DeM Banter: Always a big fan of Machiavelli and felt he was/is misunderstood. Some time ago we built a post on Machiavelli, but I guess we didn’t finish it—guess it is time to dig that one up. Great piece by Demack and important data to remember and live by.
Cesare Borgia was the bad boy of the Renaissance. The illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, he ravaged northern Italy, seizing towns and murdering those who stood in his way. Not even his allies were safe. A dinner invitation could be your death sentence. He stabbed, strangled and poisoned with impunity.
Cesare Borgia died in 1507, so he won’t be inviting you to dinner. But his spirit lives on. We will all, at some point in our lives, meet our very own Cesare Borgia.
He–or she–may not be obvious at first. A new manager, a work colleague, a community leader, maybe even a priest–it doesn’t matter which disguise he wears. Before you meet your Cesare Borgia, you had best be prepared.
Who better to advise you than someone who met the original and lived to tell the tale? As a Florentine diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli spent four months in Borgia’s court. The behavior he observed there inspired The Prince.
At first glance, The Prince may seem irrelevant to our lives today. After all, the book is almost 500 years old! But the abuse of power is not peculiar to Renaissance politics. It can occur at any time, in any workplace, in any relationship. The principles Machiavelli discovered apply equally to our lives today.
In popular culture, Machiavelli is synonymous with deceit and treachery. However, Machiavelli’s main concerns were the security of the state and the welfare of its people. Much of his leadership advice is plain common sense. In Chapter 21 of The Prince, he explains what leaders must do to be esteemed. Presidents who attend the Olympics and CEOs who act as philanthropists are simply following his counsel.
Philanthropy, of course, is far less interesting than a good old-fashioned murder. While Machiavelli admired Borgia, he also recognized his weaknesses. Here, Machiavelli is brutally honest. He identifies some unpalatable truths about human nature and gives them to us straight. If we refuse to acknowledge these truths, we become easy prey for the first Cesare Borgia to happen our way. Powerful people do not always play nice.
These days, of course, our leaders are far less bloodthirsty than Borgia. If you cross your manager, he probably won’t have you drowned in the Tiber. Backstabbing is not what it used to be; usually there’s no funeral involved.
Even so, misjudging your relationship with powerful people can jeopardize your career, your health and your bank balance. Open any newspaper and you will find the stories of those who abused their power and those who became their victims.
Power is most often abused when both the perpetrator and the victim share dysfunctional beliefs about power. Both act out of fear. The perpetrator fears losing power, or being exposed as a fraud. The victim fears humiliation and ridicule. In the end, both reap what they fear most.
The sad fact is very few people know how to lead. This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today. Leaders channel the energies of their people toward a common goal. They temper their self-interest. They build networks, rather than fortresses. Most people lack these skills. Instead, they cajole, criticize or threaten. This is not leadership; this is bullying. It is the only strategy they know.
Bullies are essentially weak. The best defense against a bully is not to cringe, nor to fight back. The best defense against a bully is no defense at all. Bullies are not attracted to people who are strong, calm and self-confident.
We may be tested, however. Any decent bully knows how to press our buttons. We all have self-doubts, and bullies can sense these instinctively. If we cower, we become victims. If we fight back aggressively, we become bullies. Neither stance will bring us happiness. Once we begin bullying others, we must always watch our backs. The vast majority of Roman Emperors cited in The Prince died violently, before their time. Every time we bully someone, we create an enemy.
How we respond to those more powerful than us shapes our treatment of those who are weaker. We will all be given the opportunity to lead others. It might be at work, in politics, in our community, or even within our family. Families can be the most dangerous of all–Cesare Borgia is said to have murdered his brother. Those whom we know intimately are best attuned to our frailties.
When we become leaders, we will be challenged. If we have any self-doubts, they will become obvious to others. We all have strengths and weaknesses. If we try to hide our weaknesses, they will be exposed.
The key to effective leadership is self-knowledge and self-acceptance. This is not what most people imagine when they think of Machiavelli. But men like Borgia were destroyed precisely because they lacked self-knowledge. Had Borgia recognized his weaknesses, he would have taken a different path. But only strong people can acknowledge their weaknesses.
Self-acceptance is equally important. Once we accept our imperfections, they lose their power and others cannot use them to manipulate us. We find the courage needed to speak the truth to power. And we find it easier to accept the imperfections in others. Whether we lead or follow, self-knowledge and self-acceptance are indispensable.
Machiavelli teaches us to take responsibility for our relationship with power. This is not obligatory, of course, but merely wise. Understanding Machiavelli gives us a richer appreciation for human nature. It allows us to foresee problems, defuse dangerous situations and make wiser decisions.
To learn the inner workings of power, read The Prince. Observe others with unfailing honesty. Look within yourself. Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses. Cultivate your inner strengths. Then, when the Cesare Borgia in your life invites you to dinner, you will be able to respond with clarity and confidence.