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Vol. 8, No. 9
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.


© 2010 William A. Cohen, PhD  

Adapted from  Heroic Leadership: Leading with Integrity and Honor (Jossey – Bass, 2010)


The indirection influence tool is a wonderful way to lead when your authority is limited in the situation, and those you want to lead may resist direction. However, it can also be used with great effectiveness when you have the authority to give direct orders, and others know it.


Children are Masters at Leading by Indirection

Do you have children? You know when they begin to be particularly nice, offer to do extra work, or tell you how well you look, watch out! You are about to be lead by the indirection influence tactic. Your children have no formal power in the family. As parents, the formal power is yours. But you are being led by the informal power of charm. Do you know where you are being led? You may not know, but you soon will. Chances are your son wants to borrow the car, or your daughter wants to go out on a date in the middle of the week. Or, it may be something else.


My 12-Year Old Son Gets A Computer, And It Wasn’t Even His Birthday

Nimrod is a Biblical name. In the Bible, Nimrod was the first hunter. In Vietnam, my squadron, which hunted trucks at night in North Vietnam and Laos, were called “The Nimrods.” So, I gave my son the name, although today he goes by “Nim.” When Nimrod was about twelve, he became very interested in computers. Neither my wife nor I owned one at the time, and they were expensive. Even a used Apple with laughable memory compared with today’s systems cost a lot of money. Nimrod talked about computers all the time. He got books and magazines and read about computers. He took a special course on computers given at summer school for older students. He wanted a computer . . . badly.  Nimrod started saving his money. But there isn’t lot twelve-year-olds can do to earn money. Even the paper routes of my youth, which was my way to cash, are generally no longer available. So, working every day after school, he started doing odd jobs going door to door. My wife and I calculated that at the rate he was going, it would take years for him to come up with the money. But he kept at it for several months, and continued eating, living, and breathing computers.


“Maybe we should just buy him one,” suggested my wife. “No way,” said I. “They cost too much money. He’ll earn enough eventually.” Yeah, right. One day, I walked into his room to find it spotlessly clean. Moreover, not only was everything in order, but a several tables had been set against the wall with nothing on them. A straight back chair was placed before the center table. “What’s this,” I inquired. Big mistake, that question. “It’s for my computer,” Nimrod answered. I turned around and left the room immediately. That afternoon, my wife and I got a “Recycler” newspaper that listed used items for sale. That evening, Nimrod had his computer. Note, he had never asked for one. But, Nimrod had led us where he wanted using the indirection tactic.


If our kids did this all the time, it probably wouldn’t work. Still, it’s amazing how often we do allow them to lead us this way even though we may know what’s happening. And so, Johnny gets to use the car and Sarah gets to go out Wednesday night even though we intended to encourage her to stay home and study.


When Washington Saved the Country with the Indirection Tactic 

After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army had not yet disbanded and Congress was slow in authorizing back pay. The righting of various other wrongs had been frequently promised by the Continental Congress, but never done. The Continental Army officers knew that George Washington, would never go along with seizing power from the civilian authority no matter how just the cause. They asked him anyway. They wanted to march on Congress, and give Washington the title of “Dictator.” This was wrong, it was treason, and he told them so, only they wouldn’t listen. Moreover, he was no longer their official commander, and so had no formal power over him.


They had a meeting to organize what amounted to a rebellion. Washington went. He hoped to dissuade them, and they actually let him speak. Washington spoke to these officers for more than an hour. Remember, these weren’t mercenaries or shirkers. Among them were many of the heroes of the revolution. Men like Alexander Hamilton, John Knox, and “Light Horse” Harry Lee all listened to Washington. Washington talked about why they had fought, what would happen should they rebel, and what Congress was trying to do. It was to no avail. Too many times before they had received promises from Congress only to see these promises broken. These officers were determined to take the law into their own hands!


Finally, Washington reached into his cloak and pulled out a pair of spectacles. No one had ever seen Washington with spectacles before. In the thinking of those days, it was the kind of physical weakness that commanders didn’t admit to. As he slowly put the glasses to his face, he said his final words to his former officers. “Gentlemen, I have grown old in your service and now I am growing blind.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Washington turned and left. At first there was only silence. Then, somebody said, “Oh what the heck. Maybe George is right. Let’s give Congress one more chance.” The rebellion, of course, never took place.


Washington’s officers didn’t know that he had worn spectacles for years. Even his closest aides didn’t know that he wore glasses. Washington judged that the loss of his vanity and the risk of his prestige in opposing this treason was a worthwhile price to pay for an America free from a military dictatorship. He used the indirection influence tool to get what he wanted after other influence tools failed.


How Quality Came to Japan

“The Father of Modern Management,” Peter Drucker spent years working and consulting with Japanese companies. Commenting on “Theory Z” back when it was thought this was the end-all solution to managing American companies, Drucker maintained that it wasn’t so much “quality circles” or some other unique technique used in Japan that changed the quality of Japanese goods. Rather, Deming, Juran, and others had made Japanese leaders aware of the problem. Japanese business leaders knew what had to be done and took the necessary actions regarding a focus on quality. This redirected the emphasis in their companies to a subject which had previously been ignored or thought unimportant. “Quality circles” and other techniques taught by Deming and Juran supported that effort.


