A Lesson in Personal Strategy from Lieutenant Columbo

5 min readMar 9, 2021


personal strategy Columbo Deel

By Dr. Gary L. Deel
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University

“Oh…just one more thing…”

This was the famous catchphrase of the seemingly inept homicide detective Columbo, played on television by the legendary actor Peter Falk for several decades. The show was a tremendous success, and I am a huge Columbo fan.

There’s something about the series’ unique take on murder mysteries — revealing the “whodunit” upfront and then following the clever Columbo around for an hour while he wends his way toward the truth that is timelessly entertaining. Falk’s lovable portrayal of the charmingly quaint lieutenant is a gem of television history.

But having seen nearly every episode now, I realize that his main strategy for “getting his man” might be worth remembering for its usefulness in real life. A big part of what makes the series so entertaining is the way in which Columbo fumbles around, seemingly without focus or direction, or even intuition for most of the show.

Columbo’s Adversaries Underestimate Him

Early in each episode, Columbo meets the character whom we, the audience, know to be the killer. Invariably, Falk presents Columbo as a disheveled, aimless cop who hasn’t a clue about the case. He appears to forget and misconstrue things constantly, giving the killer a keen sense that the investigation is in totally incompetent hands and that consequently he or she is in the clear.

But over the course of the hour episode, Columbo keeps popping up in new places, with new questions and new observations that seem to puzzle him, about which he muses openly with the killer. Sometimes his questions are written off as mysteries. Other times he allows the suspect to score the illusion of a victory with a contrived explanation that seems to satisfy the detective’s curiosity and suspicions.

At first, Columbo’s presence is welcomed and accommodated, as one would aim to placate a harmless friend or neighbor who comes around a lot and talks too much. But eventually, as Columbo gets closer and closer to the truth, his repeated vocalized theories about the crime stop being a mere affectation and start becoming annoying and frustrating, especially to the killer. Usually at the climax, the killer makes a final dodge of Columbo’s speculations and believes himself to be off the hook, until the detective apologetically intones, “Oh…just one more thing…”

Columbo turns around slowly and reveals the smoking gun evidence against the killer, just as he does in every episode. He is always one step ahead. And his sloppy and incompetent appearance is just a ruse to throw the killer — and the audience — off the scent.

Beneath that bumbling facade is a clever, witty, and observant veteran homicide detective who takes in everything and puts the pieces together one by one. But you won’t know it until it’s too late.

The Art of Misdirection

So what’s the lesson here? The virtue of Columbo lies in his ability to present himself in a very benign and humble way, such that those around him grossly underestimate his abilities and often reveal clues and secrets they never intended to give out. And this in turn gives Columbo the upper hand when it comes time to confront the challenge before him.

If Columbo went into every investigation with the aim of showing every suspect or person of interest how smart or talented he really was, this revelation would immediately put the guilty ones on high alert about being discovered.The killers would take every precaution to cover their tracks and would be far less likely to make a mistake.

However, by presenting himself as a dim-witted, uncultured buffoon of a police officer, Columbo puts his adversaries at ease. They gain a sense of confidence about the safety of their secrets.

But that’s the point. It is a subtle but powerful misdirection that serves as Columbo’s key strength.

How can this strategy be useful in our own lives? It depends on the circumstances.

For example, I am an attorney who works with other attorneys as part of my duties as an expert witness and litigation consultant. The most talented attorneys I know have a very Columboesque approach to their jobs. They are very friendly and simplistic in their interactions with opposing parties, their questioning of witnesses, and even in their trial arguments. But beneath the outward simplicity is a subtle strategy aimed at zealous advocacy for their clients and maximizing their chances of winning the case.

Another example— and one to which we can all relate— is buying a new car. If a salesperson knows that a customer is well-versed in car mechanics, specs, and values, he is probably unlikely to try to bamboozle the customer with dishonest or embellished claims because he knows they won’t work.

On the other hand, if the salesperson is certain that the customer doesn’t know anything at all about cars, the customer is likely to be taken for a ride, and I don’t mean a test drive. However, a customer who is an expert but who presents himself as anything but, gains an upper hand. He can determine whether the salesperson is trustworthy — valuable information that could be critical in other aspects of a potential transaction.

Some might argue that feigning ignorance or incompetence is inherently dishonest or deceptive and therefore ethically wrong. It’s important to note that I’m not advocating dishonesty or deception, nor am I endorsing unethical behavior in any way, notwithstanding the ends it may serve.

But it’s worth pointing out that Columbo rarely if ever lies to the suspects he pursues. To be fair, he does occasionally set up false scenarios that cause the killers to reveal themselves in a way that makes for dramatic television viewing. For what it’s worth, many such Columbo scenarios would not actually hold up in court as legitimate police methods anyway.

But the vast majority of Columbo’s tactics involve the subtle way with which he withholds his observations and awareness of the full situation until the time is right to make the accusation or arrest. There is indeed a difference between telling a lie and declining to publicly broadcast every thought a person has. Columbo simply keeps his intuitions to himself to avoid letting on that he is paying close attention to the most important details.

This approach may not always be appropriate or effective in real life. Situations where total transparency and disclosure are ethically warranted and/or legally mandated would obviously not be appropriate scenarios for a Columbo-style strategy.

In fact, it’s really only applicable in competitive settings, where we have a goal in our sights and a challenger stands in our way. But wherever the proper circumstances exist, the Columbo strategy — allowing others to underestimate us at their peril — could very well give us the edge we need to succeed.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.




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