In one of Keith Laumer’s novels, interstellar diplomat Retief spoke with a local chieftain on a problem planet. During the conversation the chieftain ascribes part of his negotiating position to his “charming naivete”.

“Chief,” responded Retief, “you don’t have enough naivete to last until lunch.”

Judging from the e-mail I’ve received since giving Microsoft credit for winning the office suite wars, there’s enough naivete in our business to last all day. (See “Office suites: Do you have a choice?” June 1.)

My exact words were, “And Microsoft won this one in a fair fight, by betting on Windows when WordPerfect bet on OS/2 and Lotus bet on its lawyers.” It’s remarkable how few people disagreed.

That is, few readers said, “I disagree with your interpretation.” Instead they told me I was practicing a disgusting form of revisionist history, that I was entirely ignorant and lacked historical perspective, and that I was a sycophant who lacked any sense of ethics.

And I thought you already knew I was a journalist.

Since this is a column about succeeding in IS management, here’s a suggestion you can use on a daily basis: Give credit for honest disagreement. When you demonize everyone who disagrees with you, you sound like a member of Congress. Bad career move.

Microsoft has adopted the popular philosophy that business is war. In war, guile and deception have been recognized as legitimate tactics for thousands of years. Reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is as important for winning in competitive markets as Machiavelli is for surviving office politics. I recommend it.

Sure, Microsoft recommended developing for OS/2 to Lotus and WordPerfect back in the 1980s. Microsoft either deceived them or changed its mind after its OS/2 development partnership with IBM fell apart, but the 1980s, non-monopoly Microsoft wasn’t under oath and wasn’t required to tell the truth in either case.

Lotus and WordPerfect gave away their franchises through stupidity. CEOs don’t get their ridiculous salaries to accept a competitors’ public relations at face value, any more than a highly ranked military officer should be taken in by a noisy flank attack.

While Microsoft had a top-quality word processor and spreadsheet to sell with Windows 2.0, 1-2-3 for Windows was surpassed by both Excel and Quattro Pro. Lotus never even bothered to create a word processor – it eventually bought the nearly unknown Ami Pro to throw in a box with 1-2-3.

WordPerfect’s first Windows version came out far too late and its office suite even later, cobbled together out of spare parts since WordPerfect never bothered to create a decent spreadsheet.

Yes, Microsoft has its hidden APIs. Yes, they probably make a small difference in overall product quality. Since product quality has almost nothing to do with either mind share or market share, though, you’re left with an important question: So what?

Let’s take this personal. You’re in a leadership position, which means some of your peers may be ethically challenged. They’re your organizational rivals, too, and with organizational rivals promotions are a win/lose proposition, budget fights are a win/lose proposition, and staffing contests are a win/lose proposition too.

Imagine one of your rivals tries to mislead you, perhaps encouraging a foolhardy risk. Is trust your best course of action?

Not if you want your career to advance. Not if you want your department to get enough funding to succeed next year. Not if you want to hire enough staff to get the job done, either.

Never mind selfish considerations. Your staff counts on you to get them promotions, resources, and quality team members. You aren’t paid for your charming naivete, any more than were the dear, departed leaders of WordPerfect and Lotus.

Microsoft won in a fair fight, with fair defined by what’s allowed in the world of commerce. It won by being smarter than its competitors.

You have to adhere to your own sense of ethics. Your rivals don’t, though, and assuming they do doesn’t make you honorable. It makes you lose.

When I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the Cubs shaped (warped?) my character every summer.

The team, needless to say, was awful, but we had our great players: Sweet swingin’ Billy Williams, pizza-sellin’ Ron Santo, and, more than anyone else, Ernie Banks, who was the perfect athlete hero for young kids. He was a great player (“Just think how good he’d be if he got to bat against Cub pitchers!” we’d exclaim to each other), he loved playing the game, and he was perennially optimistic and cheerful.

Whenever Jack Brickhouse interviewed Ernie Banks before a game, Ernie would say, “It’s another great day for baseball at beautiful Wrigley Field!” And at the end of every season, Ernie would say, “Next year will be a great season for the Cubs!”

Ernie was a wonderful ball player. I don’t think he’d have made a great executive, though. If I’ve seen one character trait that, more than any other, differentiates truly great executives from the rest of the population, it’s their refusal to let emotions blind them to reality.

Here’s a reality many of us are unwilling to face, but that every successful communicator knows: Your message must be aimed primarily at your audience’s emotions, and only slightly to the intellect. Otherwise, your audience will lose interest and won’t absorb your message.

Sales professionals live and die on this insight. Pretending the world is otherwise, or being unwilling to play the game to win, simply means you don’t belong in sales. (If you’re wondering, I’m not capable of it, and I got my coccyx out of the sales profession just a few months after entering it for that exact reason.) If you deny the validity of this insight into your own decision-making, you’re vulnerable to every sales shyster who learns how to yank your chain.

OK, brace yourself. Here’s an earlier version of the same advice, along with its authoritative source:

“Propaganda’s effect must be aimed primarily at nonintellectual elements of the mind and only, to a limited extent, at the rational intellect. We must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public.” – Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

No, this doesn’t mean the sales representatives you deal with are Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, or Nazi dupes. It means they’re willing to embrace the realities of their profession, including tactics their competitors will use against them – even if Hitler explained those tactics in Mein Kampf.

How do you deal with uncomfortable realities? Hitler’s actions were horrifying. His effectiveness, though, was unquestionable, and that means you can’t just write off his insights into human behavior as psychotic ravings.

My friend Curtis Sahakian has written a white paper on this subject, titled “Business Application of Propaganda” (The Corporate Partnering Institute, Skokie, IL). It’s practically an inventory of human frailty. By reading it you’ll learn (among other facts) that people:

  • Change their beliefs more easily than their behavior;
  • Filter out messages that conflict with their beliefs;
  • Are strongly influenced by name-calling and innuendo;
  • Have a strong predisposition to perceive patterns in random events; and
  • Will do more out of fear, or to avoid pain, than for any other source of motivation.

Am I advocating unethical behavior by telling you these facts? Are you being unethical by learning them? If you learn the rules of propaganda and use them to your advantage, is that unethical, or are the ethics determined by the consequences of your actions?

I can answer only the first two questions with certainty: No, I’m not advocating unethical behavior by presenting these facts, and no, you aren’t displaying poor ethics by learning them.

Naïveté doesn’t make you ethical. It just makes you an easy victim.