by Major Juan Remy
This article is not about defining or expanding on what leadership is or is not. Instead, it portrays or discusses the gray areas of leadership, where leaders might be confused or unaware of their behaviors. These gray areas exist as leaders use self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion to obtain a favorable outcome within their environment or organization. The article elaborates on relationships between leadership within ambiguous situations, as leaders can frankly and transparently use self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion to benefit their organization. Leaders use these characteristics unconsciously to achieve success, get results, and accomplish the mission.
In general, we avoid talking about self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion in leadership concepts because they are viewed as negative aspects of leadership value. However, leaders must understand and recognize self-deception in others and themselves, learn how to manipulate their environment, and persuade others to achieve their organizations’ goals or missions. Have you worked for someone you considered a leader, or have you been a leader yourself? In that case, you will relate to the rest of the article because, at one time or another, you had to use self-deception, manipulation, or persuasion techniques to get results.
There are many definitions of leadership; they all include great words, paradigms, concepts, and philosophies. The Department of the Army defines leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (DA Pamphlet 350–58, 2013).
In his book, “Understanding Leadership,” Gayle Avery (2004) stated that no one should think that there is one definition of leadership because leadership is a very complex concept. In his view, 1) leadership is not easy to understand without studying how people think, 2) people understand leadership from their perspectives and culture, 3) there are many myths about leadership that make it very hard to achieve, and 4) leadership is not a one-person show. From the Army’s definition and Avery’s explanation, this article tries to apply self-deception and manipulation as leadership characteristics that are sometimes required for success (Avery, 2004).
Imagine you are a leader of an organization, and things are not going the way you envisioned. However, for your superior, the organization is improving. You have two choices: 1) Keep trying to change things to be your way or 2) Accept things the way they are, even if you disagree with them. Which option makes you an effective leader? You must have some influence on your subordinates to lead. In this situation, it might be a sign that creativity is coming from your subordinates, opposite to your desires. What can leaders do to act like they are in control of that organization and be part of the success? What can they do to feel comfortable about allowing creative solutions from subordinates? Self-deception could be the first option. However, can you apply it positively in a leadership role?
From the Merriam Webster dictionary (2020), the basic definition of self-deception is “the act of making oneself believe something that is not true.”
In “Leadership and Self-Deception, Getting Out of The Box,” the Arbinger Institute (2010) defines self-deception as when someone cannot identify the real roots of problems that obstruct their views to the possible solution. The institute explains that self-deception is like a box. When you are in it, it prevents you from seeing the real roots of challenges. While in the box, some see themselves as a victim of others’ actions. They perceive those outside the box as the cause of their problem. To get out of the box, the institute recommends that processes need to be created to identify when people are in the box. Qualitative and quantitative methods must be applied with the focus on keeping people out of the box, therefore preventing self-deception (Arbinger, 2010).
This approach works when someone becomes aware of their self-deception and wants to get out of it. What about when people are fully aware of their self-deception and want to stay that way and use it beneficially instead? From research conducted by Judy, Gray, and Lain Densten (2007), there is proof that balanced leaders who used self-deception attained success by not paying attention to inconsequential criticism. It allowed them to have a better attitude about themselves and stay confident. Leaders can use self-deception to conceal their weaknesses, prejudices, and convictions in front of subordinates and still show confidence in their ability to lead. They define self-deception as a tendency that promotes a self-positive appearance and does not change when leaders receive new assessments (Gray and Densten, 2007).
We encounter examples like these daily.
First, a specialist in the United States (US) Army, whose performance has been exemplary, is recommended to compete at the next promotion board to Sergeant. Every leader thinks the soldier is a competent candidate. However, there is a problem; the soldier considers himself racist and believes that he must deceive himself about what he thinks the truth is about other races than his if promoted. During a conversation, the soldier affirms to his superior that he wanted to serve his country as his grandfather did in World War II. However, he knew that there could be no segregation in the Army from the day he joined, contrary to his grandfather’s time. He said it was one thing to work with African Americans, but another to be responsible for their welfare, development, and advancement. His superior told him not to worry and learn to live with that, which is self-deception.
Now, fast-forward 14 years, the soldier is a Sergeant First Class (SFC) and still considers himself racist. Nevertheless, self-deception allowed him to conceal his feelings about African Americans every day to influence, motivate, and guide his African American subordinates. We could argue that the soldier had time to self-reflect and change his views about African Americans over the years. But, he reaffirms that he would still favor segregation if he had the choice. The SFC uses self-deception to serve his country and lead soldiers throughout his career and many deployments.
A second example: a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC), the battalion commander of a unit, works closely with his Command Sergeant Major (CSM), who is openly gay. However, the LTC is homophobic. Nevertheless, he uses self-deception to lead and share a vision for the organization with his CSM support. The battalion is very successful. In both situations, the SFC and LTC have deceived themselves into putting their organizations’ success before their beliefs.
I agree with the Arbinger institute findings. We should focus on helping everyone identify when they are in the box, help them get out, and stay out of it. What should we do when people, consciously, do not want to get out of the box. Should we make them aware of how to use self-deception in a positive way to lead when they do not want to change their convictions? Some of us will refute or deny extremist groups’ motives, but they can influence and provide motivation to people directly or indirectly. Many will argue that they manipulate, not influence. Then, when do leaders exert influence or manipulation? That brings us to the topic of manipulation over influence.
