Judgment and Strategic Thinking

Will our capacity for passing judgment function as a tool, weapon, or poison?

I wrote my ‘blog last week from the Cape Cod Institute, where I was taking a course on the neuroscience of strategic leadership with business journalist and executive consultant Art Kleiner. I wrote about how religious leaders underestimate the importance of strategic thinking, or even dismiss strategy as crafty, rather than faithful. After a week back at the desk, I’m still thinking about Kleiner’s workshop, but a different dimension of it is rising to the surface of my consciousness:

I am judgmental, and, if used for the good, my judgmental nature can help my strategic thinking.

I come by judgmental tendencies honestly. I was raised by parents with a strong sense of right and wrong. My father, especially, was quick to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to people, activities, and behavior. That often got him in trouble, in that he had no filter, especially as he got older. Those on whom he passed judgment knew what he thought of them, which sometimes caused pain and harm. (I inherited his utter lack of poker face, sadly; am considering Botox.)

My spouse, too, is a clearheaded person who formulates impressions of people and situations quickly. As an admissions officer at an elite college as his first job, this characteristic made for efficient work. When we met, our relationship moved quickly, as we were both judgmental enough to know the other was what we were looking for. That our opinions matched up was important, but more important was our cognitive style, where we both knew our minds quickly and knew each of us was right for the other.

Now, we’re raising an adult who’s carrying a judgmental worldview into a new generation. Our daughter Jacqueline Judith goes by “JJ”. I often joke that Dan and I named her after the only Myers-Briggs categories we have in common. I am an ENFJ (those who know the MBTI well, and know me, go ahead and say it: you knew it). Dan is an ISTJ. Somehow, having “J” — “judging” — in-common has gotten us to and past the 25 year mark. But any hopes we had of imparting nuance to our kid? Long gone.

Yesterday, my daughter texted me from her summer job with a scathing critique of a leader we both know. Somehow, it hit me wrong, and I pushed back. The job the leader has is a difficult one I’m happy not to have. I pointed this out to JJ, who didn’t budge, and I thought, “What hath I wrought?”

Here’s the thing: I love leaders. I am eternally grateful when people step up, take charge, and put themselves out there. I know how hard leadership is. Soon, I’ll begin a new ‘blog series focused on loving leaders, and helping them to love themselves, as I fear a world where leaders are chronically mistreated will be one where all the wrong people end up in-charge. When my own daughter wrote harshly, I had to accept that she probably gleaned the tendency toward critique from living with parents who have it in them to rush to criticize those who don’t get it right every time.

Here is what Art Kleiner had to say about judgment:

  • When we pay close attention to our own thinking, we will discover that we’re operating at the behest of at least some false narratives. Passing judgement on false narratives — “I’m such an idiot for having stuck with this task/relationship/job!” — just creates new false narratives. We go from “I observe that I haven’t been happy” to “I’m an idiot;” being judgmental got us nowhere.
  • Mindfulness is the opposite of judgmentalness. Leaders need to practice mindfulness intentionally, through meditative practices, and in real time. Doing so allows them to observe with equanimity, because no one can fully engage that on which they have passed judgment.
  • We therefore must use good judgment in order to become less judgmental, scrutinizing where our judgment is helping or harming us.

By way of neuroscientific explanation, Kleiner proposed that leaders must use applied mindfulness. Our brains’ lateral prefrontal cortices house the capacity to pay attention to our own thinking, deliberating over what narratives our brain is giving us, and which ones we’re believing. It’s from this part of our brains that change is possible.

By way of Christian interpretation, we find ourselves in one of the most challenging teachings of our faith: only God gets to judge people. God doesn’t like it when we play God… sayeth basically the entire Hebrew Bible. And Jesus tells us that we better not dish out judgment if we can’t take it when he preaches, in Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged: condemn not, and you shall not be condemned: forgive, and you shall be forgiven.”

When we turn our capacity for good judgment onto ourselves, scrutinizing our own thoughts for truths and lies, and then embracing truth, good things happen. When we turn that capacity on one another, we stand on a slippery slope to sinfulness that can make us extremely unhappy.

So perhaps that’s all the proof we need that a judgmental nature needs to be domesticated and harnessed so that it works for us, not us for it: happiness. Those in my life with equanimity seem happy. Those who are profoundly judgmental don’t. Therefore, I keep my mind’s eye (e.g. my lateral prefrontal cortex) on my natural tendencies to judge, and I redirect those tendencies. I seek to train my mind, first and foremost, on love.



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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond


Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.