Fred Harburg

Fred Harburg

Good Judgment, for a Change

Decision-making is the most sought-after skill in a leader today, with reason. But lacking from conversations around succession planning and executive leadership development is focus on the one thing that underpins effective decision-making: judgement. Human discernment drives choices, decisions, and actions, and strengthening judgment is the first and most essential order of work for a senior leader. The capability for discernment is the ultimate leadership skill because all other executive proficiencies (reputation, results, influence and livelihoods) depend on judgment.

As we consciously (or unconsciously) decide whether to place our confidence in someone, we assess that would-be leader’s judgment. We face a time of unprecedented need for sound judgment at all levels of leadership. Unfortunately, good judgment seems to be in short supply at a time when the stakes have never been higher nor the need for wise leaders greater. It’s time for a change. The good news is, no one is born with good judgement: you can strengthen and improve judgment throughout your lifetime with hard work, dedication and deliberate practice.

Good Judgement for Improved Resilience and Stronger Performance 

Judgment is a uniquely human capability. The neuroscience term for this judgement is “executive function” and is defined as the cognitive ability to plan, organize, strategize, learn, pay attention, manage time, materials, and relationships, and to make decisions. It enables us to actually think about our own thinking, or in other words provides awareness about our own awareness. If there is one thing that makes us uniquely human, this is it.

Executive function provides the foundation for personal resilience, planning, and performance and ultimately shapes our results in challenging and changing environments. The more of this competence we have, the better. People with excellent judgment and executive functioning skills consistently get things done on time and, for the most part, produce superior results. People lacking good executive functioning skills usually do not garner the same results.

Remarkably, it is never too late to strengthen these skills. All it takes is awareness of one’s personal blind spots, understanding of how to strengthen their judgement, and deliberate practice to create long-term habits and results.

To Exercise Better Decision-Making, Understand What Makes Good Judgement 

Judgement consists of three main dimensions: perception, synthesis, and action. In other words:  “What?” “So what?” and “Now what?”

  • PERCEIVING / “WHAT?” First, we gather information to identify what is happening. What are the facts? What is real? What are the key signals we need to gather to assess a situation with accuracy?
  • SYNTHESIS / “SO WHAT?” Next, we seek to understand what the importance, value, and meaning of our perception is. When answering “so what?” we produce critical implications and insights regarding the opportunities, threats, and priorities around us. 
  • ACTION / “NOW WHAT?” Finally, we must consider how to harness constructive thought and healthy emotion. By effectively answering the “now what?” question, we stay on track and avoid the traps that might derail us as we take action to reach our goals.


To Go Further, Understand Where You’ve Been 

The process for strengthening judgment is simple, but not easy. The first and most important step is to conduct an assessment to identify, challenge, and change flawed internal narrative scripts, harmful cognitive biases, and distorted thoughts and feelings that degrade not only the accuracy of our perceptions, but also the logic of our synthesis and the effectiveness of our actions. It is essential to challenge and change flawed disaster scenarios before they trigger damaging actions.

Operating with an accurate, objective, adaptive mindset is fundamental for good judgment. It is often necessary to have the tools and people who will help you during this challenging process. Executive leadership organizations such as Evolve Leadership have specific assessment tools dedicated to providing crucial help in deciding which perspectives can be of most significant value, while providing an ecosystem of guidance and training in turning leaders’ specific experiences and insights into an action plan.

Understanding and challenging a counterproductive mindset is essential but insufficient to attain worthy objectives. Moving scripts from ideas to outcomes requires deliberate practices. A strong “now what process” has been critical for thousands of executives in our work. Dealing with an inclination such as impulsivity requires a leader to have processes and support to maintain a healthy bias for action while taming tendencies to shoot from the hip in the face of significant risks. 

It can be challenging to redirect narrative scripts and cultivate deliberate practices. However, strengthening judgment is well worth the effort. As Euripides, the ancient Greek philosopher, said, “Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgment.”

Fred Harburg is CEO of AJIL Analytics, a Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, and the former Executive Director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute. He is also an Executive Coach with Evolve Executive Leadership, as well as serves on their advisory board. Fred provides Boards, CEOs, and C-Suite Teams with catalyzing research and growth guidance. His experience as a leader spans corporate, military, and educational organization. He served as the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) and President of Motorola University, CLO at Williams Energy, and Senior Vice President for Leadership and Learning at Fidelity Investments. Fred has been a guest lecturer at MIT, Harvard Business School, and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.