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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.