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Why you should read Machiavelli

Would you take management advice from this man? (Source).

A friend asked on Twitter: “What two books would you recommend a new people manager reads and why?”

One book I recommended was The Prince, by Niccolò Macchiavelli.

Why on earth would I recommend a book by him? To people managers?

Well, I wouldn’t advise treating The Prince as a management manual – HR will have issues if you start destroying your enemies completely, and some of Niccolò’s misogyny is unforgivable to modern eyes. But if you’re going to read about leading and managing you might as well read something interesting, something that’s stood the test of time. 

But isn’t Machiavelli short-hand for cunning and conniving and untrustworthy? 

In short, yes – but we confuse Machiavelli with Machiavellian, the adjective that conjures scheming, sneakiness and self-interest. Such is the popular image of Niccolò Machiavelli that if you’d not read The Prince, you might think it was the intellectual equivalent of reading a shady pick-up artist guide or Donald Trump’s guide to deal-making. Why would you bother? You’re not that kind of person, are you?

Here are a few reasons why The Prince is still one of the best books on management and politics (often the same thing) and why you should read it and if you read it years ago (perhaps under academic duress) read it again, now that you are engaged in whatever variation of the Great Human Game of getting things done in groups has ended up as your calling. 

  1. Start with the source. The Prince is the original getting-things-done manual. A lot of advice about work, business and power is diluted re-telling of previous writers’ insights, watered down with platitudinous cant and fashionable feel-good-isms. Why bother reading recycled and re-packaged insights when you can read them in the original.
  2. It is the longest surviving management manual. In the natural selection process of whether texts survive, The Prince pre-dates the printing press and hasn’t been out of print since print was a wave of disruptive new media. 
  3. Everything is political. Power is always a part of how organisations work. Politics are unavoidable. If you aren’t Machiavellian, you should understand how people who are that way inclined will behave to get their way, even at your expense. If you say – and I said it myself for years – “I try to steer clear of politics”, then you may as well say “I steer clear of ambitious projects that might make a real difference”. Politics is how everything gets done in groups.
  4. It is a reminder that every author has an agenda. Few books make money for their authors, especially business books and leadership manuals. Niccolò wanted to save his backside by ingratiating himself with a Duke. He did this by providing the best demonstration of his usefulness that he could, The Prince. Some business books these days are written to boost a consultancy, set up a sideline in punditry and public speaking, or to boost a reputation. 
  5. It’s short. This is a virtue shared by too few business books. It makes its points and then leaves you to get on with its life. It has some respect for the reader. 

The above are general points about the book. Here are some specific lessons from The Prince that will help any new people manager: 

  1. You lead for the benefit of the led and with their implicit consent. If you expect respect or compliance because of a new job title, you’re already on the wrong track. If you’re managing a person or a team you need to succeed by making them successful and not seek the credit for what they do.
  2. Be unusual. Reputations are built on what you do differently, on the big challenges that you overcome. 
  3. Be alert to the need to adapt — and do it boldly when it is time to do so. Change will come, but we act as if it never will. Best to accept that it is coming and be ready when you see signs. The positive version of this is – change is good, and there are always opportunities if you look for them.
  4. If you’re going to make changes an organisation, best to do it quickly. Ever lived through a six-month re-org? If not, I hope you never do. Everything else stops, no one can think about anything other than the change that will come.
  5. Innovation requires power. To innovate you need to be in power, or as Thomas Cromwell puts it in Wolf Hall, “pick a prince”. In modern corporate parlance, find a senior sponsor for your brilliant project. Having a great idea and being passionate are not enough to get things to happen – you need support. That’s politics. 

One more reason to read The Prince: If you’re a Hilary Mantel fan, this is a text that Thomas Cromwell owned in the original Italian. With the final part of her trilogy The Mirror and the Light out in March 2020, this would be a great preparatory read.

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Brave enough to not be busy

Sometimes we talk about being less busy as a kind of dream or a luxury. Not being overworked is not a luxury that you earn through success –it’s the key to being successful in the first place.

If each of us wrote down our definition of how to be be a good leader would we include something like “be so busy that you never have a moment to spare”?

No. And yet that’s how things end up for a lot of us, for a lot of leaders.

“It’s when we are at our busiest that we most need to free up time so that we can use it for the non-routine and the unexpected. In this way, we increase our capacity to lead…”

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra was building on an insight from John Kotter‘s study of general managers which showed that the most successful individuals had the most unstructured time in their days, the most gaps in their diaries. Effectively they made themselves less busy.

“Capacity to lead” is such a useful phrase when thinking about being a leader and our relationship with being busy. Kotter’s more successful general managers had more capacity to lead because they hadn’t overcommitted themselves to meetings and other scheduled activities in advance.

Unstructured, uncommitted time means that you have more ability to respond to things in the moment. Perhaps it also means that you’re more available, more present in the main workplace, instead of being sequestered away in meeting rooms. You get to see and hear what’s going on, get a better idea of what’s happening.

Ibarra’s phrase – “capacity to lead” – is striking because it is so fundamental to the role of a CEO or another leader. If you are too busy, you reduce your capacity to lead, which is irresponsible if not incompetent. Worse, you are implicitly saying, through your actions and demeanour – this is what a leader looks like: busy, over-stretched, unavailable.

In saying your responsibility is to create and protect your capacity to lead, we head off that other unconscious bad habit of busy people, that being less busy – having time to reflect, talk to people, lend a hand where it is needed – is an aspirational luxury, and probably an unattainable one. This attitude is an abdication of responsibility and a denial of the power that they actually have in their working lives. “I’d love to spend some time thinking, but it isn’t going to happen.”

Leading is an endurance sport

The Olympic marathon champion, Joan Benoit Samuelson, talking about long training runs, says “You need to have the guts to go slow at the start”.

Guts. You have to be brave enough to hold back. To go slower than you know you could. It’s harder than it sounds.

Brave enough to hold back: Joan Benoit winning her first marathon in 1984, Credit: (cc) On the Issues magazine. Image cropped.

On long runs –in races as well as training – when you start out on a 90 minute or longer run you start full of beans and a bit excited about the challenge. You discover you have lots of energy and want to go faster. Suddenly you’re moving a minute or two faster a mile than you wanted to. Perhaps you’re fitter than you thought? Maybe all the training and the rest has paid off more than you thought. The endorphins begin to enter your system and –wow– it occurs to you that you might actually be a superhuman.

An hour later with miles still to go and you’ve run out of glycogen and the easy stores of energy in your body, it’s harder to keep moving and you don’t feel like you’ve anything in the tank. You will finish through sheer bloody mindedness, but it won’t be pretty and there won’t be anything like a sprint finish. Kind of the opposite, in fact.

When you run well, you go slower at the start of a race, even if that means you see runners you know you could keep up with heading off into the distance. Then you go a little faster each mile, or maybe speed up a lot more towards the end–it’s called a negative split. In the middle of a race, if you run like this, you start to catch up the people that sped off at the start but have found out the hard way they won’t be able to keep that pace up. In the last third, you start over-taking people and keep doing so all the way to the end. I heard one coach describe this experience as “the tide goes out at the start, stops in the middle and comes in at the end”.

Perhaps because it is the beginning of the year her words came back to me in January. Rested and raring to go after the long Christmas break, I thought that I would come in and hit the first week at full speed. That’s what I need to do, right? That’s what bosses do.

No. No, it’s not.

Have the guts to go slower at the start. Have the guts to increase your capability to lead. January is a good time to spot behaviours you want to change as they start to reassert themselves after a long break.

Runners in the Christmas Day parkrun in Preston Park, Brighton.