The element of leadership

Sir Andrew Likierman
AUTHOR Professor, London Business School
How to improve your decision-making
Harvard Business Review
January–February 2020  103
Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls). It is what
enables a sound choice in the absence of clear-cut, relevant
data or an obvious path. To some degree we are all capable of
forming views and interpreting evidence. What we need, of
course, is good judgment.
A lot of ink has been spilled in the effort to understand
what good judgment consists of. Some experts define it as
an acquired instinct or “gut feeling” that somehow combines deep experience with analytic skills at an unconscious
level to produce an insight or recognize a pattern that others
overlook. At a high level this definition makes intuitive
sense; but it is hard to move from understanding what judgment is to knowing how to acquire or even to recognize it.
In an effort to meet that challenge, I’ve talked to CEOs in
a range of companies, from some of the world’s largest right
down to start-ups. I’ve approached leaders in the professions as well: senior partners at law and accountancy firms,
generals, doctors, scientists, priests, and diplomats. I asked
them to share their observations of their own and other
people’s exercise of judgment so that I could identify the
skills and behaviors that collectively create the conditions for
fresh insights and enable decision makers to discern patterns
that others miss. I have also looked at the relevant literatures,
including leadership and psychology.
I’ve found 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
The facts have been assembled, and the arguments for and
against the options spelled out, but no clear evidence supports any particular one. Now people around the table turn
to the CEO. What they’re looking for is good judgment—an
interpretation of the evidence that points to the right choice.
Judgment—the ability to combine personal qualities
with relevant knowledge and experience to form opinions
and make decisions—is “the core of exemplary leadership”
according to Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis (the authors of
Tim Flach/Getty Images
104 Harvard Business Review January–February 2020 Harvard Business Review January–February 2020
Alliance Boots, and BHP Billiton. What struck me immediately and throughout our acquaintance was that he gave me
and everyone else his undivided attention. Many people with
his record of accomplishment would long ago have stopped
listening in favor of pontificating.
Buchanan was more than a good listener—he was adept
at eliciting information that people might not otherwise
volunteer. His questions were designed to draw out interesting responses. He told me that when deciding whether to
accept a directorship, for example, he would ask questions
such as “Where would you place this company on a spectrum
of white to gray?” “At first this sounds like a classic piece of
managementese that is clever but meaningless,” he said.
“Yet it is sufficiently open-ended to draw out replies on a
wide range of subjects and sufficiently pointed to produce a
meaningful response.”
Information overload, particularly with written material,
is another 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. As a
director of a large listed company, I would get up to a million
words to read ahead of a big meeting. Confronted with such a
deluge, it’s tempting to skim and to remember only the material that confirms our beliefs. That’s why smart leaders demand
quality rather than quantity in what gets to them. Three hundred pages for the next big meeting? It’s six pages maximum
for agenda items at Amazon and the Bank of England.
Overload is not the only challenge when it comes to
reading. A more subtle risk is taking the written word at face
value. When we listen to people speak, we look (consciously
or unconsciously) for nonverbal clues about the quality of
consideration. Finally, they remain grounded in the real world:
In making a choice they also consider its implementation.
Practices that leaders can adopt, skills they can cultivate,
and relationships they can build will inform the judgments
they make. In this article I’ll walk 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.
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—in this case your approach to learning. 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.
The truth, unfortunately, is that few of us really absorb the
information we receive. We filter out what we don’t expect or
want to hear, and this tendency doesn’t necessarily improve
with age. (Research shows, for example, that children notice
things that adults don’t.) As a result, leaders simply miss a
great deal of the information that’s available—a weakness
to which top performers are especially vulnerable because
overconfidence so often comes with success.
Exceptions exist, of course. I first met John Buchanan
early in a distinguished four-decade career during which he
became the CFO at BP, the chairman of Smith & Nephew, the
deputy chairman of Vodafone, and a director at AstraZeneca,
A manager’s core function is
to exercise judgment—to form
views and interpret ambiguous
evidence in a way that will lead
to a good decision.
We have no clear framework for
learning good judgment or recognizing
it in others. To evaluate a leader’s
judgment, we often rely on his or her
track record, which can be misleading.
