Insights from an infamous leader on the art of leadership and success
“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”
This quote comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, sixteenth-century Italian philosopher and statesman. The name often carries negative connotations and Machiavelli is criticized even today for his highly controversial statements on effective leadership. For example, in his treatise entitled The Prince, the writes that “it is [better] to be feared than loved” and that “if an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
Machiavelli shared his writings with many famous leaders of the day, one of which was Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici. He offered this treatise to him saying that the best way to show his love and respect was to share his “understanding of the deeds of great men.”
Great men are leaders, and leadership is, in fact, one of life’s most valuable skills. It requires a complex set of traits that can be honed and developed with time and study. Here are some of Machiavelli’s greatest insights, ones which I believe will prove extremely beneficial to anyone who is in a leadership position or who has a desire to lead others.
Pick the right team
In any organization, a leader’s success depends on those he chooses to work under him. In the following quote, Machiavelli discusses the three types of people which a leader may see in his organization and which ones are most beneficial: “There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”
The first and “most excellent” team member is one that “comprehends by [himself].” Pick intelligent men to work on your team who are quick-witted, ambitious, and show a willingness to learn, study, and analyze on their own.
Also, have team members who“ appreciate what others comprehend.” These could be classified as loyal followers. Perhaps they are not as knowledgeable or insightful as the members described in the above paragraph, but they have the capacity to carry out and build off of the innovative thinking of the first type of worker. These are the people that can “run” with good ideas. Perhaps they do not come up with the ideas themselves, but they provide follow-through, do the foot-work, and can be trusted “servants” to an organization.
Machiavelli cautions against those who display neither of the above traits. He terms them “useless.” It is these specific type of people that leaders should work to eliminate from their team. As they say, an organization is only as strong as its weakest member.
Be candid and allow others to be so as well
Machiavelli states “there is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”
Often, because subordinates know their jobs depend on a leader’s favor, they will hold back their thoughts and feelings. When new programs or initiatives are introduced, they may feel afraid to state their reservations, concerns, or things they see as problematic.
A good leader knows that the more insights and perspectives he can gather concerning a line of action or “attack,” the better the end result for the idea’s success. Why? Even the greatest leader knows that he does not have all the answers, that the input of others can often aid him by helping him refine a strategy and make it more “bulletproof” and effective.
Therefore, a good leader should seek to let his team members know that the truth is valued, that their perspectives and reservations are not only welcomed but encouraged, and that their criticisms will not be held against them at a later time.
Doing this allows all members of an organization to feel appreciated and “heard,” so in addition to helping a leader’s good idea become “great,” the leader also creates a sense of camaraderie with his team and ensures a group dynamic that will ensure continued success in future endeavors.
One of the greatest reasons that a leader needs to encourage candor and honesty in his subordinates is that they can help him foresee potential problems in a project or line of action, and this ability to anticipate problems is one that Machiavelli sees as crucial to a good leader.
He states: “To defeat Fortune, men must anticipate such evils before they arise, and take prudent steps to avoid them. When the waters have already risen, it is too late to build dikes and embankments.”
A good leader is always pro-active. He or she knows that nothing goes as smoothly as is planned, and therefore pre-emptive measures should be taken to ensure success.
How is this done?
Look at all possible perspectives in a situation. For example, are there financial issues to be considered or potential “buyer” criticisms that may present themselves? Also, look at the smaller details that are involved in the implementation of a large project to get a more accurate indication of where issues may arise. After all, the “devil is [often] in the details” and good leaders address these details immediately because, as Machiavelli hints, once a problem does surface, it may be impossible to fix.
Tackle problems as they arise
As anyone knows, even the best-laid plans can go awry, and when a problem does present itself, Machiavelli says that it must be addressed immediately. He compares these problems to a sickness to prove his point: “It happens in hectic fever, that in the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure.”
He reasons that the faster a sickness is detected, the easier it is to cure. It is the same with problems or crises in the business world. Again, act quickly. Do damage control. The longer you wait, the worse the issue will get.
It is an unfortunate truth that life and business do not always follow the path of virtue and/or logic. A good leader must not only be cognizant of this fact, but he must use this knowledge to achieve success.
Machiavelli echoes this truth in the following statement: “How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”
For example, take the business of acting. In truth, an actor’s success should depend solely on the talent he possesses, but oftentimes, an actor who does not cultivate his following through interviews, press events, and fan interaction will not last long on Hollywood’s shaky pedestal. Machiavelli reinforces the idea that it does not matter how things should be, what matters is how they are.
When leading an organization, several hard choices may have to be made based on cold hard reality. Business, for example, should be about cooperation, mutual respect, loyalty, and truth. Oftentimes, however, this is not the fact. The truth? People can be selfish, they can be deceiving, they can be fickle. A good leader bases his decisions on these realities and on logical truths that lie obviously in the world around him.
Implement changes slowly if possible
If you are a new leader or a leader who sees that radical changes have to be made in an organization, implement changes in a slow but steady manner.
Machiavelli comments that “it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
Subordinates already accustomed to the “old order” will be resistant to change, for routine breeds comfort and newness breeds fear and resentment. Try to make adjustments and changes in as smooth a manner as possible in order to decrease the possibility that those under you will rebel or be problematic. Of course, some changes must be done in a timely or even speedy manner but, if possible, portion out the changes in such a way that team members can mentally and physically adapt to a new system or philosophy.
Give freedom where you can
Machiavelli states that “he who becomes a Prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them; which it is easy for him to do, since all they ask is not to be oppressed.”
No one likes to be under the yoke of another’s commands, but this is the way the business world works. However, a good leader knows that accommodating his workers in small ways makes them more willing and happy servants to an organization.
For example, I am a teacher. One of the small privileges we used to have was going out to lunch on teacher workdays. After all, there were no students to watch, and the day itself was our time to work freely on those things we saw fit. A new administrator came in who took this small, harmless freedom away, and instantly his favor was lost.
How can you let your workers have this small taste of freedom? Of what choices, decisions, or working conditions can you let them be in control? Finding and allowing these chances for freedom of choice make workers feel appreciated and give them a sense of control in a world where they often feel powerless.
Study other great leaders
Good leaders are made, not born. They use their own natural talents to aid them, but they also look to others who have walked similar paths and found success. Machiavelli emphasizes this fact: “A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.”
Study other leaders in your particular business or role. What strengths do they have? What methods and techniques have worked well for them or brought them success? Think of how you can incorporate these strengths and techniques in your own field or business.
Read books on leaders whom you admire. Learn about the philosophies and strategies that garnered them success and prosperity. Use these learnings to increase your own achievement.
Look the part
It is a universal truth that looks matter. All people form immediate impressions about people based on their clothes, their posture, their word choice, etc. As Machiavelli states, “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”
A leader should be professional and present himself in such a way that he commands respect and allegiance from those who work beneath him. Be neat. Take pride in your appearance. Notice your words, your tone. Be firm, but not domineering. Hold yourself in such a way that shows confidence. In short, look and act your part. People do not believe what you tell them, they believe what they see.
The bottom line
Machiavelli states that “where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great. ” If a man is willing to take conscious steps to achieve greatness, if he seeks constantly to evaluate and re-evaluate the situations that lie before him, if he strives to create a balance between power and benevolence with those whom he leads, a world of wealth and opportunity is his for the taking. This is what makes a good prince and a truly great leader. I wish you luck in your endeavor.