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Thursday, May 08, 2008,11:38 AM
Judgment Trumps Experience

As these late November days fade away, the critical Iowa caucus looms ever closer -- less than six weeks away. Which explains why the rhetoric of the two leading Democratic candidates is becoming more shrill but also more clarifying.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have taken off their gloves. In one corner stands the champion of experience, with the best executive coach in the free world at her side and a dog-eared playbook of strategies that have won in the past. Standing in the opposite corner is a young contender, fairly new at the game, underweight and probably overmatched, but a natural, as they say. Mr. Obama and his handlers are putting their money on his judgment, disdaining the experience card as a stale rerun of earlier campaigns, skewering Mrs. Clinton's twisty judgments about Iraq, and subtly pushing the present over the legacy of the '60s, destiny over dynasty.

One newspaper article on Mrs. Clinton's latest TV ad noted that it mentioned her experience five times. Bloggers also highlight the themes of experience and judgment whenever they describe the ever more heated fight between the Democratic front runners.

Where do we put our money? First, let us cite Ted Sorenson, one of John F. Kennedy's closest advisers and speechwriters. When asked about his former boss's judgment, Mr. Sorenson responded, "I cannot emphasize how important that elusive quality is; far more important than organization, structure, procedures and machinery. These are all important, yes, but nothing compared to judgment."

After a five-year study of leadership covering virtually all sectors of American life, we came to the inescapable conclusion that judgment regularly trumps experience. Our central finding is that judgment is the core, the nucleus of exemplary leadership. With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters.

Take any leader, a U.S. president, a Fortune 100 CEO, a big-league coach, wartime general, you name it. Chances are you remember them for their best and worst calls. Can anyone forget that Harry Truman issued the order to drop the first atom bomb? Or Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis? When Nixon comes to mind, so does Watergate. The first George Bush: "Read my lips." Clinton? Monica. George W.? Iraq.

Leadership is, at its marrow, the chronicle of judgment calls. These will inevitably write the leader's legacy. Don't get us wrong. We are not discounting the importance of experience. Seminal and appropriate experiences must be drawn on and understood before judgments can be informed. But experience is no guarantee of good judgment. There is a huge difference between 20 years of experience that advances one's learning and one year of experience repeated 20 times.

In fact, there are numerous times when past experiences can prevent wise judgments. Barbara Tuchman long ago observed how generals tend to fight the last war, refusing to face new realities, almost always with disastrous consequences. And often, especially in today's dizzying world, we need to understand what Zen Buddhists call the "beginner's mind," which recognizes the value of fresh insight unfettered by experience. In this more contemporary view, the compelling idea is the novel one. Perhaps no one articulated the nature of the beginner's mind better than the composer Hector Berlioz when he said of his more popular rival Camille Saint-Saëns: "He knows everything. All he lacks is inexperience."

Judgment isn't quite an unnatural act, but it also doesn't come naturally. And speaking from decades of experience, we're not sure how to teach it. (We know it can be learned.) Wisely processed experience, reflection, valid sources of timely information, an openness to the unbidden and character are critical components of judgment as well. As David McCullough reminds us over and over again, "Character counts in the presidency more than any other single quality."

Yes, Mrs. Clinton, experience is not without value. But judgment, fed by solid character, should determine the choice of our next president.

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posted by R J Noriega
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