This article identifies six components that
contribute to good judgment: learning, trust,
experience, detachment, options, and delivery.
By working on each, leaders can improve their
ability to make sense of an ambiguous situation.
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.
Harvard Business Review
January–February 2020  105
what we’re hearing. While reading, we lack that context; and
in an era when the term “fake news” is common, decision
makers need to pay extra attention to the quality of the
information they see and hear, especially material filtered
by colleagues or obtained through search engines and social
media exchanges. Are you really as careful in assessing and
filtering as you should be, knowing how variable the quality
is? If you believe that you never unconsciously screen out
information, consider whether you choose a newspaper that
agrees with what you already think.
People with good judgment are skeptical of information
that doesn’t make sense. We might none of us be alive today
if it weren’t for a Soviet lieutenant colonel by the name of
Stanislav Petrov. It came to light only after the fall of communism that one day in 1983, as the duty officer at the USSR’s
missile tracking center, Petrov was advised that Soviet satellites had detected a U.S. missile attack on the Soviet Union.
He decided that the 100% probability reading was implausibly high and did not report the information upward, as were
his instructions. Instead he reported a system malfunction.
“I had all the data [to suggest a missile attack was ongoing],”
he told the BBC’s Russian service in 2013. “If I had sent my
report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a
word against it.” It turned out that the satellites had mistaken
sunlight reflected from clouds for missile engines.
To improve: Active listening, including picking up on
what’s not said and interpreting body language, is a valuable
skill to be honed, and plenty of advice exists. Beware of your
own filters and of defensiveness or aggression that may
discourage alternative arguments. If you get bored and impatient when listening, ask questions and check conclusions.
If you’re overwhelmed by written briefing material, focus on
the parts that discuss questions and issues rather than those
that summarize the presentations you’ll hear at the meeting.
(Far too many board packs are stuffed with advance copies of
presentations.) Look for gaps or discrepancies in what’s being
said or written. Think carefully about where the underlying
data is coming from and the likely interests of the people supplying it. If you can, get input and data from people on more
than one side of an argument—especially people you don’t
usually agree with. Finally, make sure the yardsticks and
proxies for data you rely on are sound; look for discrepancies
in the metrics and try to understand them.
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.
Unfortunately, many CEOs and entrepreneurs bring
people on board who simply echo and validate them. The
disgraced executives Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani
of the start-up Theranos regarded anyone who raised a
concern or an objection as a cynic and a naysayer. “Employees who persisted in doing so were usually marginalized or
fired, while sycophants were promoted,” according to the
Financial Times. Recently jailed for 18 years, Wu Xiaohui,
the founder and leading light of China’s Anbang Insurance
Group, had built up a diverse international empire, buying
major assets that included New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel.
He also surrounded himself with “unimpressive people who
would just follow his orders and not question them,” one
employee told FT.
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book Team of
Rivals, noted that Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet of
experts he respected but who didn’t always agree with one
another. McKinsey has long included the obligation (not a
suggestion) to dissent as a central part of the way it does business. Amazon’s Leadership Principles specify that leaders
should “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm
their beliefs.”
Alibaba’s Jack Ma thinks along the same lines. Recognizing his own ignorance of technology (he was 33 when he got
his first computer), Ma hired John Wu of Yahoo as his chief
technology officer, commenting, “For a first-class company
we need first-class technology. When John comes, I can
sleep soundly.” Ma isn’t the only mega-entrepreneur who
has looked for advisers with organizational and personal
qualities and experience to fill a void in himself. Facebook’s
Mark Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg for a similar reason.
And Natalie Massenet, founder of the online fashion
retailer Net-a-Porter, hired the much older Mark Sebba, the
“understated chief executive of Net-a-Porter who brought
order to the ecommerce start-up in the manner of Robert
De Niro in The Intern,” according to the Times of London.
My brother Michael told me that one reason his company’s
chain of opticians, under the brand GrandOptical, became
the largest in France is that he partnered with Daniel Abittan, whose operational excellence complemented Michael’s
entrepreneurial vision and strategic skills.
