The strategy of deceit

I have been enjoying a great read, “Strategy: A History” by Lawrence Freedman, given to me by my good friends on the board at Helix Environmental Planning, Inc. While a director of the company, we embarked over several years to identify and then pursue the right strategy for the organization before, through and beyond the Great Financial Fiasco of 2008. As a parting gift when my tour of duty ended, CEO Mike Schwerin offered me this five-pound book.

While it may take a year to complete, it will be a pleasant journey. I have not been exposed much to early Greek, Spartan and Roman philosophy, so it’s both a historical education and a deep analysis of the sources of strategic thought.

In the early chapters, as the multidecade battles between Athenian and Peloponnesian forces ensued, Freedman describes the first debates about the act of debate itself. Apparently, some proposed that argument and skepticism should be developed as a profession whose pursuit was strategic advantage while others, including Plato as the successor to thought leadership after Socrates, felt that the proper goal of debate was the discovery of absolute truth.

Plato was disgusted with the “sophists” of his time, who sold their ability to articulately and persuasively win arguments, irrespective of the facts or morals of the objectives. Proponents felt there was nothing wrong with a calculated strategy for winning an argument, convincing a crowd to support a noble cause or out-maneuver an opponent by deception. The ends justified the means.

It struck me as I read this account of ancient history that I might be reading about the invention of a job: the attorney. And now, thousands of years later, the controversy continues. Jokes about lawyers and their convenient, changeable morality abound. Statistics reveal the ratio of attorneys to the general population rising higher than teachers and doctors. We look on in alarm.

But it’s not just the legal profession that is mocked for its mercurial ideals. Public relations professionals are commonly called “spin doctors,” spinning up a story to repeat constantly, in order to sway public opinion toward the intended compass direction. Political strategists combine demographics, psychology and sophistry to achieve a particular muscle movement towards the preferred punch hole on a ballot.

These days, the act of debate is much less sophisticated. It’s more about decibel level and incessant repetition. But the issue of morality of hired advocacy continues, nearly 2,500 years after the beginning of the profession.

On the side of proponents is the point that people who have neither the intellect nor the training required need skilled professionals to put forth their arguments by proxy. The notion is that the unfortunate, aggrieved party would constantly lose their cause for justice, irrespective of the facts of the dispute, simply because they were unable to martial a strong argument.

Another example is the artisan or inventor who knows much about mechanical devices, but nothing about how to teach people the advantages and benefits of such tools. The hired advocate in this case is a sales professional. Clearly these are positive examples of hired advocacy that can include truthful representation on behalf of the employer or client.

Humans appear to be unique in the animal world for our extensive ability of natural language. As soon as we employed it, it was only a matter of time before the skill to communicate could be used in deception. Deception is an evolutionarily advantageous behavior. Many animals do it, even without the benefit of language.

Butterflies acquire the colors and patterns of the unappetizing monarch to avoid being dinner for birds. Chameleons change their coloring to look like part of the branch or rock upon which they perch. Peacocks spread their tails wide to seem larger and more menacing than they really are. People put lifts in their shoes to look taller, or wear hairpieces to conceal baldness. In boxing and the martial arts, feints are used to direct the opponent’s attention to the wrong target, so that the intended one is left unprotected.

In the examination of strategy, which is the means by which goals are achieved, deception is unarguably a useful and effective tool. The moral choice to use it depends on the values of the individuals involved. Some people would intentionally deceive only if it was a matter of life or death for themselves or a loved one. Maybe not even then. Some people would deceive as long as there was no chance of getting caught, which opens many more opportunities.

Oddly enough, our legal system is built on the premise that in a criminal case, the accused is provided a professional advocate who must assume that the client is blameless, no matter the facts, and therefore defend them without reservation. We have built deception into the bedrock of the concept of a “fair trial.”

Given the millennial duration of the controversy around hired advocates skilled in persuasion and debate, I don’t think we will reach political, organizational or cultural agreement. It will continue to be a personal choice of every individual who may aspire to the profession of advocacy, or evaluate whether to hire a mouthpiece.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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