For years it seems Niccolò Machiavelli had gotten a bad rap—he’s really all about paradoxical leadership—the good, the bad, and the various seasons a leader’s finds himself/herself in.
Consider this—Machiavellianism is defined as the political theory of Niccolò Machiavelli, especially the view that any means can be used if it is necessary to maintain power. Is that really the Machiavellian case?
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s most famous work was “The Prince”. The piece was simply a handbook to a new leader, ruler or prince, over a city-state or a population (possibly an organization) and it provided a blueprint on how to take command and maintain stability of their empire/organization. Machiavelli believed stability was the most important element for successful leadership.
Machiavelli lived in a time of constant political unrest. During Machiavelli’s lifetime the leader of Florence, Nicolo’s hometown, changed almost 10 times. As we read Machiavelli’s writings it is evident he wanted a stable, unified Italy, not a collection of city-states constantly in quarreling with each other. What Machiavelli realized was that a ruler can have the best plan in the world—a 10 year plan concluding with a complete utopia in his kingdom, but if his kingdom lacks stability—utopia is impossible.
To Machiavelli if a nation, a company, a squadron is unstable it doesn’t matter how much prosperity we might bring our people, that instability undermines the entire entity. Therefore, the chief concern of any leader is stability of the organization, and no matter what we have to do to achieve that stability—it simply must be done. This is where Machiavelli earns his rap—he believed that even if a leader had to operate outside the confines of morality to achieve stability—that end justified the means. In Machiavelli’s mind—murder, deception, war-mongering, none of these things were off the table in order to achieve that stability goal.
Machiavelli believed the average person simply could not understand what it means to be a ruler. Some leaders might talk about human rights and that a ruler should set an example and we should never spill a single drop of blood—Machiavelli believed in these noble pursuits, but it would be naive to think that a leader can operate under such restraints in any practical sense. Machiavelli thought—nations are founded on deception, espionage, bloodshed, etc. Nations are built on immorality, as such we can not expect a new ruler to maintain the stability of his empire in a moral way.
Machiavelli describes it here:
“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. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.”
If we ponder leaders we have either worked for or with—we have seen this. In fact today we might call it a careerist. A person more concerned with their self worth than the worth of the organization or the people operating in the organization. But…
…this is not the only way Machiavelli thought a nation or organization could be run. His second most famous work was called “Discourses on Livy” Livy was a renowned historian who is best known for writing an entire history of Rome. So Machiavelli, turns to writings of earlier Greeks and Romans for a new model.
He looked at the success of Rome and wrote about how it behooves new city-states to implement their system of government and experience success on the level that Rome modeled. Rome was a republic for most of the time Livy wrote. So at first glance it seems like a contradiction for Machiavelli.
On one hand he is advocating a leader or king shouldn’t be bound by the conventional idea of morality and then on the other hand he thinks a republic is the best thing for states to model themselves after.
There are many explanations for this apparent contradiction, some people even go so far as to say that “The Prince” was a satire. Machiavelli was just showing people how these sorts of rulers actually act so that they would overthrow them and create a republic. That’s probably not the case. In reality, Machiavelli was probably talking about what he saw as two different stages in the development of a state.
First, a nation is founded on bloodshed and immorality and the goal of the state should be to maintain stability whatever the cost. Then, through the creation of institutions of control the state could eventually transform into a more ideal form of government, namely a republic. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” can be thought of as how that initial leader can best maintain stability and implement those institutions of control so that the state survives long past his death. But the thing that leader needs to remember is that without stability first, the republic never happens. He talks about the contradiction in the way people typically think about leaders here:
“How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity, and not with astuteness, every one knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation. You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary to know well how to use both the beast and the man.”
So—this is the inherent paradox in leadership to be both beast and man. Amy Zegart notes in a recent article—It is worth remembering that deception played a pivotal role in America’s birth. Our shining city on the hill owes much to the dark arts. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other Founding Fathers are remembered today as virtuous creators of a bold new democracy. But they were also cunning manipulators of their information environment—a side of the founding story that has often been neglected by history.
Washington’s military strategy was to outsmart and outlast the enemy, not outfight him. He used intelligence to avoid more battles than he fought, and to trick the British into standing down when standing up could have meant the end of the Continental Army. Funny we don’t usually put Machiavelli and Washington together but perhaps there is a time and a place for a deeper understanding of the Machiavellian paradox.