How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls

By Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis

Summary by Lydia Morris Brown, Business Book Summary

Business Book SummaryIn Judgment, Tichy and Bennis parse leadership down to what they believe is its fundamental element—judgment. It is their premise that "With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters. … Whether … United States presidents, CEOs, Major League coaches, or wartime generals, leaders are remembered for their best and worst judgment calls."

In the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, conflicting demands and, often, great time pressure, leaders must make decisions and take effective actions to ensure the survival and success of their organizations. It is the single most important thing they do and the way they add value to their enterprises. Thus, the essence of effective leadership is judgment.

Long-term success is the sole indicator of good judgment. Enthusiasm, good intentions, and hard work may help, but without good results, they do not really count. Judgment is successful only when the outcome achieves the espoused goals. The chronicle of a leader's judgment calls acts as that leader's biography—that's why judgment is the essence of leadership.

The authors note that their exploration of the relatively new discipline of judgment and decision making is informed by:

  • the "choice" and "utility" theories of the classical economists
  • the logicomathematical work of philosophers, Carnap, Quine, and Wittgenstein
  • advances made in computer and system sciences
  • the insights of social psychologists concerning group dynamics
  • the contributions of political scientists whose focus is presidential decision making
  • biographers and historians
  • pioneering work in behavioral economics
  • the "wide-ranging and brilliant work" of cognitive neuroscientists and positive psychologists.

In this last category, Karl Weick and Gary Klein are of special interest. They study leaders and teams in their natural settings—messy and ever-changing—and try to make sense of how real leaders make real decisions under pressure. In the same manner as these researchers, Tichy and Bennis come at judgment, mainly by " 'hanging out' with leaders and their teams while they are acting. … It is this real-world experience that convinced [Tichy and Bennis] that no study of leadership is complete without an understanding of judgment."

With insights gleaned from these sources, the authors demystify the leadership judgment process—a process that has, until now, gotten very little attention in the ever-growing literature on leadership. They transform the vagaries and uncertainties of making judgments into a Judgment Calls Matrix—their content-process framework for improving one's leadership batting average.

In this three-dimensional model, judgment is delineated as a contextually informed decision-making process, encompassing the domains of people, strategy, and crisis. Within each domain, leadership judgments follow a three-phase process: preparation, the call, and execution. Good leadership judgment is supported by contextual knowledge of one's self, and one's social network, organization, and stakeholders. Finally, long-term success—the sole marker of good judgment—is sustained through character, which provides the moral compass, and courage, which produces the results.

From the perspective of this framework readers are shown that, unequivocally: (1) leaders making judgments need to follow this process and (2) the matrix provides the framework for measuring the leader.

The validity of these premises is demonstrated via the many, many case studies in the form of "representative anecdotes" of some "major writers and producers in the judgment drama": Anderson (Best Buy), McNerney (Boeing), Owens (Caterpillar), Schoonover (Circuit City), Josaitis (Focus:HOPE), Immelt (GE), Hurd (HP), Bennett (Intuit), Klein/Knowling (NYC public schools), Tiller (Polaris), Downing (Special Operations Forces), Hackett (Steelcase), Liemandt (Trilogy), and Novak (Yum! Brands).

Nonetheless, the authors don't pretend to have all the answers nor to even have all the possible questions. Their objectives are simple. They wish to help leaders begin the process of improving their own judgment-making faculties and also to do a better, more intentional job of developing good judgment in others. Second, they want to encourage and influence a more vigorous public dialogue about the subject.

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