Authority, Command & Leadership

Written by Chris Richter

Written by Chris Richter

This timeless article was originally published on in June 2010.

One of the suggested areas of review in a judge’s performance has to do with the subject’s leadership skills. It is sometimes this skill or lack of it that is the determining factor when a judge receives a promotion to a higher level of certification. What does it mean to lead when judging? How does a judge demonstrate that he has leadership skills and is deserving of even more responsibilities? I think that the idea of leadership in the judge program is very broad and it may help to break down what leadership is into three easily-digested and discussable concepts: authority, command and leadership.

What each of these words mean varies depending on many factors, including certification level, type of tournament, and an individual’s role in the tournament. I think that one way to look at these three roles is as a continuum that somewhat mirrors the path as you gain certification levels. As you progress from one step to the next, the definition of each also becomes a bit more nebulous. What it means to lead depends on who is doing it. However this overall issue is really deserving of more thought and discussion. It is an especially important concern for those that are interested in L2 certification, or L2s that are thinking of becoming L3s, to be thinking about.

Sheldon's first rule of leadership: "Give a Damn"
Sheldon Menery’s first rule of leadership: “Give a Damn”


First up is authority. Simply put, authority is about power, the ability to do certain things. All judges have authority, even brand new L0s that are in training. There are things that the judge staff collectively is in charge of and all members of the staff share these responsibilities. These areas obviously include the ability to give rulings, settle disputes, and issue penalties, from warnings up to a disqualification. We also wield our authority when giving announcements and instructing players on what to do.

One important issue with authority has to do with the abuse of it. Some judge candidates are interested in becoming judges because they are intrigued by the authority they could wield. Those candidates that want to become judges for this reason stand out, and not in a good way. Judges are not meant to have a tight grip on things, making sure to control every detail. The authority we have is a tool to reach a goal, not an end. We are there to run tournaments and help players have fun. If you are interested in judging for the authority or to gain status, it will eventually be noticed and you will not go anywhere. This is something to keep in mind when thinking about yourself and in evaluating other judges you work with.

The flip side of abuse of authority, is when it should be used but is not. Anytime we allow a player to violate a rule or ignore policy we are not properly using our authority. This is often the case with newer judges, who are unsure of what they can and should do. Thankfully, teaching judges how to use their authority is a bit easier than trying to get an established judge to ease up. The key here is education and experience. Educate the judge and show how the proper use of authority is beneficial in the long run. Once a judge has had to put his foot down a few times, he will discover that it is not the end of the world and he or she will hopefully gain confidence with his or her skills.

Judging staff at tournaments is set up in a simple hierarchy where the head judge is in charge of the other judges and the event. Of the three words used to describe judge leading (authority, command, and leadership) only “authority” shows up in the policy documentation. It appears multiple times in the tournament rules, and when it does, it refers to the ability and responsibility of the head judge to make certain decisions. This does not mean that the head judge can do whatever he or she wants. They are limited by the policy and sometimes the tournament organizer.

Having a good grasp of the authority that comes with judging means that you have solid rules and policy knowledge and the ability to apply it. It doesn’t mean not being appealed; it means being confident with your original ruling and not minding a player appealing your ruling. It is an aspect of leadership simply because you become a good example for others when you do a good job judging on the floor. In short, authority is about handling individual issues and rulings well. You can tell when you are handling the authority given to you well when players trust you. This can occur outside of tournaments as well. Authority is about putting the power and knowledge you have to good use. Using your authority well is what makes you a good judge.

Level 5 Judge Riccardo Tessitori: My favorite word is "together", because *together* we can create anything we want!
Level 5 Judge Riccardo Tessitori: My favorite word is “together”, because *together* we can create anything we want!


Command is the midway point in this series. To be in command means to be in charge of a situation. Being in command is about having the authority that comes with judging and the responsibility over others. Being in command often means that you are not exerting authority directly but through others. This is usually demonstrated as you get more experienced and become a team lead or even a head judge.

Having command means is that you are aware of what is going on, what needs to happen, knowledge of any present and possible future problems, and are taking care of all the above. As mentioned before, you may not be doing that directly, but through a staff of others. To do this one of the first things you need is experience at events.

To command others effectively, you need to make sure that the other members of your staff are capable of doing the tasks that you assign them. To do that you need to be able to train those people you are in charge of. This is where mentoring comes into play. Mentoring is the sharing of the experience that you have. It is not just about telling someone what to do, and letting them know if they did OK or not. In order to effectively mentor you need to have solid interpersonal and communication skills. Mentoring is a combination of knowing what needs to be done, the best way to get it done, and clearly and effectively teaching it to others. This can be demonstrated by showing a member of your team how to perform a deck check, giving feedback on delivering rulings, or in advice on how to deal with difficult players. This can also happen outside of events, in a discussion about a policy matter or in running a seminar.

