If Niccolo Machiavelli was alive today he might have written: “What they don’t teach you at renaissance prince college”.
Or he may have gone for the easy dollar and written “How to be a complete bastard”. Perhaps he might have opted for “Seven secrets of highly effective courtiers”.
Machiavelli lived 500 years ago. For renaissance writers, the only market that mattered was the rich and powerful. Even so, any of those above modern-sounding titles might do for his best-known work, “The Prince”.
The Bill Gates of Machiavelli’s day was a renaissance prince (strictly speaking he was a duke but that’s splitting hairs) called Lorenzo Medici.
Medici had just taken over as ruler of Florence after a period when the city-state had operated as a republic. Lorenzo Medici was rich and well-connected. His uncle was Pope in an era when the Vatican controlled most of the known world.
Self-help book for renaissance leaders
Machiavelli wrote several books, but the best remembered was his self-help book for renaissance leaders. In many respects “The Prince” was the first modern management textbook. It’s as fresh and as relevant today as it was in the 1600s.
Some think the first management title was Sun Tzu’s “The Ancient Art of War”. But, a book written two or three millennia ago hardly qualifies as modern. Sun Tzu’s advice is more overtly aimed at military leadership than Machiavelli’s. The militaristic management style is much associated with the old economy where managers strutted around commanding people.
The important point about The Prince is Machiavelli was conscious of the delicate politics of 16th Century Florence. As he pointed out, it didn’t matter that Medici had a powerful military grip on Florence, Medici needed to keep the nobles onside so he could call on their help – either to get things done or in times of emergency.
Like a modern CEO
In other words, Medici was in the same position as the CEO of a knowledge-based company. He had power, but not absolute power. He depended on the skills and resources of others for his own security.
In modern language, he had stakeholders to satisfy.
The Prince remains relevant to our modern, knowledge-based economy.
Let’s look at how some examples from The Prince apply to the Knowledge Economy:
- Ruthless revenge. Machiavelli recommends leaders either indulge individuals or destroy them. He says that because people are able to get revenge for small injuries done to them, you are left with no choice by to demolish any challenger immediately you cross swords. Anything less than total domination means they can and will get their own back. To see how ruthlessness works in practice think of how Microsoft operated in the software market.
- Machiavelli said republics; particularly former republics, are difficult to control. He said you have two strategy options: destroy them or live there in person. Machiavelli said that people who have lived in republics are dangerous because they can remember what liberty feels like. Replace the idea of a republic with a freewheeling, democratic company recently taken over by a rival and you’ll see how this applies to Knowledge Workers.
- Outsourcing. Machiavelli talked about mercenary soldiers, but his words might apply to contractors; “Their allegiance is fickle, their own self-preservation precedes the cause of their employers and it is in their interests to extend a war and not to end it.”
I’ve always felt sorry for Machiavelli because, while his name has become a byword for a cynical and treacherous style of carrying on, it seems the man himself didn’t advocate this kind of behaviour; he was merely documenting the unvarnished truth about what was necessary for success.
Machiavelli’s level of honesty makes the book astonishing. Although the old-fashioned language can be tiresome, there are good translations which make for a rattling good read.
My advice is to go and read this book before your rivals, and, more frighteningly, your colleagues do.