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Vol. 1, No. 9
(626) 791-8973


© 2003 By William A. Cohen, PhD ,  The Institute of Leader Arts,

The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but this is geometry, not leadership or strategy. It certainly isn’t necessarily the best strategy to take to reach your goal when facing competition. There is also considerable evidence that it may not be the best way of leading others in many daily leadership situations either.


The Great Strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart 

Basil H. Liddell Hart was one of the leading strategists of the 20th century. Some would go further and say that he was the greatest strategist. Liddell Hart spent a lifetime studying the strategy of war and wrote numerous books on his analysis of the subject. Leading practitioners on both sides of many conflicts acknowledged his contribution to their successes and his fellow theorists from many countries recognized and acclaimed his brilliance.

          The central theme of all of Liddell Hart’s work was that of the primacy of the indirect approach to achieving goals.  Liddell Hart concluded that the indirect approach was a law of life in all spheres and a truth of philosophy. He went on to show that in all areas of life related to the influence of mind on mind, direct confrontation only encountered, and in some cases actually provoked, a stronger and more stubborn resistance. However, resistance could be diminished, and thus success was far more likely, if an approach were taken which avoided the areas of strongest resistance. In most cases in strategy, what this means is sidestepping where the competition is the strongest and making your approach where he is weaker. In leadership it means that except in cases where time is critical and you must give an, an indirect method of leading may get far better results. We’ll talk about use of the indirect approach in strategy first, and then look at leadership.


How to Apply the Indirect Approach

To use the indirect approach in strategy, look for these situations:

  1. You can take a certain action, but a competitor cannot
  2. A competitor cannot easily duplicate your actions
  3. Your intentions won’t be known, or they will be perceived as unimportant until it is too late
  4. Whatever happens, you will have the advantage


The Indirect Approach Applied to a Strategy for Romance 

 Some years ago while conducting research into strategy, I heard a story during an interview which tended to confirm Liddell Hart’s contention that the indirect approach was the basis of successful strategy in all human endeavors involving mind-to-mind confrontation — and it illustrates the points I want to make about situations to look for.

An executive had competed for his wife with another suitor. Alas, the other suitor was wealthier and was able to take this young woman on dates more often and to better places than this man could afford.

Rather than go head-on in a competition he knew he could not win, this man took the indirect approach by signing up for a community college real estate course that he knew the woman he was interested in was also taking. Because of his rival’s schedule, his competitor could not take the same course. Sitting next to this woman in class, and taking her home after class enabled him to spend a lot more time with her at no additional cost. “It only took one semester,” he said, “and we were engaged.” Demonstrated:  the power of the indirect approach.

Of course, there are numerous situations like this in business. Remember Avis famous advertisement slogan “We try harder?” The reason given was that Avis must try harder because it was not the number one car rental agency.  That honor belonged to Hertz. That put Hertz in a bind.  How could Hertz, number one in the rental car industry and all-powerful in that industry, counter Avis’ slogan? Avis found a way to avoid the direct approach of competing as the biggest in the business. Instead, Avis actually made the number two position the best position to be in because all from that position, presumably, would one try harder. Hertz could not say “We’re number two.” In fact, there wasn’t much Hertz could say.


Leadership and the Indirect Approach

One of Aesop’s fables is a story about an argument that the sun and the wind had as to which was the strongest. The wind noticed a man walking along wearing a coat. He challenged the sun. “I am the stronger, and to prove it, I’ll bet I can get the man to remove his coat before you can” The sun accepted the bet. The wind blew and blew. But the more the wind blew, the tighter the man held on to his coat. The wind increased its power to hurricane force, but still the man held on to his coat. Finally, the wind gave up. The sun went on an entirely different tack. It merely shined down warmly on the man. After a little while, the man removed the coat on his own. 

