Sunday, June 21, 2020

Devil’s Advocate

Musings of a Veteran

I am sure you have heard the term “Devil’s Advocate”.

The term “Devil’s Advocate” refers to a person who puts forth an unpopular opinion – expresses a contrarian view – or disputes an idea – just for the sake of argument.

I heard the term “Devil’s Advocate” around 43 years ago in the 1970’s during my first sea appointment.

During the customary monthly meeting with officers in the wardroom – while discussing a point – the Captain looked at me and said: “Well – what does my “Devil’s Advocate” have to say…?”

This was the first time I had heard the term “Devil’s Advocate”.

Those days I was an argumentative officer – a maverick – and I did not hesitate to speak my mind – irrespective of who was standing in front of me.

Sometimes – on professional and ethical issues – I would have heated arguments with my Captain too – and this made my Head of Department jittery – since he feared this would affect his ACR as I was in his department.

My Head of Department had warned me to keep my mouth shut during the monthly meeting – since he knew my strong views on the contentious issue that was on the agenda and was going to be discussed during the meeting.  

Normally – I would be quite vociferous at such meetings – so – maybe – the Captain was curious as to why I was strangely silent.

I candidly told the Captain that my Boss had warned me to keep my mouth shut.

The Captain smiled and said: “Come on – speak up – don’t worry about your boss – you just frankly tell me what you feel…”

“Sir – I don’t agree with what you have said – I have a contrarian opinion…” I said.

“That’s good…” the Captain said, “you are supposed to disagree with me – after all – you are my “Devil’s Advocate…”

(Dear Reader – I don’t want to digress from the topic – so – I will tell you the story of what happened in a subsequent “humor in uniform” blog post)

The Captain had called me “Devil’s Advocate” – and – having heard the term for the first time – I wanted to know what “Devil’s Advocate” meant – was it a compliment – or something adverse.

Those days – there was no internet – so you couldn’t “google” the term – so – I went to the ship’s library and pulled out the encyclopedia.

The term “Devil's advocate” was brought into English in the 18th century from the Medieval Latin expression “advocatus diaboli” – an old position in the Catholic Church.

There was a theologian known as the “Promotor Fidei” – or “promoter of the faith” – he had a tough job.

Whenever someone was nominated for canonization (sainthood) – the “Promotor Fidei” had to argue for all the reasons the person didn’t pass muster.

You could think of him as the official church sceptic – the doubter – the cynic.

The “Promotor Fedei” was expected to draw up a list of arguments against the nominee becoming canonized.

His job was to look critically at the candidate’s life and work – and put forth every possible disqualifying shortcoming – no matter how slight.

Because the role of the “Promotor Fidei” was to argue against others in the church – he became known as the “advocatus diabolic” – the “Devil’s Advocate”.

The Devil’s Advocate opposed God's Advocate (advocatus Dei) – also known as the Promoter of the Cause) – whose task was to make the argument in favour of canonization.

“Promoter of the Cause” – God’s Advocate (advocatus Dei) – he made arguments in favour of the candidate for canonization.

“Promoter of the Faith” – Devil’s Advocate (advocatus diaboli) – he made arguments against the canonization of the candidate.

The term shifted into popular usage – and soon – anyone who was arguing an unpopular point – or just being contrarian – he was said to be “playing the devil’s advocate.”

Figuratively –a “devil’s advocate” is a person who takes a contrary position for the sake of testing an argument.

Good Leaders surround themselves with men of integrity who will tell them the hard truth (even if it unpalatable) – not with a coterie of sycophants who isolate the leader from reality and say sweet things that the leader wants to hear.

In the Military – some senior officers do use this strategy of having a “Devil’s Advocate” in order to ensure that they aren’t led up the garden path by sycophants.

(Like the Story of the Captain I mentioned in the beginning of this article)

Some confident leaders avoid the pitfalls and temptations of absolute power by surrounding themselves with other confident, independent people, and encourage dissension and debate on every decision.

In his autobiography “A Soldier’s Story” – General ON Bradley has exemplified this aspect in the decision-making style of General George C Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army in World War II, a dominant leader who was instrumental in the Allied Victory owing to his resolute management of the entire war effort.

After one week in office – General Marshall called all his staff officers to his office and admonished them:

“Gentlemen – I am disappointed in you.

You haven’t yet disagreed with a single decision I have made.

When you carry a paper in here – I want you to give me every reason you can think of as to why I should not approve it.

If – in spite of your objections – my decision is still to go ahead – then I’ll know I am right.”

General Marshall wanted to hear differing and contrarian views before taking a decision – so he encouraged “devil’s advocacy” among his staff officers.

Like General Marshall – who did not encourage cronyism and “groupthink” – and – rather than search for views that might reinforce his own – a good leader seeks contrary opinions by encouraging “devil’s advocacy” to avoid Groupthink.

It is best to adopt the Devil’s Advocate methodology for all major decisions – by assigning some individuals in all groups and teams – to argue against the dominant view.

In Politics too – a leader must have a “Devil’s Advocate” in his decision-making circle – as this will help the leader in taking balanced decisions after considering contrarian opinions.

By observing the interactions of subordinates, staff and “advisors” with the leader – you can easily make out whether they are “Devil’s Advocates” or “Sycophants”.

During my Navy Days – I observed that Confident Officers fostered “Devil’s Advocacy” – whereas Insecure Officers encouraged sycophancy.


I wonder if Military Promotion Boards have a “Devil’s Advocate” who argues against the opinion of the rest of the board – bringing out reasons why each “selected” candidate should be rejected – and why each “rejected” candidate should be selected….?

Also – in Politics – do Cabinets/Committees/Ministries have “Devil’s Advocates” who argue against the dominant view – so that well-thought-out decisions are taken after considering all aspects and pros and cons….?

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