Leaders should be ruthless, combative, relentless and committed to getting the job done, whatever it takes.
Even if you don’t know the 16th Century treatise The Prince, you’ve almost certainly heard of its author, Machiavelli. The name has become synonymous with all things cunning and unscrupulous, especially in the realm of politics.
This slim volume of work was written in 1516 but didn’t start to become famous until after Machiavelli’s death a few years later. It’s basically a short how-to manual for rulers and despots. Up until the time it was written, any treatise like this would have been interwoven with moral considerations and religious guidance.
Machiavelli was one of the first to take morality entirely out of the equation. This is a manual to get things done and it’s central tenet is the end justifies the means.
A darker example from The Prince says that if you are a ruler and you want to secure new lands, “one need merely eliminate the surviving members of the family of their previous rulers.” Machiavelli believed that we are all pretty wretched and the thing that drives us is self-interest – to succeed we need to embrace this part of our character.
While it doesn’t pull its punches, there’s no doubt that the book has a number of interesting things to say about the human condition and is well worth a read even if you aren’t a budding entrepreneur or top manager.
Can it actually teach us a thing or two about getting to the top? Well, according to many business leaders, it can.
So, let’s take a closer look at what Machiavelli said in The Prince and see how it applies to modern leadership and management. In truth, it’s not all darkness and intrigue and the treatise was one of the first at the time to draw on scientific thought and apply it to ruling whole countries.
Lesson 1: “Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.”
This probably goes without saying even if you’ve never heard of Machiavelli. You should always be in a business that you have feelings for. It’s difficult to lead and to manage if you actually dislike what you are doing. It also suggests you can overcome great problems and challenges because you are more focused and passionate about what you do.
Lesson 2: “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
How true this is. The general rule is that good managers surround themselves with good subordinates. Bad managers and leaders tend to do completely the opposite. Failed bosses would rather have yes men and women sitting at their table than those who are prepared to put their head above the parapet and take a risk by disagreeing.
Lesson 3: “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
Good leaders and managers act decisively and don’t let things drag on. They are on top of their briefs and understand that delays can be damaging to the business. Bad leaders will procrastinate or put off difficult decisions because they either can’t handle the pressure or shy away from conflict.
Lesson 4: “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme.”
Good leaders learn from good leaders. There has always been the concept of best practice in different sectors but this is more than that. Great leaders have qualities you can learn from – the lesson is always to find the best in your industry and glean as much as you can from them.
Lesson 5: “Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you.”
This relates to Lesson 2 and again means you shouldn’t always employ people who are going to agree with you. Some discord and disagreement is necessary in any successful business – it doesn’t have to be damaging. If you are surrounding yourself with sycophants who will never disagree with you, how will you ever know when you’ve made a wrong decision? And how will you challenge the status quo in the future?
Lesson 6: “If one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them.”
You can’t lead if you aren’t there. This is all about being present and having your hand on the tiller. That doesn’t mean you should be doing everything yourself – delegation is key to successful management and leadership. But you should be present, both physically and in the moment, if you want to lead your team to success.
Lesson 7: “A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry.”
Just because things are going well, that shouldn’t mean you neglect planning for the future. Building for growth is key to any successful business. Those quiet times aren’t simply there for a little rest and recreation or kicking back – you need to use these moments to forge ahead and cement your advantage in a competitive world.
Lesson 8: “A prince must have no other purpose, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war.”
Finally, running a business and making it successful is a continual dog fight. No company lives in isolation and there’s always some form of combat going on, either directly or intuitively, with the competition. Should you crush them? According to Machiavelli, you should and at the first opportunity. At the very least you should ensure you stay well ahead of them. There are definitely times when you need to be ruthless.
There’s more to learn from The Prince and there’s been plenty of written about it over the years, particularly relating to leadership and management. Next time you have a few moments, perhaps you can find the time to give it a read.