Duplicity must be decried when used to justify the attainment and exercise of power. However, sometimes, even principled leaders must put on an act to realize noble ends—infuse optimism to surmount hopelessness, win followers’ devotion to audacious new ideas, for example.
In the Zen parable that follows, a warrior motivates his followers in the face of desperate odds. He persuades his outnumbered army by flipping an unfair coin and proclaiming that they are fated to win the battle.
A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.
On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”
Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.
“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.
“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.
Idea for Impact: Moral Leadership Relates to the Integrity of Leaders and Their Intentions
A wise leader must be open to bringing deception into play to smooth the way to sound decisions and noble results.
As long as leaders use these methods to respectable purposes, and until people wise up to their methods, certain ends can justify certain means.
Postscript: The quoted Zen parable is sourced from the celebrated compilation Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, Shambhala Edition (1961) by Paul Reps. This book traces its roots to the thirteenth-century Japanese anthology of Buddhist parables Shasekishū (Sand and Pebbles) compiled by the Kamakura-era monk Mujū.
Cathrin Turney says
The story makes Nobunaga sound like a very clever manipulator — and the story is all the better because it has a ‘happy ending’: the battle was won. I doubt the story would inspire anyone to admire his cleverness if the battle had been lost.
Lying might be a convenient means to the end we have in view, but liars seldom manage the most difficult of all feats: keeping their mouths shut. And once we’re known as having lied for a good reason, we’re all too likely to be assumed to be willing to lie whenever the truth doesn’t suit us. As a number of prosecutors have said to witnesses, “So you were lying then, but you expect us to believe that you’re telling the truth now?” However inconvenient a question it may be for a known liar, it is a reasonable question.
Few of us would want to work for someone we know is a liar: someone who’ll lie to others will eventually lie to us. And I suspect that even fewer of us would want to hire someone we couldn’t trust to tell us the truth.
People who’ll lie for a ‘good’ reason are still liars. And once someone knows that you’ve lied, they’re going to wonder what else you’ve lied about and what else you will lie about if the truth won’t get you what you want.