One of my favourite books is Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. From year to year I often dip into it. We’ve all heard the term ‘machiavellian’ applied to people – particularly to those who have authority over us – as an insult but, having read the Master, I’d consider it a compliment if it were ever applied to me. He simply says it as it is, based on personal observation and lessons from history.
His subject is statecraft; how principalities may be governed, and the qualities of princes, but some of the lessons could be applied equally to managing any large undertaking. The qualities require to steer an organisation successfully are of the same skill set, if not of the same order. He’s not a moralist; questions of good or bad are not discussed. Today we’d say he focuses on Realpolitik rather than idealism.
It’s a timeless book – at least in the translation I have (translated by George Bull and published in Penguin Classics). I was re-reading his chapter on A prince’s personal staff, and realised that Barack Obama must be going through a similar process (or if not, he should be) in the choosing of his Cabinet members. And then there is this, from How flatterers must be shunned:
[…] said of his majesty that he never consulted anybody and never did things as
he wanted to… The emperor is a secretive man, he does not tell anyone of his
plans, and he accepts no advice. But as soon as he puts his plans into effect,
and they come to be known, they meet with opposition from those around him; and
then he is only too easily diverted from his purpose. The result is that
whatever he does one day is undone the next, what he wants or plans to do is
never clear, and no reliance can be placed on his decisions.
Remind you of anyone?
Of course, when he says that it’s better for a prince to be feared than to be loved, that’s one lesson we shouldn’t apply today, but many of his arguments are pearls of clarity and wisdom. It’s a 16th century masterpiece, by one of the world’s most acute observers of humanity, and exceedingly well written.