John Adair

Interview: Leadership Expert John Adair

Whether you have set rules or use your judgement to trade, trading is all about decisions. So we wanted to explore the complex subject of judgment, and who best to speak to other than John Adair.

John Adair is the expert in leadership and leadership theory. He’s lectured on the subject at Sandhurst, University of Surrey and Exeter he regularly speaks at the Windsor Leadership Trust,  and he's been made an honorary professor of leadership at the China Executive Leadership Academy. He’s also the man behind the Functional Leadership Model used in many leadership development programmes.

It goes without saying then that he's written a number of books on the matter - over 50 in fact. So what John has to say on the subject comes with considerable authority.

Click to buy 'The Art of Judgement' by John Adair

Similar to trading, judgement is a mix of art and science. And in his new book John gives plenty of insight and food for thought. Chapter Two stuck out for me, as John provides a number of useful decision making plans / checklists which I think would be applicable to trading, especially before placing a trade.

John says we “...will benefit from having a simple checklist at hand to ensure that we remain in the flight path of the effective decision.” He even suggests that when we make a mistake (which we all do), use it to your advantage. “Go back to your checklist and try to identify precisely where you went wrong, then you will be learning from experience”.

We hope you enjoy this short interview with John Adair which we also hope will help you in your own ‘art of judgement’ in your trading journey.

Always remember that leadership is done from the front. If you are leading a team of traders, for example, you should exemplify the qualities of a good trader.

1. Great to speak to you John. Can you briefly give an overview of who you are and what you do, as it’s an impressive list to read?

First, may I thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts on leadership with you and your readers - it is a real pleasure.

As for me, I am an author in both senses of the word, namely as the creator of Action Centred Leadership (ACL) and the writer of over 50 books, now translated into 18 languages. My latest book is called 'The Art of Judgment: 10 Steps to Becoming a More Effective Decision-Maker' (Bloomsbury Business) and is a guide for anyone looking to hone, develop and master the art of judgment.

My ‘credits’ (as the actors say) include being the world’s first Professor of Leadership, Honorary Professor of Leadership appointed by the Republic of China, and more recently Professor of Leadership in the United Nations based on the UN Staff College in Turin.

2. If you could sum up what leadership is and what it means to be a great leader, what key points would you stress to someone new to the study of leadership and looking to better themselves as a leader?

To someone who is new to the role of being leader, and aspires to be not just a competent leader but a really good one, I would say this: leadership is essentially simple but it is not easy.

By reading you can now achieve very quickly an understanding of the role of being a leader and the key skills that you need to self-develop (I say self-develop because no one else can or will do it for you). You will find that the first book in my Bloomsbury series 'How to Lead Others' is written for you.

To move from good to great is not so easy! You need not just some potential for leading others but a real talent for it, then study great leadership down the ages—for true leadership is timeless. Learn from those with a genius for leadership. My second Bloomsbury book 'Lessons in Leadership' is as good a starting point as ever.

Always remember that leadership is done from the front. If you are leading a team of traders, for example, you should exemplify the qualities of a good trader.

Remember that every leader that you meet has a lesson for you. Even those who are occupying leadership roles but are not qualified to lead have lessons for you… in how not to do it. As the Chinese say, ‘Pluck a feather from every passing goose.’

3. A big part of leadership is clearly to have good judgement whether that be in business, on a sports field or trading the financial markets. After writing over 50 books, why did you settle on ‘The Art of Judgement’ as the next topic? And can you tell us a little bit more about your latest book?

Because good judgment is essential for good leadership, especially the higher you go in life’s hierarchies. It is the faculty required when having to make decisions in conditions of great uncertainty. Our world is in growing peril from having too many ‘blind shepherds’ in positions of national and international leadership.

Why did I write the book? Because there was no good book on the subject - in fact no book at all. That may seem incredible to you—it did to me. So I decided to write one myself.

One feature of the book is my insistence on the importance of truth as the basis of good judgement. As Tolstoy said “Always seek the truth. It will always tell you what to do, what not to do and what to stop doing”. Not bad advice for a trader!

4. You mention in your introduction of the book that people know what is meant by judgement but have trouble explaining it. Why do you think it’s a hard thing to define?

It’s really because judgment only happens in conditions where no one knows the answer. In retrospect you may be able to say that someone has shown good judgment but it is extremely difficult to know if it is good judgment at the time. As we say, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’

Remember that judgment is always future-orientated. For example, when you are judging a person’s suitability for a job you are really predicting how they will perform and behave in the future. And the future is uncreated as yet, hence its high levels of uncertainty, risk, unforeseeable contingencies and consequences. The coronavirus crisis illustrates the point.

5. "Far less important to achieve a dictionary definition than forming a clear idea of the concept". Is this what you set out to achieve with this book?

Yes, you have it in a nutshell!

6. Do you think good judgement is taught or learnt through experience? Or a combination of both?

In every field there are principles and practise. Learning happens when the sparks jump between the two.

7. In Chapter 3 - Experience, the first sentence you write, "experience and judgement are not exact synonyms, though people sometimes talk as if they are." Can you please expand on why people think they are and why they in fact aren’t?

Experience can mean for some people just endless repetition of the same thing, with nothing learnt on the way. Experience is a necessary ingredient in judgment, but not the same thing.

8. As traders we ideally need to constantly be clear headed to make sure our emotions don’t cloud our judgement when executing our trades. You write in your chapter on Clear Thinking, that “Fog surrounds us and sometimes invades us, both in our professional and home lives. But there is a remedy: Clear Thinking.” Can you briefly highlight ways we can get to this state of clear thinking to then make clear judgements?

Clear thinking is surprisingly rare, as you may have noticed. There are no short cuts to becoming a clear thinker—just practice, practice, practice.

Clear thinking is not the same as attaining the truth about a matter but it is an essential prelude or preliminary to doing so. It is clearing away the undergrowth of muddle and confusion. Our own confusion as well as other people’s cloudy vagueness.

To be honest I still find it a struggle to be clear. In my case I find that it helps to conduct that struggle on paper. Perhaps that is why I write books. As Asimov once said, “I love thinking, and writing is thinking with a pen”.

9. When making a judgement, how important is it to consider various viewpoints, even if there are ones that you may not necessarily agree with?

Yes, it is essential to be open-minded —genuinely open-minded and not just going through the motions. I speak from experience. Some five decades ago, when I was at a cross-roads in my career and full of doubt as which way to go, it was the viewpoint of a person that I consulted which helped me to make up my mind on the way ahead.

Today we need listening leadership. So your sequence should be: Listen-Think-Decide.

10. You write, "decision literally means the cut-off point where judgement ends and action begins". In the high pressure world of trading, quick judgement calls are required. Can you ever make a good judgement based on gut feel and experience instead of strategically thinking about a decision that needs to be made?

In a crisis we all have to do just that. But you are not always in a crisis, so you need judgment to know when you need to take your time and for how long.

In short, we all need practical wisdom in this life. And practical judgment is an alchemy of experience, intelligence and goodness

11. Have you got plans to write another book to add to the many already on people’s shelves?

Watch this space! I am intending to write a book on the theme which explores the idea that to be a good leader today you also need to be a leader for good.

Last but not least, my best wishes go with you on your leadership journey!

John Adair's The Art of Judgment: 10 Steps to Becoming a More Effective Decision-Maker is available at and bookstores, or head to Twitter @BloomsburyBiz for more information.