The importance of good judgment

Posted 17 October 2011 by

So many things in life rely on good judgment. We often find ourselves in situations where there are no right or wrong answers. Our final decision comes down to a matter of judgment. For example, take the ongoing row in the British government about Liam Fox and his ‘adviser’ and friend, Adam Werrity. Mr Fox may or may not have actually breached the ministerial code; it’s not immediately apparent. However, even if he hasn’t broken the rules, the surprising judgment calls that he has made have put his actions firmly in the spotlight.

We need confidence that the people we choose to represent us are going to exhibit good judgment across a whole range of important decisions. Sound judgment is essential, and is perhaps one of the most crucial assets required of a leader. So the question is, do all leaders have the potential to exercise good judgment?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that a leader did or didn’t exercise good judgment. Just look at the Iraq war enquiry and what we have learned in retrospect. However, in the case of political leaders, we as voters need to be able to predict ... in advance... which candidate has the greatest potential to exercise good judgment when leadership decisions need to be made under pressure.

To be able to predict, we first need to understand what influences our leaders’ decisions. One of the key drivers in making decisions and exercising good judgment is an individual’s own set of values, that being a set of deeply held beliefs about what is good, right and appropriate. These values are deep-seated and remain constant over time, guiding us in our daily actions.

Values tend to underlie our agendas, and there are various subsets of values. When it comes to leadership and good judgment, we can look at two subsets of values: those that guide someone towards acting to pursue their own individual interest, and those that guide someone more towards pursuing collective interest.

Some people may consider there to be an either/or distinction between these two subsets of values: you either focus on achieving personal success, or else you re-direct your energies, shifting towards working for the benefit of others. However, it’s not as straightforward as this.

If we treat the pursuit of individual interest and the pursuit of collective interest as separate dimensions rather than as a continuum, we can reflect on the benefits of each in itself. Each value can guide the individual towards worthwhile actions, either directly or indirectly. Whilst it’s possible for a leader to hold both sets of values, it is unfortunately more common to see someone who holds just one of these strongly.

So, when asking the question about political leaders and their potential to make good judgments, we must remember that an authentic leader will be someone who is able to successfully balance a pursued individual and collective interest. Any kind of misalignment will lead to a reduced ability to get things done. For example, someone who is too focused on his own agenda may risk alienating co-workers whose co-operation is key to helping the person reach their objectives. Yet always putting the needs of others first, on the other hand, may lead to a risk of spreading oneself too thinly.

Wherever the balance may be found, there is one last critical aspect of a leader that influences his ability to implement his vision. I will call this professional will. This is basically a determination to get things done. Professional will acts as a catalyst, and without it a person will never be able to realise his full potential. The leaders of all three main political parties recognise the importance of demonstrating this to the electorate.

Back now to the question of how we can predict who will have the potential to exercise good judgment. Aside from seeing candidates demonstrate the obvious things, such as possession of a high level of reasoning ability and subject-matter knowledge, the importance of demonstrating a clear set of balanced individual and collective values, as well as possessing sufficient professional will, should not be underestimated. An assessment of an individual in terms of all these factors will go a long way towards helping us predict how they are likely to perform when in a position of responsibility.

Posted in