Judgment Call

Warren Bennis has studied leadership as much as any person on this planet. The 82-year-old distinguished professor of business administration and founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California has led organizations and been writing, teaching and consulting about leadership for more than a half century. (He is also a former CIO Insight columnist.)

Still, the author of the forthcoming book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls (Portfolio, November 2007), written with University of Michigan management professor Noel Tichy, says that while scholars haven’t ignored the topic of judgment, it hasn’t been addressed often enough. Bennis says his latest book "is certainly not the last word on judgment. I can tell you that without any false modesty; I feel I’m just beginning to understand judgment myself."

Bennis notes that we make thousands of judgment calls throughout our lives, from the frivolous to the momentous. Making sound judgments can determine our success in life. But for leaders, he says, the impact of making right or wrong judgment calls is amplified, because their decisions have a direct bearing on the quality of life of so many individuals–as well as on the organizations they lead. CIOs have a special responsibility, he told CIO Insight executive editors Allan Alter and Eric Chabrow, not only because they must execute good judgment, but also because they provide other leaders with the information they need. An edited version of his remarks follows.


CIO INSIGHT: Why are you and Noel Tichy writing about judgment now?

Bennis: The topic has been an afterthought in all the tons of stuff written and researched about leadership. Yet judgment is the DNA, the fundamental essence of leadership. This is basically how we judge our leaders. When you look at the history of leadership, it’s usually a chronicle of the stupid or terrific decisions made by leaders. While [British Prime Minster Winston] Churchill, who was thought to be a mischievous rogue up to the point of May 1940, did not win World War II, he certainly saved the free world from defeat. Former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little is remembered most of all for keeping pitcher Pedro Martinez in a critical game with the Yankees after most people would have removed him. Martinez was known to lose his stuff after 105 pitches. I hate comparing such monumental things as World War II with the Boston Red Sox manager, but the connection is there: judgment.

The second reason has to do with the emerging field of what’s called judgment and decision-making. This field is drawing from utility theory in economics, the neuroscience of emotion, cognitive psychology, social psychology and even, to a certain extent, anthropology. There’s a great deal of work being done right now using brain mapping and trying to understand how people make choices. So there’s an incredible amount of exciting research going on in all these areas, which is making it much clearer what judgment and decision-making are all about.

When you think back over the last several years on the kinds of judgment calls that are being made by world leaders, especially in our own country, it raises a host of questions about judgment calls being made with consequential life-and-death decisions. The furor surrounding the invasion of Iraq and what we should now do, and how much executive judgment is being questioned daily, is partially why we decided we had to write this book now. The spate of books that have come out about the Bush Administration, such as Bob Woodward’s State of Denial and Joseph Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: A Diplomat’s Memoir, all, in one way or another, deal with the issue of judgment.

Judgment is like the abominable snowman in the field of leadership: Its footprints are everywhere. But there’s no central book that really deals with demystifying judgment as the essential element of leadership, and provides some ground rules for leaders to be aware of and reduce the probability of making bad judgment calls.

For more on leadership, check out CIO Insight‘s Leadership Center

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