Once you’ve got the experience, knowledge, and an educated staff, you’ll need to work on the ability to organize them. Sometimes this means preplanning and scheduling a staff; in other situations it means being a ‘traffic cop’ and distributing tasks as they come up. This aspect is about resource management: knowing what assets you have and applying them efficiently. It also means looking ahead to later in the day—or perhaps later in the weekend, in the case of a multi-day event. Once again, mentoring is very important, as it is what creates the resources you end up having.

A common mistake for someone new to command is to attempt to exert too much control. Being in command does not mean making sure that everyone you are overseeing makes no mistakes. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to make mistakes and deal with them. It also does not mean that you micromanage everything that your staff is doing. Everyone needs to have some autonomy in order to grow and feel that they are making a personal impact.

A final aspect of command that can be very hard to pull off is about the perception of command. Players and staff want a head judge that is in charge of the event. They want to know who to go to if there is a problem, but more importantly, they want a feeling of comfort that there will most likely not be any problems in the first place. This perception is created by taking the knowledge and experience you have, gaining confidence in your skills and expressing that confidence outwardly. Keep in mind that it is very important not to be arrogant. You can be in charge and still be approachable and humble at the same time.

In the end, being an effective and successful head judge of a large event is the epitome of being in command. It’s using your experience, sharing it, and organizing others to take care of everything that comes up.

Level 4 judge Jurgen Baert suggests that one key element of Leadership is motivating others by transferring your enthusiasm and energy.
Level 4 judge Jurgen Baert suggests that one key element of Leadership is motivating others by transferring your enthusiasm and energy.


Last stop, leadership. Leadership is about all of the above and more. It is having authority, using it, teaching others, running events, AND working towards ways to make the judge program better. To do that, you need to be able to make honest assessments about past successes and failures, the ability to solve problems, and open-mindedness and creativity to imagine how things may be improved. Where the previous aspects of leading are primarily demonstrated at tournaments, leadership in the judge program can happen anywhere at any time.

So how does one lead outside of an event? Here are some examples:

  • As mentioned above, mentoring can happen outside of events and cover issues beyond a tournament’s immediate needs. Teaching a judge about policy and philosophy when not at a tournament is one example. Other similar ones would be working articles or seminars. These efforts are examples of leadership as they are about helping the judge community as a whole and not just the staff you are working with at the time. Think of it as mentoring on much larger scale.

  • Any judge that has been around for a while knows that policy changes from time to time. And there are judges that have issues with certain areas of policy and want to see it changed. Judges of any level can have an impact on this and work with the high level judges to get policy changed. If there is something the tournament rules or infraction guide that does not sit quite right with you, or you have an idea for how to make a slight improvement, speak up. Changing policy for the better affects all of organized play.

  • Occasionally, issues between players, tournament organizers, judges, or any combination of the above can come up that create tension in the Magic community. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as conflict can generate change. But sometimes personalities and egos can get in the way of addressing the situation. Another way to lead a community is to work with various individuals to help alleviate these conflicts. This means not only stepping in when a problem arises and being a mediator, but having the foresight to see potential issues that may arise.

Those are just three ways that a judge can help lead in their overall Magic and judge communities. Leadership is much broader of a topic than authority and command, and how an individual leads varies. Magic and the judge program are large enough to need skills and leadership in as many ways as can be listed.

Leadership is not about getting a tournament done or a few events over a weekend run successfully. It is making an impact on those staff you come into contact with on a regular basis and on a judge from far away that you may never meet. It is about getting events done and done well, including those that are months away and some that you will not even attend. Most importantly, it is about improving those events, fellow judges, and yourself along the way. The epitome of leadership goes beyond tournaments. A leader in the judge community is not just someone who you think of when you think of judging and policy, but of organized play as a whole. A judge leader not only represents themselves but the judge program.

As mentioned above these three concepts form a path that most judges progress upon as they receive promotions and a higher certification level, but that does not always have to be the case. It is possible for a recently certified L1 to not only be conformable with his newfound authority but be a leader in his or her community. Conversely, being a high-level judge does not mean that you are incapable of abusing your authority or of being an ineffective commander at times. This framework is intended to help judges break down ways of looking at what leadership is and hopefully help with self improvement and evaluation of others, and not necessarily as a roadmap for higher-level certification.

Most articles conclude with a reiteration of everything that was said earlier. These conclusions are usually meant to close the article and/or the argument. The issue of what leadership is in the judge community is not a simple topic. What leadership is and how to improve your skills is not cut and dried. This article is a collection of my opinions and is not a definitive handling of what leadership is. So, instead of leaving with a few sentences that wrap up everything with a bow, here are some questions to ask yourself and others:

  • Where on the continuum (Authority-Command-Leadership) do you see yourself?
  • How do you use your authority at events?
  • Have you ever abused your authority at an event?
  • Have you ever failed to be authoritative when you should have been?
  • How do you teach a newer judge what their authority is and how to use it?
  • Are you effective when commanding a team or staff?
  • Do you feel comfortable leading a group of 5 judges? How about 10 judges? 20? 40?
  • What can you do to improve your command skills?
  • How can you more effectively teach others?
  • What can you do to help a judge you have never met?
  • What are some of the ways of leading that are not included above?
  • What can you do to better lead your community?