To improve: Cultivate sources of trusted advice: people
who will tell you what you need to know rather than what
106 Harvard Business Review January–February 2020
Harvard Business Review
January–February 2020  107
you want to hear. When you are recruiting people on whose
advice you will rely, don’t take outcomes as a proxy for
their good judgment. Make judgment an explicit factor in
appraisals and promotion decisions. Usha Prashar, who
chaired the body that makes the UK’s most-senior judicial
appointments, pointed to the need to probe how a candidate did things, not just what he or she had done. Dominic
Barton of McKinsey told me that he looked for what was not
being said: Did people fail to mention any “real” difficulties
or setbacks or failures in their careers to date? One CEO said
he asked people about situations in which they’d had insufficient information or conflicting advice. Don’t be put off by
assessments that a candidate is “different.” Someone who
disagrees with you could provide the challenge you need.
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.
Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Dubai’s Emaar Properties and one of the Middle East’s most successful entrepreneurs, gave me an example. His first major property crisis,
in Singapore in 1991, had taught him about the vulnerability
that comes with being highly geared in a downturn—and in
real estate, only those who learn the lessons of overgearing
in their first crash survive in the long term. Alabbar has since
navigated Dubai’s often dramatic economic cycles and today
owns a portfolio that includes the Burj Khalifa, the world’s
tallest building, and the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s
largest shopping malls.
But—and it’s a big but—if the experience is narrowly
based, familiarity can be dangerous. If my company is
planning to enter the Indian market, I might not trust the
judgment of a person whose only product launches have
been in the United States. I would probably be less worried
about someone who had also launched new products in,
say, China and South Africa, because such a person would
be less likely to ignore important signals.
In addition, leaders with deep experience in a particular domain may fall into a rut, making judgments out of
habit, complacency, or overconfidence. It usually takes
an external crisis to expose this failure, for which the lack
of lifeboats for the Titanic is the enduring symbol and the
2008 financial crisis the moment of truth for many apparently unassailable titans. The equivalent today are those
leaders who have underestimated the speed with which
environmental issues would move center stage and require
a tangible response.
To improve: First, assess how well you draw on your
own experience to make decisions. Start by going through
your important judgment calls to identify what went well
and what went badly, including whether you drew on the
Success Is Not a Reliable
Proxy for Judgment
It’s tempting to assume that past successes are a sign
of good judgment, and in some cases they may be. The
multigenerational success of some German midsize
companies and the sheer longevity of Warren Buffett’s
investment performance are frequently cited examples.
But success can have other parents. Luck, the
characteristic that Napoleon famously required of his
generals, is often the unacknowledged architect of
success. Those in sports can vouch for the importance
of luck as well as skill. Grant Simmer, successively
navigator and designer in four America’s Cup yachting
victories, has acknowledged the help of luck in the form
of mistakes made by his competitors.
Sometimes, what looks like sustained success may
conceal trickery. Before the Enron scandal broke, in
2001, CEO Jeff Skilling was hailed as a highly successful
leader. Toshiba’s well-regarded boss, Hisao Tanaka,
resigned in disgrace in 2015 after a $1.2 billion profit
overstatement covering seven years was unearthed.
Bernie Madoff founded his investment firm in 1960 and
for 48 years was seen as both successful and a man of
the highest integrity.
When you are trying to assess whether a CEO—or a new
hire—has good judgment, don’t just look at that person’s
achievements. Instead try to assess the person according
to the six elements described in this article. Does she ask
you questions or is she just making a pitch? How did he
get where he is and whom does he listen to? What kind of
training has she done? Does he like to challenge his own
108 Harvard Business Review January–February 2020
right experience and whether the analogies you made were
appropriate. Record both the wrong and the right. This is
tough, and it’s tempting to rewrite history, which is why
it can be helpful to share your conclusions with a coach or
colleagues, who might take a different view of the same
experience. Try also to recruit a smart friend who can be
a neutral critic.
Second, especially if you’re a young leader, work to
expand your experience. Try to get postings abroad or
in key corporate functions such as finance, sales, and
manufacturing. Get yourself on an acquisition team for a
major deal. And as a CEO, a crucial support you can give
high-potential managers is more-varied exposure, so get
involved in career planning. That will not just do the young
managers a favor; it will help the company and very possibly you, because it will broaden the experience into which
you can tap.
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.
