Was this manipulation or motivation?

Plus: a great article on how to choose a good teacher

My granddaughter, Marin, recently graduated from high school. At her commencement I heard the following story. I’m not sure what to think of it. What do you think? 

During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack the enemy even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they could win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying to the gods, the general took out a coin and said, “I will now toss this coin. If it is heads, we will win. If tails, we will lose. Destiny will now reveal itself.”

He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, “It is true; no one can change destiny.”

“Quite right,” the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.

We can put a positive spin on this story:

  • It’s important to be optimistic and confident in life.
  • If you believe in yourself, you can accomplish great things. 
  • If you believe that a higher power is on your side, you can accomplish anything.
  • Leaders must engender faith and hope among followers.
  • Manipulating people for a good cause is acceptable.  

Or we can consider the downside:

  • This story is about a charismatic leader manipulating the emotions of his followers. That’s unacceptable. 
  • The general won the battle, but he lied to his men in the process. That’s unacceptable.  
  • If the soldiers discovered the general’s trick, would they ever trust him again?
  • How many leaders are just tricking us into doing what they want us to do?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For sure, if I’m ever asked to give a commencement speech, I won’t use this illustration.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Here’s a terrific article on how to choose a good teacher by Adam Grant, published in the New York Times.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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24 thoughts on “Was this manipulation or motivation?

  1. The source of the motivation is as important, if not more so, as the result. And the longevity of the result is only as good as the foundation on which it’s built.

    • Les, thanks for taking the time to write. I like your emphasis on the source of motivation and the thought of the longevity of the result. It must all be built on a firm foundation. Don

  2. This was a motivation. I believe our current leader is manipulating us in so many ways. SAD that he is President of the most significant country in the world.

    • Gary, thanks for taking the time to write. All leaders must hold to high ideals, and one of the primary virtues is honesty. Don

  3. Don, I look forward each Tuesday to your posts. They are always thought-provoking. I think it is usually dangerous to manipulate by trickery or falsehoods. And to attribute such to a diety is doubly bad. Not only can they not trust the leader, they cannot have faith in the diety. Unfortunately, such is done by secular and non-secular leaders alike.

    • Kirte, thanks for your reply. You highlight an interesting twist to this tale: manipulating the reputation of a deity for our own benefit. As you say, that’s doubly bad. Don

  4. For me the question is, ” What’s the Biblical model we should follow.” The whole counsel of God instructs us to be truth tellers, “be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”. This gives us some creative leeway but truth must be in the center of our exhortations as leaders. Every leader must lead where others have failed. If he is successful he continues leading. If he fails he may lose that position. Historically speaking it is not the best team athletically that wins championships but the best led and motivated team. Some call it chemistry, regardless of what “it” is somehow the leader motivated his team above their abilities. As a Christian I want “victory” with no sorrow added so I must depend on the Holy Spirit to “tell” or inspire me to the approach I should use to exhort my “tribe” to victory. One way I test whether that still small voice is the Holy Spirit is whether truth is at the center of this approach, not deceit.

    • Brandy, thanks for taking the time to write. Your perspective is a good one; truth-telling is a cardinal virtue and a biblical one. If I can’t motivate my team without lying to them, I should relinquish my role as a leader. Don

  5. When I was playing sports in college I read that Bobby Knight, the famous (or infamous) coach of Indiana basketball, used to take a new freshman recruit on first day of practice, place him on one baseline of the basketball court, give him a basketball, and tell him to dribble down court as fast as he could and do a layup while coach Knight timed him. The player would hustle back to the coach and he would show the player his exact time on the stop watch. Coach Knight would order him to line up on the baseline and do it again, ordering him to go even faster. The player would once again return to the coach to see his time. The coach said it would most often be exactly the same time. But then coach Knight would then say something like, “Are you SURE you did that as fast you could? Are you SURE you’re not lying to me? I don’t believe you! You get back on that line and let’s see if you’re lying to me!” The player would line up and get read to try a third time, but this time, as coach Knight yelled “Go!” the coach was running at the very heals of the player and screaming at the top of his voice, “GO! GO! GO!” They player would do his layup and while desperately trying to catch his breath, coach Knight would stick the stop watch in the players face and, with a big smile, he would say simply, “See!” The time was ALWAYS better. Coach Tom Landry used to say his main job as head coach was to make men do what they didn’t want to do so they could become what they’ve always wanted to be. I can’t say the Japanese general was right to trick his soldiers but I DO believe that that both coaches were right: It often takes a force, a person other than ourselves, to prove to us that we ARE capable of more than we realize and could ever do on our own.

    • Rick, thanks for taking the time to write. You give two interesting examples. In many ways, I don’t think of Bobby Knight as a man of high character. I do hold coach Landry in high esteem; I don’t know of any time he lied to motivate his players. I do love that phrase, “My main job was to make men do what they didn’t want to do so they could become what they’ve always wanted to be.” but that doesn’t imply that he used underhanded tactics. Again, thanks for writing.

