Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, Dover Publications, Inc., 1992

The Prince, originally written in 1513, remains a quintessential book on leadership that is a must read for anyone with a modicum of ambition.

While Machiavelli recommends harsh principles that can detract unfocused readers, his overt motivation for writing was to provide Lorenzo de' Medici, who recently came to power in Machiavelli's home of Florence, Italy, a practical guide for acquiring and maintaining power based on his historical observations.

Machiavelli observations can be boiled down to three main points.
  • The ends justifies the means
  • It is better to be feared than to be loved
  • People can be trusted but only to follow their own selfish motivations

When I originally read this book as part of my seventh grade world history class, I looked at the examples Machiavelli put forth to support these principles and, generally, accepted them as truth.

Each time I have read it, however, I grew increasingly weary.

As part of my MBA curriculum, I just finished it for the fifth time and have nearly come 180 degrees on my opinion of The Prince.

First, in his day, Machiavelli was known more as a musician, diplomat, philosopher and playwright than the military tactician and political expert he's come to be known as.

Why is that? Maybe he wasn't really that great of a military tactician or politician. Not saying. Just saying.

Second, Machiavelli probably would have faded from history without much of a splash had he not mastered the art of creating dichotomies and one-solution situations.

For example: The question of whether it is better to be feared or loved is a construct created for the purely hypothetical. I would put forth that it is possible to both be feared and loved. Doesn't the Bible, which Machiavelli mentions in his writing, command that we love and fear God? Furthermore, I would argue that being respected is better than being loved or feared for a leader. One need not love someone or fear them in order to respect them.

Additionally, what ends are we talking about? I have learned the hard way that the end in which the mean justifies is not always clear. If I bust my ass and my employees' asses to hit a deadline, I achieve my short-term end with harsh means. But what if I alienated other departments by achieving this end? I might end up being less productive in the mid-term. But, in the long-term, those alienated employees may leave the company before me thus allowing me to reestablish a good reputation among fresh employees whom I haven't burned. This may lead me to have a more successful long-term career with my company. But what about my reputation as a person? If I burn everyone for career success, I could end my life with no relational success in the long, long-term.

Yes, this example is farfetched and a bit humorous, but the point is clear. Who knows what the ends are?

To the last main theme, I agree, most people have selfish motivations, which if discernable, can be leveraged for personal gain. But to what end...?

Finally, a careful reader will pick up on one of Machiavelli's strongest warnings and apply it to the conditions in which the author penned the book: Avoid flatterers.

In fact, Machiavelli's home of Florence had been in flux and had seen many rulers. The Prince is an attempt to gain favor with the flavor of the day, and Machiavelli overtly kisses Medici's butt in the book.

That said, I would recommend that anyone who hasn't read The Prince to pour through it at least once and read some literature about Machiavelli and the conditions under which he wrote The Prince.
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