Lieutenant Columbo / Opinion

6 life lessons I learnt from Lieutenant Columbo

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A pet peeve of mine is the number of utterly pointless listicle articles that do the rounds on LinkedIn and the such.

You know the sort: ’22 things ultra-successful people do every morning’; ‘Do these 7 things to springboard your career’; ‘The 5 most important traits of a natural leader’;

These articles abound in their thousands, and seem to have only one purpose: to catch the attention of a commuting professional for 30 seconds, and give them a chance to share it themselves while making a sage/trite comment about how meaningful it all is.

“Are there any genuine life lessons that can be taken from Columbo and applied to actual people in the real world?”

I tired of such tosh many moons ago. But it did get me thinking about whether any genuine life lessons can be taken from Columbo and applied to actual people in the real world. And happily there are!

So while the very act of writing this article may well have turned me into what I despise, I do think there’s at least a kernel of real-world learning here. If you agree, and you do wish to share it on LinkedIn, for once I shan’t mind a bit…

1. Perseverance pays off

Columbo facts

The quintessential Columbo characteristic is his perseverance. Whether it’s chasing down every lead to a satisfactory conclusion, or hounding his quarry until they admit defeat and get carted off down town, Lieutenant Columbo is the very embodiment of tenacity and endurance.

There’s a very obvious lesson here that we would all do well to remember. In attempting to solve perfect crime after perfect crime, it would be easier for Columbo to give up the ghost and accept he’s beaten. He never does and this uncompromising approach to his work has taken him to exactly where he wants to be in life.

2. Work harder than the competition

Columbo Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

Similar to the above and again relevant to everyone, no matter what their line of work, application to the task in hand can be just as important – if not more so – than natural talent alone. To quote no less a luminary than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who I actually love): “Always be the hardest worker in the room.” Columbo absolutely epitomises that attitude.

Take his conversation with Oliver Brandt in the Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case as a prime example, which I’ll report to you in his words directly.

“You know, sir, it’s a funny thing. All my life, I kept running into smart people. In school, there were lot’s of smarter kids, and when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there and I could tell right away it wasn’t going to be easy making detective as long as they were around.

“But I figured if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did. And I really love my work, sir.”

Enough said…

3. Question everything – in the right way


Columbo didn’t get to his desired location in life by accepting things at face value. And while that of course makes sense for a detective, the same can also be said for just about any profession you can name.

The ability to find the truth of the matter and arm yourself with the information you need to succeed is a real skill – and no one did it better than Lieutenant Columbo, whose ability to disarm his opponents through a combination of apparent confusion and killer questions is much more than just a TV show trope.

Indeed, ‘The Columbo Method‘ of questioning to extract inconsistencies in the stories of others through ‘repeated, temporally separated questioning about specific details’ in a non-confrontational fashion is actually a real thing, used every day by lawyers, doctors and business leaders across the world. It’s so effective that it’s still a basis for research from some of the most august learning establishments on earth – including the Harvard Medical School in 2017.

Columbo doesn’t throw in “just one more question” as a silly gimmick, either. When this happens you know he’s really seeking to find out a big truth, or turn a situation to his advantage: something many experienced business leaders do on a daily basis.

4. Be humble

Columbo and the King of Suaria

For a man who’s single-handedly responsible for some of the most sensational crime busts of all time (best-selling writers, silver screen icons, politicians, musicians and more), Columbo remains remarkably down to earth and a man with no airs and graces.

Yes this is fiction, but such humility is a trait shared by many great leaders past and present, including Ghandi, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Saladin, Buddha. Many pieces of research suggest that humility in business leaders is a key factor in driving high-performance teams.

One of Columbo’s best features is that humility, which gives him the ability to effectively communicate with prince or pauper – quite literally as we see him swiftly establish trust with everyone from the King of Suaria in A Case of Immunity (pictured) to a homeless alcoholic in Negative Reaction. and a down-on-his-luck former high wire performer in Now You See Him.

It all helps him get what he needs from people to succeed personally, while empowering others at the same time. What a gift.

5. Be happy with your lot in life

columbo and dog 8

Many people worry that they should have achieved certain personal and professional goals by a certain age – even if they don’t really need or want them. I know I do. Not so Columbo.

He loves his job, his wife, his dog and his family. He has no desire to upgrade his beat-up car, or earn a bigger pay packet (remember that he could’ve tripled his pay if he moved to work as a PI with Brimmer and co in Death Lends a Hand). He enjoys the simple things in life: a bowl of chilli, a night out bowling, a cheap cigar unless a better one is available…

We must assume that Columbo often had the chance to progress beyond the rank of Lieutenant. But why would he want that? It’s here, at the coal face of detecting, that Columbo has found his calling. Status symbols don’t matter to him. He has job satisfaction, enough cash to get by and no delusions of grandeur. In short, he’s absolutely content with what he has. We should all be so lucky.

6. Be tough when you have to be

Deadly State

When the going gets tough, it’s very easy to withdraw from confrontation and assume a subservient position, never really speaking your mind. We all do it, and to an extent it’s required in order to avoid creating a disharmonious workplace.

But sometimes you have to be tough. Someone might be trash-talking a colleague, or their idleness might be jeopardising the success of a team project. How many of us, hand on heart, really respond as we should in situations like this, uncomfortable as it might make us?

That’s where Columbo excels. When there are unnecessary roadblocks in his way, as a last resort the Lieutenant does drop that veneer to speak his mind, put others in their place and, ultimately, drive positive outcomes. Think of his tirade against Joan Hudson in Prescription: Murder; his genuine anger at Dr Barry Mayfield in A Stitch in Crime; even his cutting through the bullsh*t with a surprised Dr Anita Borden in A Deadly State of Mind (pictured).

