Judgment: A book review by Bob Morris

Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls
Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis
Portfolio/Penguin Group (2007)

Why a great leader “is the Copernican pivot at the center of the decision-making process”

This is the first book on which Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis have collaborated. Separately, each has already authored or co-authored several of the most influential business books, including Tichy’s The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win and The Leadership Engine as well as Bennis’ Geeks & Geezers (later reissued as Leadership for a Lifetime) and On Becoming A Leader: The Leadership Classic.

In the first chapter, Tichy and Bennis assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

Of special interest to me are the different perspectives on the decision making process preferred by a number of exemplary CEOs who include Brad Anderson (Best Buy), Steve Bennett (Intuit), A.G. Lafley (Procter & Gamble), James McNerney (Boeing), and David Novak (Yum! Brands). For example, Immelt’s “Boom, I make the decision” comes after he has obtained all the input needed. “There is a moment when, based on his view of time horizon for the judgment and sufficiency of input and involvement, the leader makes the call.”

According to Tichy and Bennis, there is a framework of three “critical domains” within which all decisions are made. Judgments about people are the most difficult, and most critical; the others involve strategy and crisis. They stress that good judgment calls are a process, not an event. Each begins when a leader recognizes a need and frames the decision to be made, with the process continuing through execution and adjustment. They also stress the importance of possessing sufficient self-knowledge because making a right call “isn’t a solo performance; support teams are vital.” I appreciate the fact that Tichy and Bennis employ a framework of their own when presenting the material concerning the “framework of leadership judgment.” Specifically, they anchor several exemplary, real-world decisions in terms of their storyline and then their preparation, judgment, execution, and evaluation phases.

For example, Tichy and Bennis provide this excerpt from CEO Magazine in which A.G. Lafley explains the storyline for the future success of P&G, one that created the stage to make critical judgments:

“Everything begins here with our purpose. It’s very simple. We provide branded products that improve everyday lives. The values of the company are integrity, trust, ownership, leadership, passion for service and winning…Then we turn to strategy which is choices. Our whole focus has been to grow and profit from the core – and that means core businesses, core capabilities, core technologies…Then (the other piece of this) is selecting, developing, training, teaching, and coaching the leadership team. They are the leadership engine…It’s one team with one purpose and one dream and one set of strategic choices.”

Many of those who read this book will especially appreciate a substantial value-added benefit: the “Handbook for Leadership Judgment” that follows the concluding chapter. In it, Chris DeRose and Tichy provide what I view as an operations manual that will enable a reader to apply what she or he has learned in ways and to an extent that are appropriate to achieving her or his own organization’s specific objectives. DeRose and Tichy make an important distinction between judgment and decision making. “Much of the academic literature and popular notions of decision making culminate in a single moment when the leader makes a decision. In this handbook, we focus on judgment as a process that unfolds over time.”

Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis have provided a brilliant explanation of how winning leaders make great calls and suggest that the greatest among them also help others to do so. (It is worth noting that Immelt spends approximately 25% of his time helping to develop leadership skills in GE’s middle managers.) Although their book will be of interest and value to C-level executives, I think it will also be of substantial benefit, especially to others now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one. It is imperative for them to understand as soon as possible that the process of making “great calls” requires a parallel, on-going process of increasing knowledge about one’s self, one’s social network, one’s organization, and finally, about the context within which each “call” is made.

The framework that Tichy and Bennis provide gives structure to the process of knowledge acquisition and evaluation; they also suggest a frame-of-reference within which to consider various options when making a decision. As the dozens of real-world examples they citer clearly indicate, all decisions have consequences. Obviously, the more difficult a decision is, the more serious its consequences can be…and usually are. The great leader possesses the judgment to make the “right call.” That is why she or he “is the Copernican pivot at the center of the decision-making process.”

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