The ability to detach, both intellectually and emotionally, is therefore a vital component of good judgment. But
it’s a difficult skill to master. As research in behavioral
economics, psychology, and decision sciences has shown
in recent years, cognitive biases such as anchoring, confirmation, and risk aversion or excessive risk appetite are
pervasive influences in the choices people make.
The German utility RWE provides a cautionary example.
In a 2017 interview its chief financial officer revealed that
the company had invested $10 billion in constructing
conventional power-generation facilities over a five-year
period, most of which had to be written off. RWE conducted
a postmortem to understand why an investment in conventional power technology had been chosen at a time when
the energy industry was switching to renewables. It determined that decision makers had displayed status quo and
confirmation biases in evaluating the investment context.
It also found a number of cases in which hierarchical biases
had been in play: Subordinates who doubted the judgment
of their bosses had kept quiet rather than disagree with
them. Finally, the CFO said, RWE had suffered from
“a good dose of action-oriented biases like overconfidence
and excessive optimism.”
It is precisely for their ability to resist cognitive biases
and preserve detachment in decision-making that we often
see CFOs and lawyers rise to the CEO position, especially
when an organization is in a period of crisis and people’s
jobs are under threat. This quality was widely praised after
the International Monetary Fund chose Christine Lagarde
as its director following the dramatic exit in 2011 of her
predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in the wake of a lurid
scandal. Although Lagarde was not an economist—unusual
for an IMF chief—she had demonstrated her abilities as
France’s finance minister despite little political experience.
And, undoubtedly, having been a partner in a major international law firm equipped her to approach negotiation with
detachment—a critical capability at a time when the global
financial system was under severe stress.
To improve: Understand, clarify, and accept different
viewpoints. Encourage people to engage in role-playing and
simulations, which forces them to consider agendas other
than their own and can provide a safe space for dissent. If
employees are encouraged to play the role of a competitor,
for example, they can experiment with an idea that they
might be reluctant to suggest to the boss.
Leadership development programs are a great forum in
which to challenge assumptions by exposing people to colleagues from different cultures and geographies, who come
to the discussion with different views.
Finally, people with good judgment make sure they have
processes in place that keep them aware of biases. After
discovering how much value had been destroyed, RWE
established new practices: Major decisions now require
that biases be on the table before a discussion and, when
necessary, that a devil’s advocate participate. Acknowledge
that mistakes will occur—and doubt the judgment of anyone
who assumes they won’t.
Harvard Business Review
January–February 2020  109
Leaders with deep experience in a particular domain may fall into a rut,
making judgments out of habit, complacency, or overconfidence.
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.”
Obama was doing what all good leaders should do when
told “We have no other option” or “We have two options and
one is really bad” or “We have three options but only one is
acceptable.” Other options almost always exist, such as doing
nothing, delaying a decision until more information is available, or conducting a time-limited trial or a pilot implementation. Tim Breedon, formerly the CEO of the UK financial
services company Legal & General, described it to me as “not
being boxed in by the way things are presented.”
In hindsight, many bad judgment calls were inevitable simply because important options—and the risk of
unintended consequences—were never even considered. This
happens for a variety of reasons, including risk aversion on
the part of people supplying potential answers. That’s why
thoroughly exploring the solution set is key to a leader’s exercise of judgment. It’s not the CEO’s job to come up with all the
options. But he or she can ensure that the management team
delivers the full range of possibilities, counteracting fears and
biases that cause the team to self-edit. When all the options
can be debated, the judgment is more likely to be right.
To improve: Press for clarification on poorly presented
information, and challenge your people if you think important facts are missing. Question their weighting of the variables on which their arguments depend. If timing appears
to be a key consideration, determine that it’s legitimate.
Factor in the risks associated with novel solutions—stress
and overconfidence—and look for opportunities to mitigate
them through piloting. Use modeling, triangulation, and the
opportunities afforded by artificial intelligence. Follow King
Solomon (a popular nominee in answer to my question “Who
do you think has/had good judgment?”) and dig out people’s
stakes in the final decision. A telltale sign is being oversold on
a particular outcome. What are the personal consequences
to them (and to you) if their solution works or fails? Consult
those you trust. If there isn’t anyone, or enough time, try to
imagine what someone you trust would do. Get clear about
110 Harvard Business Review January–February 2020
rules and ethical issues, because they will help you filter
your choices. Finally, don’t be afraid to consider radical
options. Discussing them could make you and others aware
of some that are less radical but well worth considering and
may encourage other people to speak up.