  6. The leader must be truthful even when things are not looking so good! The leader must set the standard. Show me a person who is in an authority position who is a liar and the organization they lead will have issues with honesty! Tell people what you want and expect, give them all the resources available to you. Give them a glimpse of the big picture and allow them to make some decisions. If they win, the true leader will say “Great job folks! You did it!”. If the team fails, the true leader will step up to the plate and take the heat. “Guys, you did your best with what you had available, looks like I should have led a little better!”. Leadership is not a position it’s a responsibility to those whom the leader reports to and to those who are led.

    • Payton,
      I could not have said it better myself. Honesty is always the best standard to pursue and leaders must demonstrate that virtue. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  7. It was manipulation! By using trickery and religious zeal, the general took advantage of his troops conviction that the “gods” were telling them they would be victorious. The general manipulated the outcome with human trickery. To motivate his troops would have required extreme effort to convince his men they could be victorious even though the odds did not look good. Since he believed that destiny cannot be changed, the results would have been the same regardless of the illegitimate coin toss.

    • Bill, thanks for taking the time to write. I like your thought that proper motivation would have been more difficult but it would have been the right thing to do. Don

  8. Dear Don,
    I suspect the views of 21st century people may be very different from those in previous centuries who did not have such wide access to historical analysis of military leaders and the outcomes of wars. There is also immediate versus long term manipulation. Those who build up nationalistic fervour so that the population is willing to accept war as a desirable outcome, manipulate over the longer term while the general in your story was looking for an immediate result.

    The story is based on a military situation and, therefore, the men were under orders and probably would have been in danger of a charge of insubordination if they had asked the general what decision he would make if the coin fell on tails? Any leader taking his forces into battle has to bear the ultimate responsibility for the lives of his men/women. It appears from recent evidence that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster due to the manipulation of orders by a junior officer.

    If the troops in your story were aware that they may be at a disadvantage they may have lost their nerve and casualties could have been higher. A leader known for protecting his men/women might yet be forgiven for manipulation. When we consider the huge number of men who died in the trench warfare of the First World War, we have to ask if their leaders could have been more inventive and wily and have had a better regard for the lives of their men.

    Outside of military action, we are all manipulated every day as we read articles that have been carefully crafted to cause reactions from people we may not even be aware of. Does an advertiser promoting a product, manipulate us to buy it or motivate us to work harder to be able to afford it?

    Great question Don. I will be interested to read other comments.

    • Angela, as always, you share significant thoughts. The battle field is, indeed, a unique environment. You also mention that all of us are constantly exposed to manipulation through marketing and PR. From a leader’s perspective, I think integrity is the highest calling. Don

      • I agree that integrity is the highest calling and that, eventually, this general would have lost the trust of his men. The person to whom he revealed the two headed coin would either copy him or rebel against such trickery.However, a leader who does not value the life of his soldiers has no compassion. Jesus broke all sorts of rules to show compassion including healing on the Sabbath. I am mindful of lost lives as we remember the 100th anniversary of the First World War this coming November.

  9. I’d love to know “the rest of the story.” My prediction would be that this leader’s lack of integrity would cause an ultimate downfall. Certainly it’s hard to evaluate a leader based on one story. Did he learn from his poor leadership down the road and grow from this or was this just one more example of a leader without character? I think the integrity or lack of integrity in a leader’s life will rise to the top and is usually ultimately discovered and revealed. The Law of the Harvest comes to mind…
    – We reap WHAT we sow.
    – We reap LATER than we sow.
    – We reap MORE than we sow.
    Thanks for always provoking thoughtful dialogue Don. I value our friendship.

    • Thanks, Randy, for sharing your thoughts. The fact that the general had the trick coin in his possession indicates that his deception was premeditated and probably part of his modus operandi. Don

  10. A good general doesn’t have to lie or deceive. He just needs to say we are going to ‘wup en’ and if the men trust him and follow him, they will. — A former soldier

  11. Very interesting story and some good comments. This doesn’t answer the proposed question, but I thought of a little different take or spin on the story regarding the confidence and “victorious” outcome.
    This story reminded me of a coach i had that would read this poem before every game.
    If you think you are beaten, you are; If you think you dare not, you don’t. If you’d like to win, but you think you can’t, It is almost a cinch- you won’t. If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost; For out in this world we find Success begins with a fellow’s will; It’s all in the state of mind. If you think you’re outclassed, you are; You’ve got to think high to rise. You’ve got to be sure of yourself before You can ever win the prize. Life’s battles don’t always go To the stronger or faster man; But sooner or later the man who wins Is the one who thinks he can!
    Although I believe to a certain degree, that your state of mind can have an effect, my experience has shown that depending on the outcome of situations, events or sporting events, people apply faulty causation.

    • Robert, thanks for taking the time to write. I like the poem your coach quoted; it speaks of pure inner motivation, determination, work ethic, and more. Don