Machiavellis The Prince:
Machiavelli’s The Prince:
Modern Advice for Family Leaders
Machiavelli’s The Prince is probably the best known book on leadership of all time. It is a letter of advice written in 1513 to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the inheritor of the Italian state of Florence. The book’s genius is that in less than 100 pages it offers many leadership prescriptions from centuries of time and dozens of state leaders—from Persian and Greek rulers B.C., including many Roman emperors during the years around 200 A.D., drawing on Spanish and French kings and mostly on the many successful and failed Italian state leaders of the Renaissance.
Perhaps because of the times or his own frustrated biography, Machiavelli believes power or force is the fundamental ingredient to sustaining state leadership. He also has a very negative view of human nature—“men are wretched creatures.” Regardless, there are many ideas worthy of reflection by family business leaders.
Machiavelli summarizes: “As for intellectual training, the prince must read history—studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conduct themselves (when successful or not successful).” My favorite books for family business successors are Father, Son and Company, the story of IBM by Thomas J. Watson Jr., the son of the founder; Personal History, by Katharine Graham, a former heir to The Washington Post; and Memoirs of Hadrian, about the educating of Marcus Aurelius, who was to become the most successful emperor of Roman times.
Inheriting respect is easy. Keeping it is hard.
Those who become the prince as an inheritor find that earning respect is easy, but keeping it is hard.
Not everyone is virtuous.
The prince must know when not to be virtuous in return. He must also know the art of how not to be virtuous while avoiding the reputation of not being virtuous. It’s best to let others do the “dirty work,” but if observed, take responsibility: “(One) must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state.”
Parsimony comes before generosity.
Generosity is a virtue. But parsimony (frugality) is a higher one. If one is not parsimonious, one cannot sustain generosity. It is easier to be seen as being consistently parsimonious to all than as equally generous to all. Further, the prince never wants to be seen squandering resources or living ostentatiously. He should be generous to others with his own personal resources, not the resources of others (i.e., company resources). “There is nothing as self-defeating as generosity; in the art of practicing it, you lose the ability to do so.”
“The prince must want to have a reputation for compassion rather than cruelty.”
“Nonetheless, he must be careful that he does not make bad use of compassion.” Like parsimony and generosity, compassion and cruelty are a paradox for Machiavelli. He agrees that if something or someone goes wrong, “making an example of one or two, he will prove more compassionate than those being too compassionate.” He takes this view further by emphasizing that “it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”
Machiavelli summarizes: “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless and devout. And indeed, he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.”
The book’s translator, George Buell, adds his own twist: “Be ready for cruelty only because, in the long run, it is often kinder to be cruel than weak.”
Beware of setting high expectations.
Unnecessary promises of change risk offending those pleased with the past order and disappointing those disposed to exaggerating the benefits of change.
This prescription raises two questions for successor reflection: Do I feel the need to change for change’s sake in order to prove myself? Conversely, do I worry that not making significant changes will be perceived as weakness?
“Nothing brings the prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations of his personal abilities.”
But remember, change for its own sake is not advised for successors, as counseled by Machiavelli. Instead, he points out that there will always be moments of fortune that call for ability and greatness. The prince should always be on the lookout for such occasions.
When taking new lands (i.e., acquisitions), immediately go and live there for a while.
“Being on the spot can detect trouble at the start” and “the subjects are satisfied because they have direct recourse to the prince,” Machiavelli says. “The Romans in countries they seized…established settlements, supported the weaker powers without increasing their strength, crushed the powerful and did not allow any powerful foreigner to win prestige.”
This advice relates not just to acquisitions but to how the successor involves himself with the people upon taking his new leadership role.
Sustained leadership is derived from “the goodwill of the people.”
Above all else, don’t be hated or scorned. The prince will be despised for being fickle, frivolous, cowardly or irresolute.
“He must never let his thoughts stray from military exercises, which he must pursue more vigorously in peace than war.”
Rather than thinking of peace and war, consider good strategic times and tough strategic times. Machiavelli sternly advises the prince to always be as competitively sharp as possible. Consistent vigor and discipline are urged.
“The first opinion of a ruler’s intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him.”
The prince is admonished to beware of flatterers and ministers who think more of themselves than the ruler. More subtle counsel is offered: To safeguard against flattery, let the advisors know you want to hear the truth, but only when you ask for it. Asking everyone about everything every time appears weak. And the prince can’t delegate everything to advisors; he must take personal responsibility for the decisions and the outcomes. That’s the sign of a truly wise leader.
“It is better to be impetuous than circumspect.”
Trying to be wisely adaptive to changing situations is less likely to achieve success than to seize the opportunities of fortune instinctively. Taking risks is better than waiting in the wings.
Perhaps consider discussing these Machiavellian principles with peers or predecessors or wise advisors for their views and experiences.