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The prince of leadership

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

The twenty-first century has more than its fair share of self-improvement books. Publications promising the secrets of time management, stunning presentations and interviews fill countless bookshelves, not to mention the blogs, tweets and much more. Just over five hundred years ago, the first publication of its type was produced. Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince is the sixteenth-century equivalent of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Embedded beneath details of Alexander VI’s tribulations lie a ready supply of aphorisms and insights which are, perhaps sadly, as appropriate to many of today’s leaders and organizations as they were half a millennium ago. (Indeed, Antony Jay’s 1970 book, Management and Machiavelli developed the comparisons.)

Machiavelli (1469–1527) served as an official in the Florentine government. During fourteen years as Secretary of the Second Chancery, he became known as the ‘Florentine secretary’ and served on nearly thirty foreign missions. His work brought him into contact with some of Europe’s most influential ministers and government representatives.His chief diplomatic triumph occurred when Florence obtained the surrender of Pisa.

Machiavelli’s career came to an end in 1512 when the Medicis returned to power. He was then exiled from the city and later accused of being involved in a plot against the government. For this he was imprisoned and tortured on the rack. He then retired to a farm outside Florence and began a successful writing career, with books on politics as well as plays and a history of Florence.

His ideas still resonate. ‘Like the leaders Machiavelli sought to defend, some executives tend to see themselves as the natural rulers in whose hands organizations can be safely entrusted,’ says psychologist Robert Sharrock of consultants YSC. ‘Theories abound on their motivation. Is it a defensive reaction against failure or a need for predictability through complete control? The effect of the power-driven Machiavellian manager is usually plain to see.’

‘It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them,’ Machiavelli advises, adding the suggestion that it is useful ‘to be a great pretender and dissembler’. But The Prince goes beyond such helpful presentational hints. Like all great books, it offers something for everyone. Take Machiavelli on managing change:

‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’

Or on sustaining motivation:

‘He ought above all things to keep his men well organized and drilled, to follow incessantly the chase.’

Machiavelli even has advice for executives acquiring companies in other countries:

But when states are acquired in a country differing in language, customs or laws, there are difficulties, and good fortune and great energy are needed to hold them, and one of the greatest and most real helps would be that he who has acquired them should go and reside there … Because if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them.

Leaders throughout the world will be able to identify with Machiavelli’s analysis.

Machiavelli is at his best in discussing leadership. Success, he says, is not down to luck or genius, but ‘happy shrewdness’. In Machiavelli’s hands, this is a euphemism. Elsewhere, he advises ‘a Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules’

The Prince also examines the perils facing the self-made leader when they reach the dizzy heights:

‘Those who solely by good fortune become princes from being private citizens have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop; they have not any difficulties on the way up, because they fly, but they have many when they reach the summit.’

Above all, Machiavelli is the champion of leadership through cunning and intrigue, the triumph of force over reason. An admirer of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli had a dismal view of human nature. Unfortunately, as he sagely points out, history has repeatedly proved that a combination of being armed to the teeth and devious is more likely to allow you to achieve your objectives. It is all very well being good, says Machiavelli, but the leader ‘should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands’. Beware!


Machiavelli’s The Prince is worth seeking out in any bookstore. Put it on your bookshelves and, at the very least, people will begin to wonder.

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