Magic and illusion: Foundation for leadership

Aspiring leaders typically concentrate on history and case studies, creating theories of success and failure in their disciplines.  This is fine but won’t produce great practitioners in either war or business. As the German General Hermann Balck once told Boyd, “The training of the infantryman can never be too many sided.”  Miyamoto Musashi in 1645 wrote that samurai (much less top-level commanders) should study the arts and sciences and master fields other than their own. And this was just to keep them from getting hacked to bits. And then there’s Steve Jobs with his famous calligraphy course and Zen training.

Deception, ambiguity, and the interplay between the expected and unexpected (cheng / chi) form such key foundations to Boyd’s concept of conflict that it’s worth studying them in some detail, and not just in a military context.  To understand their essence, we must look for them across, as Boyd used to put it, “multiple domains.”


Some of Boyd’s domains

Here, for example, is the British mentalist Derren Brown explaining how he uses cheng / chi in his stage shows.*  First, he asks for a volunteer from the audience:

When Brown puts audience members into a trance, he often starts by introducing himself and then withdrawing his hand when they reach out to shake it.  “They’re coming up onstage and they’re already a little bit baffled, looking for direction from me, and then when you drop something that’s very automatic, like a handshake, it throws them into disarray,”

At that point, Brown can lead them where he wants them to go, much in the manner of Sun Tzu (“shape them”) or Musashi (“commander leads the enemy troops”).

If you’re going to master leadership, you might develop Fingerspitzengefühl for ways to get other people to do what you want, “manipulation techniques,” as the subtitle to the article on Brown calls them. Here are a few domains you could explore:

  • Stage magic, and the science of illusion (so you might study optical illusions, too)
  • Mentalism** (sometimes simplified to “mind reading”); also fortune telling
  • Acting (e.g., Patton’s famous scowl)Patton
  • Rhetoric, and its cousin
  • Propaganda
  • Sales, particularly closing strategies & techniques (“Would you like it in red?”)
  • Elicitation methods, particularly those designed to get people to want to tell you what they probably shouldn’t
  • Gambling

Gambling?  Well, remember the old saying, that professional gamblers don’t play the cards, they play the other players.

*Adam Green, “How Derren Brown Remade Mind Reading for Skeptics. The mentalist’s manipulation techniques give people too sophisticated to believe in the paranormal something quasi-scientific to hang on to.” The New Yorker, September 30, 2019.  May be firewalled on the New Yorker site, but if you subscribe to Apple News+, you can read it here:

**In addition to the TV series The Mentalist (2008 – 2015), you might enjoy John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard (2008), loosely based on the contemporary American mentalist, The Amazing Kreskin.

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