We've all heard someone labeled as Machiavellian, and perhaps we've even used the term ourselves.
The phrase conjures up images of dishonest, opportunistic, and amoral people—those with whom we don't necessarily wish to be associated.
To be fair to Niccolo, though, these broad concepts are taken out of context.
Most of these interpretations are based on Machiavelli's book, The Prince, written during a period of strife in pre-nation Italy, when power was held by key city-states such as Venice, Florence, and Rome.
In troubled times, each of these kingdoms was governed by a prince who needed to be evil, opportunistic, and amoral to preserve and extend his authority. Being Machiavelli, perhaps, was beneficial.
That is, in fact, the subject of his book. It was created for Florence's elders, describing best practices in leadership at the time.
So, how does it integrate into the modern world?
If we replace competitive city-states with competitive companies, aggressive territorial development goals with ambitious market share growth plans, and asset acquisition through the war. The analogies are then obvious to everybody.
Now for the next ten minutes, we're going to discuss how Machiavelli's work can be interpreted in today's environment.
Mergers and Acquisitions
Machiavelli describes the challenges faced by a ruler taking over new territories or domains.
The first difficulty is one of anticipation. "Men voluntarily replace their ruler in the hope of a brighter future," Machiavelli writes.
Back-slapping, bi-directional praise of success, assertions of synergies, and future plans are all part of the honeymoon stage in M&As. Staff primarily consider changes in their own areas of responsibility and ask themselves, "What's in it for me?"
"No matter how powerful one's armies are, to enter a country, one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants," wrote Machiavelli.
New leaders must earn the trust of their new team by ensuring that their wants are satisfied. They can do that by improving their circumstances or keeping the status quo. "So long as their old ways of life are undisturbed and there is no divergence in customs, men live quietly."
So, a 15th century SWOT analysis, the Machiavellian approach to M&As is not inherently dictatorial but emphasizes constructive change when necessary, with maintenance and exploitation of what is good.
Leading by "Being There"
The problems posed by a remote leadership team were highlighted by Machiavelli:
"..when states are acquired in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very attentive. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go to live there in person".
He saw the benefits, which are still there today. By being on the scene, a leader may notice danger early and deal with it effectively.
If problems go unnoticed, they will only be discovered when they become significant, at which point it will be too late. When problems are detected early, they can be readily corrected. If you wait too long, the illness will be incurable.
Our modern-day gurus recommend managing by walking about, strong social communication, real leadership, and other techniques in the workplace. Which of them has been dubbed a Machiavellian before?
A word on motivation Machiavelli is extremely clear when it comes to motivation and discipline. "Violence must be inflicted once and for all; people will then forget what it tastes like."
Benefits should be given out gradually since this would make them taste better.
Deviants receive a swift and painful reprimand, whereas compliants receive gradual appreciation. We've all been on the receiving end of the good-bad-good sandwich that is personal evaluation. Get the criticism out of the way as soon as possible and get back to work.
It's another fantastic "Machiavellian" technique that's now widely used in business.
The leader's A-team
Machiavelli explains the ideal way to assemble a leader's support group. He sees two options: work with a group of equally strong people or become the focal point and get support from lower levels of authority.
He argues that the latter is the superior option: "A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people."
Why? Because in the former, the leader is surrounded by many people who feel they are on the same level as him. As a result, the leader is unable to command or control them in the way they desire.
When the people are hostile, the worst that may happen to a leader is that they will be deserted; however, when it comes to hostile nobility, the leader must dread desertion and active opposition.
The remedy, according to Machiavelli, is to ensure that the nobility (or today's Vice-Presidents) behave in such a manner that they become completely reliant on the leader's fortunes. How? Build an A-Team with independent but interdependent talents, expertise, and shared ambition by sharing risk and reward.
Machiavelli and good governance.
Machiavelli says, "The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war; the first way to win a state is to be skilled in the art of war."
This refers to authoritarian aggressiveness in the context of the original publication. Still, his words clearly pertain to good governance with a little extension and examination of our own current corporate environment.
Suppose the leader concentrates on the limits of his business area. In that case, external influences, laws, and regulations must be adhered to. The impact of local conditions will make it easier to develop and progress.
Machiavelli also suggests that intellectual training should include assessing the leaders of other successful groups or periods "to discover the reasons for their victories or defeats so that the prince can avoid the latter and imitate the former." It's called benchmarking.
Machiavelli and Authenticity
According to Machiavelli, the leader should look sympathetic, trustworthy, gentle, genuine, and devout. Their temperament, on the other hand, should be such that if he has to be the polar opposite, he understands how to do so.
Now, this is more in line with the popular idea of Machiavellian behavior, but let's take a closer look. Everyone believes that a leader who keeps their word and is transparent is admirable.
Despite this, many people who have had great success have been more closed in their approach.
What's an example? Take a look at Apple and Steve Jobs. Although Jobs' leadership style is often lauded, many Apple workers can explain Jobs' leadership style's "dark side."
As Machiavelli says, "a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist." Become a lifelong learner and continue to improve.
Conflict and Contest
Niccolò Machiavelli suggested that: "There are two things a prince must fear: internal subversion from his subjects; and external aggression by foreign powers."
To resist the latter, the leader needs strong friends, particularly from within their own company. For the former, the conspirator will enlist the assistance of others, particularly those who he feels are discontent. Internal alliances are crucial once again.
Don't get lost in self-belief.
He wrote, "Men are so happily absorbed in their own affairs and indulge in such self-deception that it is difficult for them not to fall victim to this plague." Many modern personalities exhibit similar traits.
Machiavelli thought that the only way to protect oneself against flatterers is to let people know that you are not offended by the truth and acknowledge that if everyone can tell you the truth, you risk losing respect.
He says that a prince (or leader) should always seek counsel. He must, however, take it when he wishes, not when others force him to. Simultaneously, he should ask questions often and must note the answers.
In today's environment, no company exists in isolation. Strong, fair collaborations are essential for success. Success, according to Stephen Covey, is built on first wanting to understand, then be understood.
Is it thus impolite to be Machiavellian?
We may speculate that he has been misrepresented and that his unique ideas set him out, much like a foreigner in a strange place. However, outliers do occasionally succeed. We receive the same results if we do the same things.
Isn't it time for a change?