When you’re negotiating, be smart and act stupid.

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, but my pride never lets me accept it. Ego-gratification always ends up taking precedence over financial gain.

This is semi-good career counsel too. When you try to prove you’re smarter than your organizational superiors (superior in position only, of course), one of two things will happen – both bad:

1. You succeed. By both being smarter and spending your energy proving it, you’ve made yourself dangerous.

2. You fail. You’re not executive material – you just don’t measure up.

Keep your ego out of it. When you disagree, you aren’t right and your boss isn’t wrong. You’re discussing and reconciling alternatives, to help fine-tune the program. In the end, your initiative and skill have to advance your boss’s decisions, not your own. This is called “followership” and it’s a valuable and valued skill.

You may be getting peeved, thinking I’m recommending toadyism. Think again. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I’m just giving a practical example of how the workplace punishes sinfulness.

Many readers took similar exception to an earlier column, which pointed out that the ethics of power lead to complications beyond commonplace, day-to-day morality. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and that’s all there is too it, complained some of these readers. Regardless of what I actually said, grumbled others, my column encouraged unethical behavior among the powerful.

Notes from readers and messages posted on the InfoWorld Electric forum on the subject, brought several points into sharper focus:

1. The Edge of the Slippery Slope: Politicians used to gain power to advance their programs. Bad enough, but as campaigning has become marketing, politicians now adjust their programs to gain power. This distinction – gaining power to achieve worthwhile ends vs attaching yourself to whatever ends will gain you power, define (for me) the edge of an ethical precipice. When you’re playing the power game, ask yourself this question on a regular basis: “What am I trying to achieve, and if I achieve it, will I approve of the result?”

2. Means and Ends: The ends, we’re told as children, never justify the means. This guidance provides a useful touchstone … for children. Adults, especially those with some power (and that includes everyone in management) need to apply a more sophisticated calculation.

Every action (the means) has both an immediate consequence, consequences intended to achieve a goal (the end), and unintentional effects as well (side effects). Defining the ethics of an action by its immediate consequence alone is naive – the ethical content of an action must be measured through a complex calculus that takes into account all of its consequences.

You’ve heard this before: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

3. Gut Feeling: Should you trust your instincts when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong? Probably not. Huck Finn pointed this out: “If I had a yaller dog with no more sense than a man’s conscience, I’d shoot him.”

Your gut feelings come from how your mother raised you, and Mom didn’t explain the choices I’d have to make as a manager. An anecdote to illustrate the point:

Several years ago, one of my staff had to insist that a vendor replace a project manager on an installation. Our complaint ended up getting the project manager fired. My staff felt understandably bad about the impact on this guy.

Here was my response: “You knew the guy who got fired. A total stranger now has an opportunity. Your knowing someone personally doesn’t make him or her more deserving.”

After reading the earlier column, my friend Steve Nazian reminded me of a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, who recommended: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

Proving, once again, the value of science fiction to your career.

My stock broker, who handles my vast (okay, half-vast) investment portfolio, recently changed companies. In response, his employer threatened to sue him if he asked any clients to move with him.

Their tactics were futile. While their communications with my broker were extensive, they neglected to contact me with the identity of my new broker, or even to let me know they valued my business. So I took my business elsewhere.

Several software companies have also tried to use the courts to protect their markets. Apple, Ashton-Tate, Lotus Development, to name a few of the higher-profile cases, have sued competitors for using their intellectual property. All of them lost.

“Hey, wait a minute,” you’re probably saying. “Lotus won some of those lawsuits!”

I wasn’t talking about how the lawsuits came out. I’m talking about the marketplace. Here’s a fact: every company that’s spent its corporate resources defending intellectual property has given up the future of its franchise in the bargain.

This came to me as I sorted through the e-mails and InfoWorld Electric Forum postings responding to my column describing Bill Gates as a revolutionary. (I suggested that he, alone in the industry except for the largely ineffectual Apple Computer, is focused on empowering the end-user – often at the expense of manageability of the desktop.)

The relatively scarce agreement came from end-users who feel stifled by central IS and want to use their computers as they choose. Disagreement came in several forms, most stemming from a misunderstanding over what it means to be a revolutionary.

Some readers objected to Gates-as-revolutionary because of his reprehensible tactics in the marketplace. Here’s a news flash: very few successful revolutionaries have emphasized ethical behavior. Successful revolutionaries tend to be ends-justify-means kinds of people.

I didn’t say Gates is a Good Guy. I don’t hang out in his circles, so I can’t comment. I don’t personally like some of Microsoft’s market tactics either. That’s my privilege, and theirs. I just said Gates sports some characteristics of a revolutionary, that’s all. (To those comparing Bill Gates to Stalin and Hitler: the former dominates a few software markets. The latter murdered millions. Big difference.)

And give Chairman Bill credit: unlike many of Microsoft’s competitors, it wins in the marketplace, not in the courts. The courts are for status-quo people trying to keep other companies down-and-out. The market is the PC revolution’s battlefield, where companies compete for the hearts and minds of customers.

Other readers objected to my calling Gates a revolutionary because he hasn’t come up with any new ideas of his own, instead repackaging the innovations of others.

True enough. Bill Gates has spent his career recognizing good ideas, turning them into products, and successfully marketing them. Successful political revolutionaries have similar histories. Washington led the army; John Locke theorized about democracy before him. Lenin, Mao Tse-Dong and Castro led successful revolutions; Karl Marx theorized about communism before they used his theories to justify their revolutions.

Revolutionaries aren’t inventors. They’re not theoreticians. They’re not pioneers. Those are other people. They’re important people. They just aren’t revolutionaries.

Microsoft has, at times, innovated. More often, it’s used whatever good ideas it can find, integrating them and packaging them to its advantage. That’s not cheating. That’s smart.

Let’s relate this to your own management style. Do you insist on using only those good ideas you’ve developed on your own?

Suggestion: List the dozen most important initiatives you’ve personally promoted in your management career. Mark each one as (a) an idea you thought of yourself; (b) a recommendation from someone who reports to you; or (c) an idea you encountered from outside your organization and appropriated for your own use.

If at least a third of the items didn’t come from outside, you need to rethink your approach. Your job is to find and sponsor good ideas, not to generate them all.