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.
When reviewing projects, smart leaders think carefully
about the risks of implementation and press for clarification
from a project’s advocates. This is as important for small
decisions as it is for big ones.
A leader with good judgment anticipates risks after a
course has been determined and knows by whom those risks
are best managed. That may not be the person who came
up with the idea—particularly if the proposer is wedded to
a particular vision, as was the case with de Lesseps. More
generally, flair, creativity, and imagination aren’t always
accompanied by a capability to deliver—which is why small
tech firms often struggle to capitalize on their inspiration and
are bought out by less-inventive but better-organized giants.
To improve: In assessing a proposal, make sure that the
experience of the people recommending the investment
closely matches its context. If they point to their prior work,
ask them to explain why that work is relevant to the current
situation. Get the advocates to question their assumptions by
engaging in “premortem” discussions, in which participants
try to surface what might cause a proposal to fail. RWE now
does this as part of its project-evaluation process.
LEADERS NEED MAN Y 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. HBR Reprint R2001H
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.
When You Have to Move Fast
In most cases, good judgment requires reflection before
action. A pause for reflection may well make you less likely
to be swept along by anger or fear and more likely to ask
for additional evidence, consider reframing the question,
formulate new options, or reevaluate whether a project is
feasible. When you receive a provocative or hostile email,
for instance, counting to 10 (or even 1,000) will help you
build emotional detachment and save you from writing
something you might later regret.
Of course, sometimes you need to act fast. Starbucks
CEO Kevin Johnson provides a case in point. One day
in 2018 an employee in Philadelphia called the police,
asking for the arrest of two black men who were sitting at
a table but hadn’t ordered. As social media users started
to call for a boycott, “his response was personal, swift and
concrete: he fired the employee who had called the police,
agreed a settlement with the two men and closed all 8,000
US stores for an afternoon of anti-bias training,” according
to the Financial Times. The speed of Johnson’s response
almost certainly prevented a disaster from turning into a
catastrophe for Starbucks.
Compare that response to United’s after a passenger,
David Dao, was dragged off a Chicago-to-Louisville flight
in 2017. Instead of addressing the widespread outrage in
reaction to the video of Dao’s ordeal, which had gone viral,
Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United, sent a supportive letter
to staff members. Good for morale, perhaps, but not as a
first response, and Munoz was criticized in the press as
klutzy and heartless.
If you’re in a situation like these, ask yourself three quick
questions before responding: Do I tend to act impulsively
and then regret it? Do I have insufficient relevant experience? Are the stakes high? If your answer to any of these
is yes, think hard rather than react with your gut.
Harvard Business Review
January–February 2020  111 Copyright 2020Harvard Business Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Additional restrictions may apply including the use of this content as assigned course material. Please consult your institution’s librarian about any restrictions that might apply under the license with your institution. For more information and teaching resources from Harvard Business Publishing including Harvard Business School Cases, eLearning products, and business simulations please visit


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The Free Revision policy is a courtesy service that the Company provides to help ensure Customer’s total satisfaction with the completed Order. To receive free revision the Company requires that the Customer provide the request within fourteen (14) days from the first completion date and within a period of thirty (30) days for dissertations.

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Privacy policy

The Company is committed to protect the privacy of the Customer and it will never resell or share any of Customer’s personal information, including credit card data, with any third party. All the online transactions are processed through the secure and reliable online payment systems.

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Fair-cooperation guarantee

By placing an order with us, you agree to the service we provide. We will endear to do all that it takes to deliver a comprehensive paper as per your requirements. We also count on your cooperation to ensure that we deliver on this mandate.

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550 words
We'll send you the first draft for approval by September 11, 2018 at 10:52 AM
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You can contact our live agent via WhatsApp! Via +1 817 953 0426

Feel free to ask questions, clarifications, or discounts available when placing an order.
  +1 (301) 710 0002           + 44 161 818 7126           [email protected]
  + 44 161 818 7126         [email protected]