The Art of “The Steal”: Lessons from Three Historical Leaders

Jeff B. Cohen
Never give anyone an angle to take a shot at you, whether they are on your side or the opposing side.

Never give anyone an angle to take a shot at you, whether they are on your side or the opposing side.

bernardbodo via iStock

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal . . .

—T.S. Eliot

I love that idea. If you are mediocre you can imitate. Monkey see, monkey do. But, if you are savvy, you can intellectually consume the greatness of those around you and those who came before, process that greatness, and make it your own. Build on it. Create something new. Elevate the material.

I’m a transactional entertainment attorney by trade, and I think that mature lawyers “steal” too. As a professional, I find inspiration and guidance from history, politics, and pop culture—basically everywhere. With that in mind, here are three figures whose perspectives I have found instructive as a dealmaker and as a lawyer.

Napoleon Bonaparte: Learn to Compartmentalize

My mind is a chest of drawers. When I wish to deal with a subject, I shut all the drawers but the one in which the subject is to be found. When I am wearied, I shut all the drawers and go to sleep.
—Napoleon Bonaparte

As lawyers, we are constantly dealing with a multitude of complex and diverse issues simultaneously. How does one do so effectively without going insane? I look to Napoleon. As a short guy, I can’t help but be a big fan. So please forgive me if I seem too effusive. His level of productivity was beyond belief. Napoleon completely overhauled the French legal system by drafting the egalitarian Napoleonic Code, created the Banque de France, initiated an expansive public works program, became one of the greatest military leaders in history, and got himself crowned the Emperor of the French. Admittedly, the Battle of Waterloo didn’t work out so well. But, you get the idea.

His secret? Compartmentalization. The human brain does not multitask efficiently. Pick your most important problem, open that drawer of information, decide on the best course of action, close that drawer, and move on to the next one.

Julius Caesar: Never Give Anyone an Angle

“Et tu, Brute?”
—Julius Caesar

When Julius Caesar walked into the Roman Senate in 44 B.C., he was probably feeling pretty good. His military victories, immense popularity, and power enabled him to be declared “Dictator in Perpetuity.” A great gig, if you can get it. But on the Ides of March, a group of dagger-wielding assassins—which included his “friend” Marcus Junius Brutus, whom he had appointed to political office—put an end to all that “in Perpetuity” stuff. Allegedly, Caesar initially fought the attackers, but he covered his face with his toga and gave up when he saw that Brutus was among them.

Caesar’s story is an extreme example, but you get the idea. Betrayal happens every day, and the insider has the best opportunity to do the most damage. Never give anyone an angle to take a shot at you, whether they are on your side or the opposing side. If you indiscreetly divulge a sensitive piece of information, if you lose your cool in a situation that requires composure, or if you appear unprepared at an important moment in a negotiation, you have put yourself in danger.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Use Crisis as an Opportunity

Franklin’s illness . . . gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons—infinite patience and never-ending persistence.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

FDR contracted polio when he was 39 years old. It cost him the use of his legs and put his rapid rise in politics on hold. Rather than let his situation bring him down, he founded a treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia, for others suffering from polio. The photos of him from that time are quite powerful. He thought that swimming could be a form of therapy to help him walk again. I recall watching some footage of him floating in a pool at the facility surrounded by adoring children also suffering from polio who were paddling toward him, their hands splashing water this way and that. For some reason, that image stuck in my mind: the look in his eyes, the smile on his face, the palpable hope that he could get better. And the hope that he could help these children get better, too.

His legs didn’t get much better, but something about that experience helped him evolve from a good politician to a great politician and humanitarian. Contracting polio didn’t diminish FDR; it “gave him strength and courage he had not had before,” his wife Eleanor said. A crisis is an opportunity because it provides us a rare moment to evolve and overcome.

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Jeff B. Cohen is a transactional attorney and former child actor, best known for playing “Chunk” in The Goonies. A cofounder of Beverly Hills-based Cohen Gardner LLP, he is the author of The Dealmaker’s Ten Commandments: Ten Essential Tools for Business Forged in the Trenches of Hollywood, published by the American Bar Association.