Duplicity must be decried when used to justify the attainment and exercise of power. However, sometimes, even principled leaders must put on an act to realize noble ends—infuse optimism to surmount hopelessness, win followers’ devotion to audacious new ideas, for example.

In the Zen parable that follows, a warrior motivates his followers in the face of desperate odds. He persuades his outnumbered army by flipping an unfair coin and proclaiming that they are fated to win the battle.

A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.

On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”

Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.

“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.

Idea for Impact: Moral Leadership Relates to the Integrity of Leaders and Their Intentions

A wise leader must be open to bringing deception into play to smooth the way to sound decisions and noble results.

As long as leaders use these methods to respectable purposes, and until people wise up to their methods, certain ends can justify certain means.

Postscript: The quoted Zen parable is sourced from the celebrated compilation Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, Shambhala Edition (1961) by Paul Reps. This book traces its roots to the thirteenth-century Japanese anthology of Buddhist parables Shasekishū (Sand and Pebbles) compiled by the Kamakura-era monk Mujū.

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