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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Judgment: Body-checking good judgment in Coach’s Corner

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Nov 22, 2019
Judgment: Body-checking good judgment in Coach’s Corner

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance. Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the dimension of judgment.  Judgment is at the very heart of the constellation of the character dimensions. When you have good judgment, you make sound decisions in a timely manner, based on relevant information and a critical analysis of the facts.  You appreciate and integrate the broader context when reaching decisions.  You show flexibility when confronted with new information or situations, and you have an implicit sense of the best way to proceed. You can see into the very depth of challenging issues, and you can reason effectively in uncertain or ambiguous situations. 

Years ago, in a Harvard Business Review article, Noel Tichy and the late Warren Bennis wrote that “Any leader’s most important role in any organization is making good judgments—well informed, wise decisions that produce desired outcomes. When a leader shows consistently good judgment, little else matters.  When he or she shows poor judgment, nothing else matters.”  The most recent uproar involving Don Cherry shows the importance of good judgment and how its lack can quickly land people in hot water.

Don Cherry is a Canadian hockey commentator, sports writer, as well as a retired professional hockey player and National Hockey League coach. Cherry co-hosted a segment called Coach’s Corner that was a staple feature of CBC's iconic Saturday-night NHL broadcast Hockey Night in Canada from 1986 until November 9, 2019.  During the November 9th segment, while attempting to remind viewers of the importance of Remembrance Day, Cherry proceeded to accuse immigrants of not honouring the sacrifice – in life and in death – of Canada’s troops. Apparently, in Cherry’s maple-syrup coated, imaginary world, all homegrown Canadian citizens wear Remembrance Day poppies. Furthermore, he posited that this poppy-less habillé signals a newcomer’s lack of commitment to the Canadian way of life and an insufficient level of indebtedness for the dolce vita they have been gifted by their new country. “You people love … you that come here … you love our way of life … you love our milk and honey … at least you could pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that … these guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada … these guys paid the biggest price,” he ranted.

Die-hard Don Cherry fans are not misguided to be passionate about supporting an individual’s right to free expression. But what they fail to understand is that employers need to be equally passionate about ensuring employees espouse their organization’s values when engaging in public discourse. And that’s why Sportsnet, the producer of Hockey Night in Canada, felt compelled to fire the flamboyant broadcaster on November 11th after he refused to apologize for making xenophobic comments on his long-running segment. Bart Yabsley, the president of Sportsnet, released a written statement on November 10th in which he stated: “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network.”

Cherry insists he lost his job due to overly sensitive ears. “I know what I said, and I meant it. Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers,” he told the Toronto Sun after being fired. Cherry played victim again on Fox News, telling Tucker Carlson that the silent majority—including police, soldiers and firefighters (because apparently, they are also homogeneous in their views and opinions)—understands why everybody should wear poppies. But that’s not what he said. Indeed, regardless of what the former Boston Bruins coach meant, the words he used came across as a racist diatribe. 

As Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly noted, Cherry’s career was made out of his willingness to say controversial things. Cherry had been in hot water many times before, which is why his son once noted that even some fans were “waiting for the train wreck. They’re waiting for him to say something that’ll be the end of him.”

That said, it is important to note that Cherry wasn’t fired for being politically incorrect. He was fired for using poor judgment—twice—while serving as a high-profile corporate personality, not to mention a role model for Canada’s future leaders.

Simply put, Cherry’s lack of temperance and selective empathy led him to imply that immigrants are a uniform group that don’t respect our soldiers as much home-made Canadians. And when faced with the genuine hurt that his words caused—intentionally or not—Cherry’s lack of humility prevented him from being accountable. Instead of offering an apology, he tried to justify his offensive comments. In other words, unlike his co-host Ron McLean, who apologized for remaining silent during the rant, Cherry doubled down on poor judgement.

According to Cherry, he could have kept his job, but only by agreeing to become “a tame robot who nobody would recognize.” But apologizing for offending others isn’t robotic. It is a humble, courageous and human thing to do, not to mention highly recognizable as a required behaviour for good leaders and representatives. Ironically, for a person and personality like Don Cherry, apologizing would have shown the kind of courage he so passionately admires in the women and men of our Canadian Forces.

Certainly, judgment on its own provides critical thinking, but without the insight that arises from the other aforementioned character dimensions, it may be misdirected.  For example, without justice or accountability, you can quickly become detached from the issues you are analyzing. Hence, when all of character dimensions are present and active, they serve to balance each other, ensuring an individual’s decision-making is:

  1. Situationally aware: You demonstrate an appreciation for unique circumstances that may dictate unique approaches.
  2. Cognitively complex: You analyze, make clear sense, and draw sound conclusions in uncertain, complex, and ambiguous circumstances.
  3. Analytical: You skillfully analyze situations, and employ logical reasoning.
  4. Decisive: You make astute, level-headed decisions in a timely way, and you show clear-sighted discernment of what is required in a given situation.
  5. Skilled at critical thinking: You apply sound analysis and logical reasoning to evaluate ideas, decisions, and outcomes.
  6. Intuitive: You understand things without an apparent need for conscious reasoning.
  7. Insightful: You grasp the essence of situations, and see into the heart of challenging issues.
  8. Pragmatic: You understand, develop, and implement workable solutions under varied circumstances.
  9. Adaptable: You modify plans, decisions, and actions to adjust to new conditions. This has both personal and business implications.

But when some of the character dimensions are lacking, decision making has a high likelihood of being negatively impacted. Being a courageous and outspoken individual doesn’t make Cherry a bad person, but when combined with his lack of humility and humanity, alongside selective empathy, the result is an inability to be situationally aware or develop the filter required to choose words wisely. 

The Honourable Perrin Beatty recently delivered the annual Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership at the Ivey Business School. His presentation was entitled “Canada Adrift in a World without Leaders.” But the title was somewhat misleading because, as Beatty noted, there is no shortage of leaders either in Canada or on the global stage. The issue is whether the quality of leadership we see is up to the existential challenges that confront humanity.

One of the challenges Beatty identified is “the rise of dangerous xenophobic movements that regard engagement with the world not as an opportunity, but as a threat.” And so, with all due respect to Cherry’s contributions to the game of hockey, his hubris and lack of judgment isn’t something any organization worthy of respect should tolerate.

I encourage you to watch a short clip by my former colleague, Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Gandz, in which he reflects on an error he made – an error rooted in his lack of judgment – that eventually led to his firing from a job.

The challenge for leaders – upcoming and seasoned – is straightforward.  Think of one or more judgment calls that you or someone you know had to make.  What factors entered into the decisions?  What made them right or wrong?  What did you learn?  How will the lessons embedded in the decisions help you to become a better leader?

You can read more about judgment in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).