Practicing Good and Ethical Judgment

These Strategies Can Help You Make the Tough Calls

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

You are the CEO of your company. You just received several well-validated, but inconsistent alternatives and recommendations from your senior leaders to solve a crucial problem. You are now called on to use your good and ethical judgment to make the ultimate and final decision on behalf of your stakeholders and customers.

The Marine Corps' Leadership Traits and Principles define judgment as “the ability to weigh facts and possible courses of action in order to make sound decisions.” Warren Bennis and Noel Tichey, authors of “Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls,” say good judgment is the ability to make well-informed, wise decisions that produce desired outcomes and is an “essential job of a leader.” The Psychology Dictionary defines ethical judgment as “the moral decision made by a person in a dilemma.”


Avoid Indecisiveness

Successful CEOs are not expected to be Superman (or Superwoman) in order to implement always powerful and perfect decisions. Everyone makes mistakes, but to remain a successful CEO, your good and ethical judgment must be right more often than not.

If you are an ardent Superman comic strip fan, you know that the one thing that rendered Superman ineffective was Kryptonite. Likewise, the vise-like grip of indecisiveness can act just like Kryptonite and deplete your ability to make good and ethical judgments.

Worse yet, perhaps you proverbially “shoot the messenger” and punish people who raise concerns or disagree with you.  For example, as reported in Financial News, fallen Theranos executives Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani believed that anyone who spoke up and told them things they didn’t want to hear “were usually marginalized or fired, while sycophants were promoted.”

Good and ethical judgment is exhausted by indecisiveness, and when you depend on the advice of people-pleasing advisors who feel obligated to tell you only what they think you want to hear.

Develop An Inner Circle

Effective CEOs recognize that that they have blind spots, so they seek – and accept – critical feedback from an “inner circle” of trusted advisors in order to maintain a balanced perspective.

Susan Tardanico, CEO of the Authentic Leadership Counsel, suggests that an inner circle of the following people can enhance good and ethical judgment by providing effective and diverse “need to know” advice rather than “want to hear” validation:

  1. The Contrarian pushes you to think differently by taking opposite views; constantly questions, using worst-case and “what if” scenarios to challenge your thinking.
  2. The Everyman is plugged into the lower levels of the organization and can help you understand the impact of your actions from that perspective.
  3. The Optimist provides best-case scenarios and positive energy during difficult times.
  4. The Voice of the Customer is an advocate for your clients and helps you stay aware of their needs, perspectives, expectations and competitive choices.
  5. The Bleeding Heart is the empathetic member of your circle and keeps you aware of the potential impact of your decisions and actions on people.
  6. The Sage (think Yoda) is hard to come by. If you're lucky enough to have one, a sage helps you stay calm amid the storm; is a thoughtful strategist; plays the role of coach; and has the most impartial point of view of all.

Move Fast and Make the Tough Call

Having the courage to act on your ethical standards is an integral part of what it takes to exercise good judgment and be a good leader. Bennis and Tichey put it this way, “Courageous leaders often get their courage from the fear about what will happen if they don’t boldly step up.”

In best case scenarios, you will have ample time to thoroughly and thoughtfully weigh the reasons for and against a course of action. However, you may need to move fast on a tough decision when the stakes are high and information is scant. For example, in April 2018, Starbuck’s CEO Kevin Johnson responded quickly to a social media uproar and call for a national boycott after thousands of patrons viewed an on-line video of two African American men being arrested in a Philadelphia cafe after asking to use a Starbucks bathroom. The result ---Starbuck’s sales during the month of the incident were not adversely affected, and Johnson’s was praised for his swift response.

Simply put, good and ethical judgment is your ability to make the right decision weighing differing factors in an often hostile environment. It is an indispensable element of business leadership.