Exercising Good Judgment
One of my new favorite blogs had a definition yesterday that really resonated with what can be the core of a leader’s daily responsibility. “Leadership….is nothing less than the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment…”. Which leads one to think, is there a judgment muscle that can be trained or exercised or enhanced through the proper amount and variations of exercise? How does one learn “judgment”? Is good judgment some kind of gene-dominated trait, like eye color or height, or is it available to anyone who desires it? And of course, does good judgment fit the Gladwell Law?
Bruce Tulgan, author of several books on managing generational-differences, believes developing good judgment is possible, and even probable, as long as a person possesses the ability to analyze and self-reflect as a means toward evaluating previous decisions. There is a popular adage that says “Good judgment is gained through experience, and experience is gained through bad judgment”. John Smith, author of “The Strategic Learner” blog, notes that the ability to be reflective upon one’s past decisions may be a result of the degree to which such behavior is nurtured, influenced, fostered, and valued during the development process.
Good judgment as a component of skill development is well accepted in the types of profession involving the interface mind, body, and machine, such as flying planes, driving vehicles, or piloting anything on the water. Judgment more often than not plays a part whenever those activities go wrong. After the second or third time you wrapped your plane around a tree, either your insurance company or the FAA would no longer care whether it was mechanical, or the weather, or bad luck. So, what are the stakes in the dynamic of humans leading other humans in service-oriented organizations? How many mulligans do you get as a boss? Should you be measured by how many employees quit their jobs on your watch, transfer to get away from you, or just give up and try to outlast your leadership (which I refer as the “death grind” in which each person’s motivation in life is to outlast everyone they hate).
To dissect the process for a moment, there are two speeds at which judgment can be learned. You can do it fast by listening to other’s stories of mistakes, and then not repeating them. You can also do it slow by making all the mistakes yourself and acquiring the experiences the hard way. It would seem therefore that the preferred method may be to listen to others and ask them what they would do in such a situation.
John Ryan, retired Vice Admiral, United States Navy, and president of the Center for Creative Leadership, noted several ways that good leaders built the capacity for good judgment and then exercised it. First was understanding the role that ego plays in making a judgment call. Vice Admiral Ryan identified humility as an essential element of the good leader with two specific traits – acknowledging that “you don’t know everything, so don’t act like it”, and ” never making yourself bigger than the organization you serve”. Having properly considered how you fit into the organization, good leaders identify the most critical roles on the team, fill them with the right people, and then listen to what those people tell you. It’s amazing how much better your “judgment” turns out to be in such an environment.
Which brings us to the final element of the exercise of your good judgment. As leaders, we (hopefully) got where we are through a combination of desire, initiative, and commitment to our chosen fields. We placed high standards on our own performance, took our setbacks and failures to heart, and determined to improve. How now, should we allow our hard-won experiences to guide our own decision-making process with the teams we lead?
It is by far one of the most unsettling moments in a leader’s personal journey when standing on the edge of an error about to be made by one of your team. How you choose to intervene (or choose not to) is one of those things that can’t be boiled down to a bumper sticker. You will have to decide whether the pain is worth the gain (or, as a trusted colleague once advised me, “whether the juice is worth the squeeze”). Make sure that this important moment is about them, and not you. There are too many daily choices before us to count and your analysis of whether this move is a potential career-ending or career-enhancing one should be driven by your experiences. In short, when possible, get out of the way and let people learn as long as they do no harm. Look for the proper moment to engage to determine lessons learned, look for accountability, and, fix the mistake (if it needs fixing). The teaching example of a well-intentioned action, and the allowance for a mulligan from time to time is an indicator of self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and the potential for future growth that all leaders should be on the lookout for when deciding on who will fill those critical roles in your organization.