This Man Taught Colin Powell How To Get Things Done in Government by Using Indirection

Fred Malek saw combat while in Vietnam in 1961 while a regular infantry lieutenant attached to the First Special Forces Group advising Vietnamese Ranger companies.[1] Then he left the Army, and put himself through the Harvard Business School selling encyclopedias. While still a young man, he rescued a failing company in South Carolina and became a multimillionaire by the age of thirty. Recruited by the Nixon White House, he served as Deputy Under Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Special Assistant to the President, and finally Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Then, he left government and joined the Marriott Corporation becoming President of the Marriott Hotels, President of Northwest Airlines, and Chairman of Thayer/ Hidden Creek, a private equity firm specializing in the lower middle market leveraged buyouts. Along the way, he helped elder President Bush serving in senior positions in both of his campaigns. Few have accomplished so much, or made so many contributions in so many fields.[2] [3]


But back in 1973, Fred had a problem. Appointed to the important position of Deputy Director of OMB, Fred was frustrated. Fred couldn’t get things done very quickly because of layers of career bureaucrats who occupied the key positions. Early on he spotted a White House Fellow who was an army major who seemed to know what he was doing. His name was Colin Powell. He made Powell his Executive Assistant.  I’ll let General Powell pick up the story. “Fred went about gaining control of the government in a way that opened the eyes of this fledgling student of power. . . . Fred started planting his own people in the key ‘assistant secretary for administration’ slots in major federal agencies. Let the cabinet officials make the speeches, cut the ribbons, and appear on Meet the Press. Anonymous assistant secretaries, loyal to Malek, would run operations day to day, and to the Nixon administration’s liking. . . . I learned much in Professor Malek’s graduate seminar.”[4]


However, bureaucrats already occupied many positions in OMB, and the budget couldn’t be increased for more positions for the young Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton graduates Fred wanted to bring in. So, he applied the indirection influence tool in a very creative way. Continued General Powell: “Thereafter, I started phoning agency officials, explaining that I was calling on behalf of Mr. Malek with good news. Their power was about to be broadened. A function currently being handled by OMB was going to be transferred to their agency . . . music to any bureaucrat’s ear.”[5] Then, Powell would go on to explain that the agency would get the function and the bodies, but not the position titles and funding. “‘We don’t have jobs for them. We haven’t budgeted funds for them.’ ‘Mr. Assistant Secretary,’ I would say, ‘Fred Malek has every confidence that between attrition and some imagination on your part, you will work something out.’ Soon the unwanted OMB bureaucrats were gone, their offices and titles freed up, and Malek’s young bloods moved in. Out of that experience emerged one of my rules: you don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”[6]


Treating Others with Respect Can be an Application of Indirection

Erick Laine, CEO of Alcas, Inc. manufacturers and markets some of the highest quality kitchen knives in the world under the brand name “Cutco.” One division once manufactured the K-bar knife, the official knife of the U.S. Marine Corps. Its sales have reached over $200 million a year. But when Laine took over as CEO in 1982, sales were only $5 million. That’s a 4000 percent increase in a field that older, established brands from Europe dominated. When Erick became CEO of Alcas, his manufacturing arm was in disarray. In a nine year period prior to his becoming boss, there wasn’t a single contract that was settled without a strike and there were no less than 270 outstanding grievances on the books!


Now Erick is tough. He was born in Finland, and in addition to integrity, his parents taught him something that doesn’t translate easily into English. The word in Finnish is “Sisu.” “Sisu” means a sort of stubborn persistence wrapped up with sheer guts. He knows what he is doing, and he is no pushover. But he truly cares about his people and he insists on treating them fairly.  So Laine met with his union in a spirit of openness and listened. And when the union was right, he acknowledged it. And when he thought they were full of bologna, he told them that, too. Over time, a strange thing happened. They proceeded to work problems through together. They’ve developed great trust, and when they have a problem, they work together to solve it.


This trust had other ramifications. For many years at Christmas time, a very unique thing happened at Erick’s plant. It  wasn’t mandated, and neither Erick nor any of his managers thought it up. No, this came from his workers and their union. It became a yearly tradition. The union leaders called him. They requested a meeting with him and the other owners. At the meeting, the union representatives presented cash to their management . . . money they have collected from the workers on a volunteer basis. How’s that for a switch? Erick always accepted the money on behalf of management, but then he always used the money to purchase something that would benefit the workers like, TV for the cafeteria or a large clock that could be seen by everyone in the production area . . . that type of thing.[7]


Now why do you think the workers and their union did this? Obviously they could have just collected the money and gone out and bought something themselves. Erick Laine didn’t tell me this, but I believe this informal ceremony during which Laine was presented with this money was a symbol of the trust between Alcas’ union and management, between the company leaders and their workers. Such an action is rare and unprecedented and is the kind of thing that Peter Drucker, would have applauded: labor and management working together for the good of the company, and ultimately for the good of society.