You sense he doesn’t enjoy having to do it, but if that’s what makes the difference between success and failure he’ll say what needs to be said and make no apologies for it.

“When there are unnecessary roadblocks in his way, as a last resort the Lieutenant does drop that veneer to speak his mind.”

So there we are: life lessons from Columbo relevant to professionals the world over! Hit me up on LinkedIn if you’re active. Search for ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ or ‘Los Angeles Police Department’.

How did you like this article?

19 thoughts on “6 life lessons I learnt from Lieutenant Columbo

  1. Pingback: The best Columbo lookalikes | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  2. Columbo is really, really nice to people. Well-meaning and high cultured (not in a bow tie fashion or convenanses, but honestly cares about their good&feelings). It’s striking when he deals with widows and orphans (left so by the murder). It’s also a great contrast to many other people in the movie, especially murderers, who often behave harshly and sometimes literally try and get him out of their house. He might be slightly irritating but never gets offended and basically glares with good intentions (with no poser-attitude). To be this high well-brought-up as Lieutenant, it would be surely nice and beneficial for all folk among us.

  3. Excellent piece – except for the remark that Richard Branson had profited from being humble. He’s done the exact opposite and is one of the most shameless self-promoting egoists in modern life, albeit a very successful one

    • I also agree with Jack’s comment about Richard Branson. And I’d also consider Gandhi to be far from humble too, though he must have had a great PR person crafting the image he has today, considering his history of making anti-Semitic and racist statements.

  4. Columbo epitomises the sage advice given by Sun Tzu in his book The Art of War: “Make your enemy think you are strong when you are weak, and weak when you are strong”.

  5. Pingback: Teach Like Columbo – Learning Juice

  6. Okay, just one more life lesson from Columbo. Never stop learning. Columbo well knows that the real learning comes after you know it all (to paraphrase John Wooden). Although Columbo has well-honed detective skills and some endearing habits, he actually welcomes working out of his comfort zones. Columbo is more than willing to learn things about entirely new subject areas if they will help him to be better at what he does. Thus, Columbo has solved many a case by learning important news facts about such diverse new subjects to him as medicine, chemistry, videorecording, telecommunications, electronics, dentistry, wine, and magic, to name a few.

  7. Dear Columbophile. Your section here is really a peach. Good on you! Are you a Stoic? All of the character attributes are recognizably Stoic, particularly being happy with your lot in life, being humble, questioning everything accordingly. The stuff on perseverance reminds me of what Calvin Coolidge said about it: that there are geniuses everywhere, but only those with perseverance actually achieve anything. Ditto with Thomas Alva Edison, that genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine perspiration.

  8. Just one more thing. . . . to add to your fine list. Be a mentor to others if you have the time. In several Columbo episodes, the Lieutenant would share his investigative knowledge and experience with those who wanted it. Of course, in many episodes, Columbo needed to bring in and train other law enforcement team members to assist in catching the murderer, as was the case from the very first Columbo, Prescription Murder. Think what a learning experience that would be for any detective seeking to improve his/her skills. And in Columbo Goes to College, the Lieutenant even taught a college class about homicide investigations. Give back when you can.

  9. One of my favorite examples of number 4 (Be humble) is his interaction with Artie Jessup in “A Friend in Deed”. Here was a guy for all purposes at the end of his rope. Out of prison, forced to be a “kept man” because he couldn’t pawn the things he stole, is career (and in his way his life) ending. Columbo needs him, but first he respects him and the position he’s in. He doesn’t bust in demanding information, he first tests his skill, shows his badge, then gives his purpose for being there. When Artie freaks out because he thinks he’s going to be charged with murder, Columbo says “you had nothing to do with it”, letting him know immediately the spotlight, as far as he was concerned, was not on him.

    Columbo asks to sit down (I like that he used the formal “may I?”) and then asks questions based upon his knowledge as a professional. Incredibly, Columbo illicits enough trust in him to have him help Columbo expose the police commissioner!

    I always liked that one, and I guess as a sub-category to number 4, you could add “see in people what they see in themselves, and treat everyone with dignity”.

    • Yeah I love that scene in that great episode too. Can’t wait for the review of “Friend in Deed” – a contender for greatest ever episode!

  10. I seem to already follow some of these steps. Maybe I should try them all out and see where life takes me.

  11. I wonder if your life lessons have been inspired by Adam Graham’s book “All I Needed to Know, I Learned from Columbo” (Kindle January 2014). Contrary to the specific title, the book examines 7 different fictional detectives in terms of life lessons, Columbo being one of them. Graham categorizes the lessons from Columbo into two basic types: “Let Them Underestimate You” and “Have a Good Temper.” While there are several sources that superficially make connections between the Lieutenant and a method of persuasion via questions, a more thorough treatment of the application of “The Columbo Method” applied to selling to “prospects” can be viewed on YouTube:
    This subject is related to my writings about Columbo, though nothing is published yet.
    Have a good one!

    • Adam’s book wasn’t an influence, although I am familiar with him through his intros to the Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast that I’ve listened to time and again.

  12. Interesting way to approach the character– got me thinking about other qualities I admire: his willingness to face his phobias (Ransom for a Dead Man); his coolness under pressure (Lady in Waiting); and his ability to handle small, yapping dogs (again, Lady in Waiting).

    Every so often, I ask myself if the world would be a better place if everyone acted like me (and then try to adjust my behavior if the answer is no). Your post raises a great question: would the world be a better place if everyone was fundamentally like the lieutenant?


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