Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean (48 Laws of Power)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Overview of Law #26: Keep Your Hands Clean 

You’ll inevitably make mistakes or need to take care of messy problems. But it’s imperative to keep your hands clean. Find scapegoats to blame and use cat’s paws or fixers to handle problems while disguising your involvement.

Sub-Law #1 of Law 26: Cover Up Your Mistakes

According to Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power, your good name and reputation depend more on what you conceal than on what you reveal. Everyone makes mistakes, but those who are truly clever manage to hide them, and to make sure someone else is blamed. A convenient scapegoat should always be kept around for such moments.

Principles

Mistakes themselves don’t hurt powerful people — it’s how they deal with them that counts. Making excuses or offering apologies are the worst possible responses. Excuses never satisfy anyone, and apologies dig a deeper hole for you. They raise questions about your competence (maybe you’ve made other mistakes too?), intentions, and motives. 

The more quickly you can shift attention to someone else the better. You need a scapegoat to keep your hands clean.

The practice of using a scapegoat has a long history — Hebrew priests transferred the sins of the people to a goat (originating the term “scapegoat”), which would be abandoned in the wilderness. In some civilizations, a human scapegoat would be sacrificed to the gods.

It works for both the person using the scapegoat and the intended audience because people are accustomed to blame-shifting. People naturally look outwardly to blame others rather than inwardly to explain their mistakes. And when the scapegoating is done by others, they accept the scapegoat’s guilt.

Of course, modern leaders who don’t want to be seen as fallible continue to use scapegoats today. When Mao’s Cultural Revolution failed, he blamed his personal secretary and a high-ranking party member. FDR wanted to maintain a reputation of fairness and transparency, so he often used his secretary, Louis Howe, to commit dirty tricks and take the blame if they came to light (a role Howe accepted).

Other things to know about using scapegoats:

  • Besides shifting the blame for mistakes, a scapegoat can serve as a lesson to others to avoid crossing the boss.
  • Innocent parties are sometimes the best choice, since they lack power and their protests may be seen as a sign of guilt.
  • You need to be careful not to create a martyr — remember to keep the spotlight on yourself as the victim, the one betrayed by incompetents around you.
  • A person with more power may be an effective choice if he/she is an unsympathetic figure.
  • It may be useful to choose a close associate, which sets up a “fall of the favorite” scenario. When you throw your former friend to the wolves, people believe in his guilt because they wouldn’t expect you to cold-heartedly misuse a friend.

Putting Law 26 to Work

Here’s an example of how to apply the first sub-law of Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power: When a Chinese general miscalculated his army’s food supply, he had to cut back on rations while waiting for a new shipment. The troops naturally were unhappy, and rumors spread that the general was keeping food for himself while depriving others. A mutiny threatened to break out, so the general scapegoated his chief supply officer and had him executed.

Sub-Law #2 of Law 26:  Use a Cat’s Paw

If something unpopular or unpleasant needs to be done, you need a cat’s paw or fixer to do the dirty work, keeping you from being hurt or seen as being responsible. This helps you keep your hands clean. (The term comes from an old story about a monkey who grabbed the paw of his friend, the cat, to pull chestnuts from a fire. By using the cat, he got what he wanted without hurting himself.)

Principles

There are two benefits of a cat’s paw: to save appearances (keep your hands clean) and to save energy and effort. Like scapegoats, you may need to get rid of your cat’s paw after he’s served his purpose.

The American con artist Joseph Weil (the “Yellow Kid”) often used cat’s paws to hide his schemes while getting close enough to hook his target. He would identify someone the target already knew to be his cat’s paw, and pretend to enlist the person in a money-making venture. The cat’s paw would typically suggest including a wealthy friend (Weil’s real target), who would readily fall for the scheme because he trusted the cat’s paw.

According to Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power, you can also use a cat’s paw to spread false information to your target, who won’t suspect you’re the source.

Another scenario, if you want to curry favor with a superior, is to offer yourself as a cat’s paw. If you succeed in, for instance, protecting your boss from risk or recriminations, you’ll increase your power. But don’t brag or remind your boss he owes you a favor.

Here’s an example of using a cat’s paw to save energy and effort. A famous therapist who counseled couples knew that husbands typically refused to participate with the wives in counseling. So he used the wife as a cat’s paw. He’d see her alone for counseling, and when she talked about her husband, the therapist would make provocative comments that he knew she’d repeat at home. This would rile up the husband and he’d accompany her the next time to set the record straight.

Putting Law 26 to Work

Here’s another example of how to apply Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power: Queen Cleopatra of Egypt successfully used Julius Caesar and Marc Antony as unwitting cat’s paws to secure her throne by getting rid of her enemies. They killed off her sibling rivals and used their armies (expending their energy and resources) on her behalf. Of course, her skill at seduction was a factor in her success, but she also was a master strategist.

You can also make yourself a cat’s paw as a Japanese man, Daizen, did. Diazen learned that a friend had borrowed money to help someone and was in danger of not being able to pay it back. He decided to help his friend indirectly, so as not to offend or make him feel obligated. Diazen lavished praise on a painting his friend owned, until the friend offered to give it to him. Diazen accepted it but sent a rare vase in return. He mentioned the name of his friend’s lender as a collector of such vases, who might want to buy it. The friend was able to use the case to pay off his debt, without feeling obligated to Diazen.

Diazen made himself the cat’s paw to satisfy the lender and free his friend from a burdensome debt. This is a good model to use when doing favors for friends.

Exceptions to Law 26

Are there any exceptions to Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power? Should you ever not keep your hands clean? Once in a while, you may want to acknowledge a mistake, if it will generate sympathy toward you. Or, you may want people to know you’re behind an action in order to intimidate your subordinates.

But you need to be extremely careful in either case – a cat’s paw is usually a better option. In general, it’s best to follow Law 26 of the 48 Laws of Power: Keep Your Hands Clean.

Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean (48 Laws of Power)

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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