Donald Trump Recommends the Indirection Influence Tool

Donald Trump has become well known for The Apprentice on television, especially at the conclusion of a session “in the boardroom” when he leans forward, gestures dramatically, and tells one of the competitors, “you’re fired.”  That’s direction with a capital “D.” Yet Trump is a strong believer in use of the indirection influence tool. He tells the story of how the manager of the Grand Hyatt was successful in leading him by using the indirection tool after a predecessor had failed and was discharged.


Trump built the Grand Hyatt and still owned a fifty percent interest. The former manager couldn’t stand the interference of Trump and his wife. So, he complained to the head of the Hyatt Hotels. This got the manager himself replaced. His replacement was much more skilled at leadership and using the influence tools. According to Trump, “The new manager did something brilliant. He began to bombard us with trivia. He’d call up several times a week, and he’d say, ‘Donald, we want your approval to change the wallpaper on the fourteenth floor’ or ‘We want to introduce a new menu in one of the restaurants’ or ‘We are thinking of switching to a new laundry service.’ They’d also invite us to all of their management meetings. The guy went so far out of his way to solicit our opinions and involve us in the hotel that finally I said, ‘Leave me alone, do whatever you want, just don’t bother me.’ What he did was the perfect ploy, because he got what he wanted not by fighting but by being positive and friendly and solicitous.”[8] Did we say earlier that Heroic Leadership must sometimes be used to lead others at our level, or even our bosses? That was what my son did in gaining his computer, and that’s what this hotel manger did, and it is what you can do as well!


Writer James Clavell pointed out a similar incident his book, Tai-Pan. Clavell had been a professional soldier, had served in combat during World War II, and was a captain when a motorcycle accident ended his military career.[9] Tai-Pan was about the founder and head of a great British Trading Company in 19th century China.  The head of the company was known as the “Tai-Pan.” At the end of the book, the Tai-Pan is killed in a typhoon. His 18-year old son, with little experience or training, is suddenly thrust into major responsibilities as the company’s head. At first, he is shocked into silence. He doesn’t know what to say or do. His subordinates are standing around waiting for him to take charge and give first orders. There is a pause when none of the new Tai-pan’s senior managers say a word. Suddenly, the former Tai-Pan’s right-hand man, who is Chinese, turns to the new head of the firm and in a pleading voice asks: “Tai-Pan,Tai-Pan, what should we do?” This man had years of experience and could have instantly given the orders that needed to be given. However his deferring to the 18-year old shocked the young man into the realization that he was now in charge and ready or not, had to take over and assert his authority, which he did. This was a perfect example of leading a superior, and doing so using the indirection influence tool.


How a Navy Captain Made His Ship the Pacific Fleet  Best Ship

Mike Abrashoff’s amazing success in making the ship which he captained, the USS Benfold, the best in the Pacific Fleet resulted in several best selling books. A strong element in Abrashoff’s leadership was his use of the indirection influence tool. For example, he began writing letters to parents praising their sons when they did something worthy. On one occasion he wrote to both parents who had recently divorced. Two weeks later the young sailor reported to Abrashoff with tears streaming down his face.“What’s wrong?” Abrashoff asked.  “ ‘I just got a call from my father, who all my life told me I’m a failure. This time, he said he’d just read your letter, and he wanted to congratulate me and say how proud he was of me. It’s the first time in my entire life he’s actually encouraged me. Captain, I can’t thank you enough.’ My own tear ducts held, but I was very moved.”[10] Is it any wonder that the sailors on the USS Benfold wanted to performance at the highest levels? Yet what Captain Abrashoff did was to ask for this indirectly.




·        The indirection influence tool  works well in many situations because it shifts focus and control of the action desired from the leader to those led

·        The indirection influence tool can work wonders in leading others over those whom you have limited authority, but it also can work well when you do have the authority

·        To use the indirection influence tool, first decide what you want done, then decide on and take an action which will help those you lead understand your objective without your necessarily declaring it



[1] Malek, Frederic V., Letter to the Author, December 8, 1997.

[2] Malek, Frederic V., Telephone interview with the author January 21, 1998 and Fax January 22, 1998.

[3] No author listed, “Companies: Thayer/Hidden Creek, Business Week, Accessed at , February 13, 2009.

[4] Powell, Colin L., with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995) p. 167.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Laine, Erick, Telephone interview with the author, December 22, 1997.

[8] Donalt J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (Warner Books: New York, 1987) p. 140.

[9]No author listed, “James Clavell,” Wikipedia, Accessed at ,February 12, 2009

[10] Abrashoff, D. Michael, “Building Up Your People,” October 2004 · Volume 86 · Number Accessed at ,  February 14, 2009


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“The test we must set for ourselves is not to march alone but to march in such a way that others wish to join us.”

                                                                                                                                        –  Hubert Humphrey