leadership is responsible to its shareholders to preserve and grow the company’s value, intentional devaluation actions to defend the company in a hostile takeover situation may be seen as the best decision.

2. Follow the money. When events do not make sense at face value, and it appears that individuals are not making the best possible decision on a particular issue, consider where the money is and where it is flowing. All too often, individuals will choose an inferior solution (perhaps at the expense of their fiduciary responsibility to their Customers, their Subordinates, the mission, or the company) if it lines their pockets.

3. Listen to others. Consult trusted advisers, subject matter experts, and those on the line doing the job. Gain as much insight on the issue from as many different perspectives as you can, in an attempt to understand the situation surrounding the issue. For example, only the folks on the line can tell you how feasible the solution you are considering will be to implement; what makes sense in the head shed may be lunacy where hammers meet nails. Similarly, discuss and debate with your trusted advisers the various aspects - the pros and cons - of the issue and associated potential courses of action. These simple practices will yield big dividends by preventing you from misunderstanding the situation and making an uninformed and / or unfeasible decision.

4. Employ the appropriate problem-solving and decision-making process. Consider the nature of your problem, and employ the appropriate problem-solving and decision-making process: 1) hasty problem-solving (for simple or small problems), 2) deliberate problem-solving (for complex or larger problems), or 3) problem definition (when you are not sure what the problem is). Employing any of these models for other than their intended purpose can result in mis-starts, poor problem-solving and decision-making, a waste of time and resources, and ultimately mission failure. For example, attempting to employ either problem-solving process when the exact problem is not known will very likely result in the organization attempting to solve the wrong problem. Pick the right tool for the job.

5. Consider the risk / return characteristics. Everything should be considered in terms of risk / reward. If you and the organization get no return for your acceptance of the risk that comes with a certain action, why would you perform that action? Similarly, if the payoff is huge, your risk tolerance may increase, and you may therefore be inclined to commit more effort and resources than usual at a particular issue. These concepts are well understood in the world of finance and investment, but are sometimes missed within the study and practice of leadership.

6. Stabilize emotions before deciding. Making a decision angry is very dangerous. Just as dangerous, making a decision while very happy can result in a positive bias. Effective leaders calm down, and are in a balanced emotional state when making decisions. One effective technique that I use to ensure my emotions are stable is to sleep on a decision. Not only does sleeping on it separate me from my initial emotional reaction to the issue, but it also affords the opportunity for the issue to incubate in my subconsciousness, where my brain often works it out. Often times I will actually wake with the decision in my head.

7. Think temporally. Will time affect the issue? A difficult judgment call today may be an easy one tomorrow, simply because the world turned and the situation changed just enough (new information, something else became the hot topic, etc.). Conversely, some tough judgment calls only get tougher with time. Intellectually capable leaders do not just think about the ‘what’ of making the decision, they also think about the ‘when’.

Closely related to the idea of temporal thinking is the military concept of ‘tactical patience’, which means having the patience and discipline to wait beyond the first opportunity to attack (where emotion and eagerness run high, but the enemy is not as vulnerable as he will be at some point in the future), until the best opportunity to attack (where the enemy is fully exposed and most vulnerable). Consider the tactical patience displayed by Prescott at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he is purported to have said, “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”.

8. Consider inaction. Sometimes the best decision is no decision. Will this issue resolve itself if you do not make a decision? Will this issue transform into something more palatable if you do not make a decision? Will not making a decision result in an outcome that will be favorable to your cause or agenda?

9. Ground judgment calls in hard evidence. No one can fault you if your assessment is based on tangible evidence (i.e. documented observation, email traffic from a Supervisor recommending a particular course of action, sales numbers, or other quantitative or qualitative metrics). Similarly, no one can fault you if your decision is based on and complies with law, regulation, policy, and standard operating procedure.

However, when appropriate, I love coloring outside the lines, so if a policy or a standard operating procedure (not a law or regulation) is getting in the way of you accomplishing your mission, I encourage you to consider bending or breaking it. But be very careful here; if you go against the grain and fail to succeed, your opponents will attack without mercy.

10. Is there a precedent? Has someone successfully handled this or a similar issue before? Just like legal precedent, if somebody before you ruled in a certain way or cited a particular rational for a decision and got away with it (that is, was successful), a trail to success may have been blazed for you to follow.


In summary, intellectually capable leaders consistently make rational decisions and arrive at sound conclusions by applying a simple set of methodical actions to prevent emotions, shortsightedness, and thinking traps from short-circuiting their thinking and decisions.