Leadership drives intelligent, wise change. Change is about people and behaviors. Therefore, leaders must be skilled in influence and persuasion. Influence and persuasion are often centered on status quo vs. possible future state discussions.
Weak and manipulative leaders try persuasion through straw man arguments. A straw man approach calls attention to something you covertly substituted into your opponent’s argument, which he didn’t say. You knock down that straw man, giving the impression you defeated the argument, when in fact you didn’t address the original argument at all. This is frequently observed when the value of the appearance of vanquishing an opponent is far greater than critical thinking about complex issues.
Strong, confident leaders know this truth: “We are not sure we are right until we have made the best case possible for those who are wrong.” (Lord Acton) The most persuasive leaders will articulate the “other side” arguments even better than they do – and then explain point by point why an alternative approach is better. This is called the steel man approach.
The steel man approach is especially helpful for major changes with significant consequences. You want to bring people along with you when your organization faces a “no going back” irreversible decision. Therefore, you must be articulate about all options. One of the best outcomes of the steel man approach is that people will respect you even if they don’t always agree with your decisions.
Some historical examples:
- Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by articulating the Pope’s arguments for indulgences and other practices, then demonstrating why they were illogical and inconsistent with the Bible.
- Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” broke through historic dogmas because he used the steel man approach. He laid out the case for alternative explanations of different species far better than others had done, and then systematically showed why those explanations were inferior to evolution.
- Karl Marx brilliantly documented the inherent consequences of capitalism in “Das Kapital” by partially using a steel man approach – though 100+ million dead demonstrate his recommended alternative proved disastrous.
- Law schools in England and the US (until the mid-20th century) used the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans as the archetypical ancient legal brief. Paul effectively used the steel man approach to make the case for Christianity rather than the pantheon of Roman gods and traditional understanding of how “the divine” interacted with men.
Develop your leadership capability by making the case for both “sides” or “next actions.” Discipline yourself to articulate ideas and strategies (especially if you think they’re dumb). You can practice this even in situations where you aren’t making the decision.
This practice work will be truly helpful when you are put to the leadership test. Straw man arguments go down badly in history.