    Aesop’s fable is a pretty good example of the indirect approach. The idea is to get people to do things because they, and not you, want it so. This has a number of very important advantages:

  • The individual led feels what you want done is as much his idea as yours and will work harder to attain it
  • Even in organizations that have been instilled with the idea of “instant and unquestioned obedience at all times” you will encourage rather than cut off creative ideas in the individual you are leading
  • You will avoid the syndrome where the follower feels you are just proving your power, which always sets up negative reactions


Donald Trump’s Example

Donald Trump tells the story of how the manager of the Grand Hyatt was successful with him by using the indirect approach. 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.

             The new manager was a lot smarter. 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.”1

             Many military posts and bases require inspection of the family housing areas weekly to insure that the lawns are being cut and the grounds cared for. But General George Marshal, Chief of Staff of the Army during World War II, and later Secretary of State had a better way. According to Mrs. Marshal, then Colonel Marshal took command of a shabby and uncared for post and got it fixed up without a single word of criticism. Colonel Marshal industriously cleaned and trimmed his own grounds, cut the lawn, and planted flowers. Before long, everyone on the post was out working on their own grounds, and the whole post flourished. That’s the indirect approach! 2

             When I was a high school student, I met my the grandfather of my boyhood friend, Ted Wells. Ted Wells’ grandfather was a retired major general. One evening I was sitting next to the general and watching a basketball game. Having just finished eating a hotdog, I let my used paper napkin fall on the bleachers. For a minute, the general didn’t say anything. Then, very gently he said, “You know, Bill, I hate to leave any trash on the bleachers. It sets such a poor example for the children.”

             Needless to say, I fell over myself picking up that napkin. The general well understood the indirect approach.

             There is an old line that goes,” You can tell a fighter pilot, but you can’t tell him much.” I’ve also heard the expression applied to other groups in and out of the military. Fighter pilots and these others aren’t the only ones that don’t like to be told what to do. The truth, is no one does. This means that you should use the indirect approach whenever possible.

             To use the indirect approach, look for opportunities to get people to do things without telling them to do it directly. Look for a way that doesn’t hurt the pride or self respect of those you lead.

             One way to do this is simply to present the facts of the situation and let those you lead come to the obvious conclusion. When they do, given them the credit for the idea.

             Another way is to be courteous in giving orders. “Betty, we’re going to have a division meeting at eleven o’clock. Would you please notify the department managers?” That’s usually better than, “Get the department managers to my office at eleven o’clock!”

             Sometimes, you can give an order by turning it into a request. “George, don’t you think you can get the move made by Monday?”

             The indirect approach is based on suggestion. When using suggestion, keep these facts in mind: 3

  •   You must have the attention of the individual you are trying to influence. There must be an absence of conflicting ideas and distractions. If you don’t have this attention, you may not be able to use the indirect approach.
  •   The more personal prestige you have due to position, birth, money, accomplishment etc. the greater the strength of your suggestion. However, even the fact that you are a leader gives your suggestion some strength.
  • The closer you are socially to the person you are trying to influence, the stronger the strength of your suggestion. But social closeness isn’t essential for using the indirect approach. It just means that it could make it easier to use the indirect approach in a specific instance.
  •   Repetition of a suggestion increases its strength. Once you get someone to do something through the indirect approach, it will be more  and more difficult for them to stop. For example, once others emulated then Colonel Marshall taking care of their grounds, it would be increasingly difficult for the to stop.
  •   Positive suggestions are more effective than negative suggestions. You can use the indirect approach to get people to do things, or to get people to stop doing things. But it is easier to use the indirect approach to get the to do things.  

     Of course when there are emergencies, or time is short, the indirect approach may not be your best option for leading, and the situation may demand a direct approach in strategy. However, in many more instances, the indirect approach will make it a lot easier for you to achieve your goals.


1 Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (Warner Books: New York, 1987) p.140.

 2 Air Force Leadership, AFM 35-15 (Washington, D.C. D epartment of the Air Force, 1948). p.45.

 3 Ibid. pp. 76