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Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince

For the last of our solo* Management Thinkers… and Doers, we turn to a thinker on leadership and a politician supreme. His thinking has influenced 500 years’ of politicians, and has been influencing managers since the term came to have a real meaning in the mid 19th Century.

Niccolò Machiavelli arguably saw far into his future, and his writings hold genuine nuggets of wisdom and debate for today’s generation of managers.

Niccolò Machiavelli 1469-1527
Niccolò Machiavelli 1469-1527

Short Biography

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, in 1469. At the time, Italy was just a set of small, frequently warring, states. Florence was ruled by the powerful Medici family, so despite his patrician roots, there were few opportunities for a talented young man. However, the regime changed and when, in 1498, Florence became a republic, Machiavelli secured a senior administrative post as Secretary of the second Chancery.

He served Florence for 14 years in roles we may now recognise as collectively politician, civil servant, and diplomat. During this time, he travelled widely around European courts and met with powerful people.

However, in 1512, after another of Italy’s persistent small wars, and with Papal politics underwriting them, the Medici’s regained control of Florence, and Machiavelli’s career in public service came to an abrupt end. But before the tedium of exile came a short interlude (that probably seemed very long) of imprisonment and torture.

After his expulsion, Machiavelli turned to writing and very soon (1513) produced the book for which he is best known, Il Principe, or The Prince. A large number of other political books followed, along with dramatic and historical works. After another 14 years of working his land and writing in the evenings, Machiavelli died, at the age of 58, in 1527.

His name and his work, however, persist 500 years on. I wonder how many of our contemporary thinkers on politics and leadership will achieve that.

Themes from The Prince that Touch on Modern Management

I’m not the first to think of this idea. In an out-of-print book called Management and Machiavelli, Anthony Jay examines just this. Let’s look at three areas where Machiavelli’s writing offers us some food for thought.

I am not, by the way, inclined to think he necessarily offers us the ‘right’ answers. After all, although he did not use the phrase ‘the end justifies the means’, he is very much associated with that level of political pragmatism. And we all know where that can lead in the wrong hands.

And finally, before I kick off onto three themes, I want to emphasise that Machiavelli’s conception of a ‘Prince’ is not one of a royal personage, with hereditary rulership rights. Instead,  it is one of a modern ruler who takes their place by election or power; rather like the modern day rulers of our corporations.

Personal Leadership

Above all, Machiavelli believed that skillful leadership is crucial for any endeavour to thrive. And yes, he does suggest that if you can’t have both, it is better to be feared than loved. But he also plays down the importance of luck and knowledge. He says it is often easy to gain power, but harder to hold onto it, and for that you need to be shrewd. Political acumen is still very much an essential part of managerial leadership.

But he also emphasises the importance of a well organised and well-practised team, so for him a shrewd organiser will trump a charismatic leader or a technocrat any day.

Corporate Structure

This is not to say that he didn’t see a role for technocrats. He was, after all, one of them himself. In the debate, still very current, between centralisation and decentralisation, he sees a need for skilled bureaucrats to go into the parts, and run them quasi-autonomously, because of the communication challenges the late mediaeval rulers faced.

However, there are limits to this quasi-atonomy. Machiavelli favoured bureaucratic structures where place-men run components of the distant territories, over federal structures of self governing territories. In the latter, he sees too much scope for these small leaders to build a power base and overthrow the overall ruler. In the bureaucratic structure, it is easier for the prince to exert control, and effectively divide and rule.

Two modern day examples illustrate these choices.

Berkshire Hathaway is a highly federal corporation. Each of its many divisions operates almost entirely autonomously. Its CEO and leadership team have total freedom to make the decisions they choose, to optimise their business. They can compete against one another, change direction when they need to, and need only provide the thinnest of reporting to the Berkshire Hathaway executive.

Honeywell also has a small (though nowhere near as small) centre. But its trading divisions are largely shells, served by highly technocratic functions. All the power resides with functional leads at multiple levels. Profit and Loss accountability may sit with general managers and managing directors, but their goods are designed by engineering verticals, their marketing sits with a marketing function, and cross brand sales teams sell their products.Look inside the ‘business’ that represents a go-to-market brand, and there’s little to see.

Corporate Strategy

Of course, both Berkshire Hathaway and Honeywell grew by acquisition, and Italian states grew in much the same way – but with more casualties. Machiavelli points out that subjugating a whole population is not easy. You cannot rule from afar, with the threat of oppression as your local implementation.

Instead, he tells us to swap in some of your most trusted people as key managers to replace those whom you cannot trust. Get them out of the way, and the rest of the population will fall in line, according to how well those managers meet the concerns of the populace.

And of course this leads us to every manager’s favourite quote from Machiavelli (you’ll see my own favourite next week).

‘It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out ,
nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to
initiate a new order of things.’


* We may add a few additional solo representatives to this list, from time to time, but with well over 150, we are starting to find new candidates of genuine quality thin on the ground. So we are going to turn instead to Management Pairs; thinkers and practitioners whose best work was done or is being done in collaboration. Watch out for that series to start in a couple of weeks.

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