Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Judgment - What John W. Gardner Told Me about Leadership

John W. Gardner
Perhaps no writer on leadership has made a greater contribution to American life than John W. Gardner (1912-2002). I learned about him through his books, Excellence (1961), Self-Renewal (1964), In Common Cause (1972), On Leadership (1990) and others. He was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Lyndon Johnson administration, and he founded the "Common Cause" organization and the "White House Fellowship" program. And these were only a few of his accomplishments.

In 1979 I was a finalist in the White House Fellowship program. I wasn't one of the lucky ones ultimately chosen, but during the selection process it was my was good fortune to sit next to John Gardner during lunch. We engaged in pleasant small talk, but realizing that my one-on-one time with him would be brief, I cut to the chase with this question:

"Mr. Gardner, in your opinion what is the most important attribute of a leader?"

He paused a couple beats, then said: "Judgment."

His answer surprised me. I expected him to say something like vision, courage or creativity.

"Why do you think judgment is so important?" I asked.

"Because a leader is at the center of decision-making. And each time a decision is made, actions and consequences follow, which become the future. If a leader's judgment is flawed, the consequences can be horrible. For everyone."

It was an authoritative answer, the kind that required no follow up and inspired no rebuttal. I was a major in the U.S. Army at the time, and I thought of myself as a leader. I studied leadership and practiced what I learned. I wondered if I had good judgment. I knew that good judgment isn't in the genes; we aren't born with it. We acquire it through experience without thinking about it. I wondered if it were possible for a mature adult to consciously develop greater powers of judgment, and if so, how. These questions caused my mind to race. In fact, I don't remember anything else about that conversation.

That was over 30 years ago. I understand a lot more about judgment today than I did then.

For example, I've learned which part of the brain performs the mental operation we call "judgment." It's the prefrontal cortex - the lobe area right behind the forehead. That's the part of the brain that "connects the dots." It associates facts and data to create comprehension and meaning. It relates cause and effect, which allows us to envision future events. It's often called the "executive" part of the brain, because it coordinates functions such as evaluation, logic, intuition, creativity, problem solving, decision making, planning, organizing and managing. Important stuff! In fact, these abilities, along with language, are what make us so much smarter than other animals.

Also, I've learned that this is the last part of the brain to develop itself, a process that begins at puberty and continues throughout adolescence. At the onset, countless dendrites blossom from every brain cell, jamming the prefrontal cortex with unconnected wiring. This is why judgment is so hard for teens; it's like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. But as a young person makes the effort, the prefrontal cortex steadily wires itself. At the end of that twelve-year period, the developmental window closes and all the dendrites that weren't used regularly are absorbed by the body, leaving one's foundation for judgment. Whether that foundation is minimal or robust depends on how much critical thinking the adolescent exercised.

As an adult, you can continue to improve your powers of judgment by exercising them. This causes more dendrites to connect with the wiring already in place. This means there are limits to how much you can improve your judgment. You can't build a huge edifice on a tiny foundation. The bottom line - those teen years are awfully important!

I wish I could have explained all this to Mr. Gardner. I'm sure he knew that judgment was something that happened in the brain and would have loved knowing the brain science explanation.

But even brain scientists didn't know about this back in 1979.

On the other hand, you and I know about it today. It's very empowering information. Maybe you can use this understanding to help some kids you know use their teen years well to prepare for the challenges of adult life.

Some of John W. Gardner's judgment...

On CHARACTER - “Some people strengthen the society just by being the kind of people they are.”

On CREATIVITY - “The creative individual is particularly gifted in seeing the gap between what is and what could be.”

On EXCELLENCE"Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well." 

On OPTIMISM - “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.”

On SELF-AWARENESS“Life is an endless process of self-discovery.”

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength . (Photo in public domain, official government publicity photo)

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