The elements of good judgments


A decision must be made. Leaders need many qualities, but underlying them all is good judgment. Those with ambition but no judgment run out of money. Those with charisma but no judgment lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgment hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgment get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgment will stack the cards in your favor. The complete version of this article appeared in the January-February 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review. Please find below a summary.


The writer of this article has identified that leaders with good judgment tend to be good listeners and readers—able to hear what other people actually mean, and thus able to see patterns that others do not. They have a breadth of experiences and relationships that enable them to recognize parallels or analogies that others miss—and if they don’t know something, they’ll know someone who does and lean on that person’s judgment. They can recognize their own emotions and biases and take them out of the equation. They’re adept at expanding the array of choices under consideration. Finally, they remain grounded in the real world: In making a choice they also consider its implementation.

This article walks you through the six basic components of good judgment—I call them learning, trust, experience, detachment, options, and delivery—and offer suggestions for how to improve them.

   Learning: Listen Attentively, Read Critically

Good judgment requires that you turn knowledge into understanding. This sounds obvious, but as ever, the devil is in the detail. Many leaders rush to bad judgments because they unconsciously filter the information they receive or are not sufficiently critical of what they hear or read.

Leaders with good judgment tend to be good listeners and readers.

Information overload is a problem. It’s not surprising that CEOs with huge demands on their time and attention struggle to get through the volume of emails and briefing papers they receive.

   Trust: Seek Diversity, Not Validation

Leadership shouldn’t be a solitary endeavor. Leaders can draw on the skills and experiences of others as well as their own when they approach a decision. Who these advisers are and how much trust the leader places in them are critical to the quality of that leader’s judgment.

   Experience: Make It Relevant but Not Narrow

Beyond the data and evidence pertinent to a decision, leaders bring their experience to bear when making judgment calls. Experience gives context and helps us identify potential solutions and anticipate challenges. If they have previously encountered something like a current challenge, leaders can scope out areas in which to focus their energy and resources.

   Detachment: Identify, and Then Challenge, Biases

As you process information and draw on the diversity of your own and other people’s knowledge, it’s critical that you understand and address your own biases. Although passion about objectives and values is a wonderful leadership quality that can inspire followers to greater efforts, it can also affect how you process information, learn from experience, and select advisers.

   Options: Question the Solution Set Offered

In making a decision, a leader is often expected to choose between at least two options, formulated and presented by their advocates. But smart leaders don’t accept that those choices are all there is. During the 2008–2009 financial crisis, President Obama pressed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to explain why he wasn’t considering nationalizing the banks. Geithner recalls, “We had one of those really tough conversations. Are you confident this is going to work? Can you reassure me? Why are you confident? What are our choices? I told him that my judgment at the time was that we had no option but to play out the thing we’d set in motion.”

   Delivery: Factor in the Feasibility of Execution

You can make all the right strategic choices but still end up losing out if you don’t exercise judgment in how and by whom those choices will be executed. In 1880 the French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps persuaded investors to support digging a canal in Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Because de Lesseps had just completed the Suez Canal, investors and politicians—failing to understand that building a canal through sand does not qualify you to build one through jungle—did not give his plans the scrutiny they deserved. His approach proved disastrously unsuitable, and it was left to the U.S. government to complete the canal by taking a very different approach.

Sir Andrew Likierman is a professor at London Business School and a director of Times Newspapers and the Beazley Group, both also in London. He has served as dean at LBS and is a former director of the Bank of England.

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