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Why You Need a Good-Faith Antagonist
A contrarian, a yes-man, and a questioner walk into a bar…
“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” — William Blake, 1790
You’ve probably used the term “devil’s advocate” before, meaning that you’re taking up an opposing viewpoint for the sake of playing out a mini-debate with someone.
A devil’s advocate doesn’t necessarily espouse the position they’re staking out, but they present it for the sake of argument, to ensure their partner in rhetoric is thinking through their position.
Now, let’s be clear: this is different from being an outright antagonist.
An antagonist counters every position and makes arguments purely for the sake of doing so, with no intended outcome other than to fluster or simply be negative. He is a contrarian for a contrarian’s sake.
“Quarreling must lead to disorder, and disorder exhaustion.” — Xunzi, c. 250 BC
A devil’s advocate has a much more strategic and intentional role. The phrase has its roots in Roman Catholicism, from the process of beatification or canonization of saints.
The Promoter of the Faith was an official position within the Catholic Church. More popularly known as Advocatus Diaboli (“Devil’s Advocate”), he was tasked with critically examining the life of and miracles attributed to individuals proposed for sainthood.
As Devil’s Advocate, the canon lawyer attempts to poke holes during presentation of facts to point out everything unfavorable to the candidate.
Pope Sixtus V formally established the office in 1587, although it was on record as having been used under Leo X (1513 – 1521). The office was abolished when Pope John Paul II revised the canonization procedures in 1979.
The phrase survives to the present day, as you know, and it’s a practice that happens in plenty of meetings (“Let me just play devil’s advocate for a moment,” is how it usually plays out.).
It’s a healthy exercise for every leader to undertake: to invite peers and subordinates to challenge you. It keeps you on your toes and requires you to justify your decisions and rationale.
The best leaders encourage others to challenge them.
From “No way” to “Yes sir”
Let’s flip this on its head. There are leaders out there — I’ll bet you can think of one without too much effort — who refuse to allow dissent.
To question their decisions is to question their ability. Or so goes the thinking.
Thin-skinned, praise-hungry, and incurably insecure, the weak leader must be propped up, fluffed, and reassured.
They were usually starved of affection as children, and they attempt to salve their wounds by hurting others.
“Do we want laurels for ourselves most,
Or most that no one else shall have any?” — Amy Lowell, 1922
This kind of leader has no use for a devil’s advocate. Their vizier takes the form of a sycophant.
For it is the sycophant who blurs all negatives, obliterates opposition, and obfuscates reality. The leader, so desperate for that which soothes his damaged soul, welcomes this fantasy world and ignores the challenges that are evident to everyone around him. And the “yes men” are only too willing to oblige.
This inner circle finds a way to survive and even thrive under such leadership, and tries to work the system for its own benefit.
Often such suck-ups will give the boss exactly what he wants to hear, in exchange for favorable treatment for themselves.
Be Like Harry
President Franklin Roosevelt relied on the advice and counsel of Harry Hopkins, his most trusted advisor. One day, Wendell Wilkie, the Republican nominee for president in the 1940 election, asked FDR why he put his faith in Hopkins.
“Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as president of the United States. And when you are, you’ll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You’ll learn what a lonely job this is and discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you.”
There’s a fine line between an antagonist and a sycophant. One provides a hard “no” to halt us in our tracks and the other showers us with many a “yes,” to simply grease the skids.
“It is permitted to learn even from an enemy.” — Ovid, c. 8
A devil’s advocate is more independent and meant to ask questions and to make us think for ourselves. Trusted advisors can act as devil’s advocates, as they have a sense of independence and the ability to listen.
The best advisors think broadly and help the C-suite see around corners to prioritize issues, frame problems.
They may not have all the answers, but they raise important questions.
Every C-suite member should have an advisor who asks great questions rather than just provides answers.
Ultimately, the decisions we make rest with ourselves.
Timely: Present Tense
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1832
Being a selfish jerk doesn’t get you ahead. Selfish people weren’t more likely than generous people to gain power over the next 14 years, even in cutthroat workplaces. Whatever they might gain in intimidation, they lose in trust and relationships. (Berkeley)
Everyone looks to the leader as some sort of oracle. But there are times when you simply don’t have the answer. It's okay to say you don’t know. (Smart Brief)
So so much nuance in our conversations being lost to texts, emails and instant messages, quarantine has reminded us how fun it is to talk on the phone: The joy of spontaneous phone calls. (Forge)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“It turns out Strife’s a twin, a double birth—
There are not one but two Strifes on earth…
One’s blessed, one’s cursed.” — Hesiod, c. 700 BC
It’s tempting to pile advisor upon advisor, as you look for many points of input. But there’s a case to be made as to why your inner circle should stay small, and how to shrink it. (Harvard Business Review)
There isn’t one practice that’s much more annoying than mansplaining. In her new book, Men to Avoid in Art and Life, Nicole Tersigni harnesses her skill with a Twitter meme to illuminate the experience of women harassed by concern trolls, “sexperts” and more: Mansplaining, with 17th century art. (New York Times)
Bruised egos, gobs of money, and the bitter feud that took down Cellino & Barnes, New York’s absurdly ubiquitous accident law firm. (Intelligencer)
“I shall embrace my rival—until I suffocate him.” — Jean Racine, 1669
🎧 Business Wars explores epic battles for control of corporate America, from the infamous wars between Coke & Pepsi, McDonalds & Burger King, Netflix & Blockbuster, to small businesses across the country struggling to survive intense competition from local rivals.
📖 Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a multiple biography. William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln all sought the Republican nomination for president in 1860. When Lincoln was selected, his opponents were disappointed and angry. But he won because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.
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