What is manipulation, and why does it sound negative from a leadership standpoint? From Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus dictionary (2010), the basic definition of manipulating is “to control or take advantage of by the artful, unfair, insidious means.”
We could argue that there are instances where leaders will use manipulation to complete a mission, get others to do what they want them to do, or shape an environment to benefit their organization. The bottom line of most concepts about leadership is “How-to.” On the “how-to,” their recommendations revolve around how leaders can make people do what they want them to do and how to convince themselves that everything they do somehow influences others.
There is a “How to” conform to subordinates’ or organizations’ norms to achieve success from leadership concepts. The “how-to” corresponds to the influencing part in the leadership definition used by the Army. Now, let’s replace the word influencing in the description with manipulating. It will sound like this: Leadership is the process of manipulating people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. Influencing can be achieved by giving people direction while letting them choose which one to take.
Manipulating sounds like giving people a direction and finding a way to make them believe that this is the best and only way to take. So, if leaders must use manipulative techniques on people and their environment to accomplish a mission from their perspectives, why would that be perceived as negative? For instance, in Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0 (2012), the Army encourages commanders to write their own Commander’s Intent clearly and concisely with a specific purpose, key tasks, and endstate influence the planning process.
That sounds like telling subordinates exactly why, how, and which direction you want them to go without leaving them too many choices. Why is that influencing and not manipulating? They are applying an artful and deceptive way to tell subordinates precisely what they want them to do and get results.
Let’s look at battalion commanders (BN CDR) seeking approval for a new concept of operations from their brigade commander (BDE CDR). To overcome the resistance or disapproval they anticipate from their boss, they manipulate the situation and their boss by getting buy-ins from the Deputy Commander (DCO), the Command Sergeant Major (CSM), and the Chief of staff (CoS). Are those cases of manipulation or influence? Some will argue the leaders were building consensus or shaping their environment and not manipulating. But, it will depend on who is arguing. Maybe the difference between influence and manipulation must be emphasized to leaders in the military to understand when to use them accordingly and persuade others.
Persuasion is an integral part of leadership because it is ultimately the goal of influencing. A leader achieves success when he can convince superiors, peers, and subordinates to change or reinforce their opinions freely about something. Richard Perloff defines persuasion as “the symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice” (Perloff, 2014)
With that definition in mind, if a leader persuades by implementing expectations, persuasion, or coercion is because the element of free will is present. Still, the expectation reduces or eliminates, for some, the ability to do what they want.
For example, leaders use terms such as “highly recommended” and “you are expected” to have subordinates attend military functions when they are not mandatory. Is that persuasion or coercion, even when the leader explains the value of attending those gatherings? Persuasion and coercion can be ambiguous to people. Strong-minded individuals will use their free will and accept the consequences of their decisions. However, weak-minded individuals can be manipulated or coerced to do things against their opinions or feelings.
The definitions and perceptions about self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion can be argued from different opinions or perspectives. They represent the gray-areas in leadership that need to be discussed among leaders to foster a thought-provoking and provocative discussion on the subject and let them know that self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion are characteristics in leadership that need to be understood and appropriately used.
Leadership should not be defined with specific words or terms because they create confusion in its application. I agree that it depends on how, when, and where people perceive leadership. Maybe self-deception, manipulation, and persuasion can be introduced in all Professional Military Education (PME) curriculum to help leaders recognize when their subordinates or themselves are in the box and help them get out of it. Leaders must be aware that manipulation can be used when influencing is ineffective, and persuasion or coercion can be on the same continuum.
Leaders must recognize their self-deception and know that they can use it to accept norms they do not value or agree with. Identifying self-deception and the difference between manipulation, persuasion, and coercion in influencing people will help leaders identify the best process to affect their organizations and achieve success at different times.
Arbinger Institute. Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010.
Avery, Gayle, Andrew Bell, Martin Hilb, and Anne E. Witte. Understanding Leadership: Paradigms and Cases. London: SAGE, 2004.
Gray, J H and Densten, I L (2007) How Leaders Woo Followers in the Romance of Leadership. Applied Psychology, 56 (4). Pp. 558-581. ISSN 0269-994X.
Kotter, John P. Power and Influence. New York: Free Press, 1985
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus. Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster, 2020.
Perloff, Richard M. The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century. New York: Routledge, 2014.
United States. DA PAM 350-58, 2013: Army Development Leader Program. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2013.
United States. ADRP 5-0 2012: The Operations Process. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2012.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 21, 2020.
Major Juan Remy (U.S. Army), is an Air Defense officer with 22 years of both enlisted and officer leadership experience. He has been married for 21 years, has three children, and is currently stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. His last assignment was at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) as an Observer Controller (OC). He earned a Bachelor of Science in liberal arts with a concentration in Psychology, a Master in Organizational Leadership Studies, a Master in Military Arts & Science (MMAS), and a Master of Science in Cybersecurity. MAJ Remy is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership. The views contained herein do not represent an official position of the U.S. Army, or the United States Government.