Everyone Needs a Devil’s Advocate

· Happiness, Human Resources, Leadership

Everyone Needs a Devil’s Advocate

NS Rajan


Opposition could be viewed as a conscience that speaks from outside you, akin to the ‘little voice’ inside you. It has been observed that unlimited power invariably hurtles us towards hubris, and leads to a subsequent downfall.  John Locke, philosopher and proponent of the social contract, wrote in ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,’ that ‘all men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it’. Who else can and will discover your mistakes, but those who oppose you,and hence pave the way to your success!

The desire for freedom is clearly fuelled by our natural inclination to work towards what we cherish, and all of us hope to be successful in our quest. This presupposes the strong individualistic pursuits inherent in us, much as we live in a social collective. In a utopian state you may perhaps find someone who desires nothing and hence will always remain free. While it is life’s irony that whenever you don’t deserve anything, you may end up getting it, anthropology reaffirms that the need to acquire still drives our motivations. In our lives, as we grow, our responsibility enhances towards others, be it family, friends, team members or the society. Henry Taylor aptly wrote that “Conscience is, in most men, an anticipation of the opinion of Others.” 

Any polity, enterprise, forum or even the individual for its own fulfillment necessarily needs an external system of checks and balances, and fuel for introspection. An individual too must learn to welcome opposing forces, as the wise man is apt to draw much more advantage from his enemies, if he chooses to understand. A view, both from within and without, in the form of a counterpoint serves as an essential ‘moderation’ of our thought and action. A leader, in particular, reaffirms accountability for his actions when he welcomes dissent. As everything that he does impacts the larger ecosystem, a leader learns to carry contradictions and move the team towards a shared goal by enabling collective responsibility. Needs of people, by individual inclinations, are likely to be an inexplicable composite of contraries, and therein lies the need to encourage and allow criticism and feedback proactively, and then pursue a common path.

Contradictions could indeed be a source of hidden value, and can help an any individual or  collective of people, if taken in the right spirit. Call that voice by any name but respect it, so that we are not trapped into follies of our own making, despite even the best of good intentions. Dissent after all is another face of assent since Truth is one. You would be better off to look for an excellent ‘Devil’s Advocate’ to test out the veracity of your own thought and action. When you endeavor to follow the litmus test of an adverse critic, whose designated role is to propose objections to any form of canonization, you perhaps are on the real road of progress.

An ideal state, of course, is to so live that you can look in any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell. A fine alternative is to welcome dissent and accept that each one of us, who aspires to a good life, embraces the responsibility of being accountable. You may find a ‘devils advocate’ if you really seek: Conscience, Discerning friends, Tempering Family, Concerned Teachers, Constructive Superiors, Opposing Counterparts, independent Directors on the Board, Consumer Forums, the Jury and the Press; Ombudsman! It’s in us to find the vein of gold in every dissenting voice. In doing so, we fortify our own areas of strength, correct what needs to be attended to, achieve what we seek and hopefully contribute to self, family, friends, firms and the society at large – in His image!

( Conscience: This  picture of an elegantly hued lovely lily was growing in a pond close to my home. It seemed almost like a revelation of the conscience, shadowing the gorgeous flower, being reflected in the waters)

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