Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Modern Executive

     Few question The Prince’s place in the canon of western literature. That it marks a turning point in our collective history, the origin of the study of politics as a science (Pollock 43), is alone enough to warrant its classification as a "Great Book. Its author, Niccolo Machiavelli, a contemporary of Copernicus, is generally accepted as an early contributor to the scientific revolution, because he looked at power and the nature of sovereignty through the eyes of a scientist, focused completely on the goal without regard for religion and morals and ethics. Machiavelli taught that the way princes actually do govern often differs substantially from than the way they ought to govern, according to medieval Christian virtues. Sir Frederick Pollock wrote that in Machiavelli we find "for the first time since Aristotle, the pure passionless curiosity of the man of science. We find the separation of Ethics and Politics…Machiavelli takes no account of morality" (43). Machiavelli considers a successful ruler to be above morality, since the safety and expansion of the state are the supreme objectives. There had not been such a frank rejection of morality since the Greek Sophists. His ideas are in stark contrast with traditional church teachings. It is no wonder that The Prince was added to the Index of banned books and even today remains one of the most criticized and controversial books ever written. It is a scientific investigation into the tactics of retaining power. It is about application of power in the pursuit a greater goal. The Prince is, above all, about leadership. Though it is doubtful that Machiavelli realized the far reaching impact of his work. Its application is timeless and particularly pertinent to the modern business executive.

    Drawing a connection between Machiavelli’s states and modern day corporations is not difficult. A corporation has its king and its barons, its courtiers and ambassadors, its loyalists and its dissident elements, its allies and its enemies. What is important to our application of his principles of statecraft to the business world is not the superficial differences but the underlying unity. Modern corporations that are successful and well-managed do not necessarily operate in harmony with the personal morality of their employees and for the general good of their communities. Similarly, firms which pollute the environment or ask their employees to lie are not always forced into bankruptcy.

    The individualism and secularism that characterized the Italian Renaissance are dominant themes in Machiavelli’s thinking. His use of historical examples throughout The Prince demonstrates an extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman history and is consistent with the new-found love for antiquity of the Renaissance. Machiavelli was, in every sense of the word, a true "renaissance man." He appears to be remarkably well-educated, although limited finances probably prevented him from studying at a major university. As a result, the effect of humanist teachings, prevalent at most of the institutions of higher learning at the time, on Machiavelli was limited. Machiavelli’s knowledge of specific details of politics is primarily the culmination of a life-long career as a bureaucrat and diplomat.

    In The Prince, Machiavelli offers advice to rulers as to what they must do to achieve their aims and secure their power. Butterfield describes Machiavelli’s teaching as a "collection of concrete maxims-warnings and injunctions in regard to certain points of policy, rules of conduct for specified emergencies, and expositions of tactical moves (19). Machiavelli seems only to be concerned with nature of human beings and how power is maintained. He observed that the success or failure of a state was, more often than not, the direct result of the leader’s ability and willingness to employ methods that the Catholic church and even Martin Luther, another contemporary, would view as less than virtuous. He believed that there was no divine order of things, set down by God, that establishes how states are to be operated. "This comes out clearly in Machiavelli’s repeated remarks on the instability of things and in his emphasis on the role of ‘Fortune’ in man’s life. (Jones 50). In The Prince, he seeks to lessen the impact of luck and emphasizes prudence as the leader’s best decision-making tool. In chapter 21 Machiavelli states that prudence "consists in knowing how to distinguish degrees of disadvantage, and in accepting a less evil as a good" (162).

    Machiavelli is often criticized for suggesting fraud and treachery as an acceptable tactic. The Elizabethan English were the harshest critics, condemning him as "a truly evil man" (Ruffo-Fiore 139). Wynham Lewis claims that Machiavelli was closely associated with evil in the minds of the English as a result of a highly critical work published a hundred years before The Prince was even available in English (Lewis 66).

    Though in his private life, Machiavelli’s reputation and personal values were beyond reproach, his name has become an adjective for describing someone devious, deceitful, and self-serving (Pollock 45). This is not the impression one gets from reading The Prince. It becomes clear to the reader that Machiavelli is neither immoral nor advocating evil. His frank and candid observations on the appropriateness of the various political tactics demonstrate his concern the ultimate goal or greater good. Much of what is considered objectionable in The Prince is clearly laid out by Machiavelli to be emergency actions that should be employed cautiously and only when the survival of the state requires such action.

    Machiavelli’s guidelines for a new prince are particularly applicable to takeovers, mergers and acquisitions. He suggests that a leader should employ the strength of the lion and the cunning of a fox (128) and that it is best for a leader to be both feared and loved; but since this usually cannot be done, it is safer to be feared (124). He also suggests that leaders are not required to keep promises when it is no longer advantageous to do so (128).

    The parallels between acquired companies and the kingdoms described in chapter 3 are significant. Machiavelli suggests that when an acquired kingdom is difficult to manage, the prince should "come to live in it" (33). Oftentimes during a major merger or acquisition it is necessary to relocate the corporate offices for just the reasons Machiavelli indicates. Machiavelli suggests that in these cases:

Men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed, since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver (34-5).

     Old loyalties to previous administrations must be wiped out immediately if the new leader is to be able to effectively manage the territory, although Machiavelli does propose the use of colonies over forceful intervention of troops, primarily because of cost (35).

    A modern manager is constantly confronted with the necessity for change. Seldom will any change benefit everyone. There are losers and it is not uncommon for a disgruntled employee to inflict many harms upon a company. In chapter 19, Machiavelli encourages the prince to avoid being hated, if possible (132). He also states that:

As Princes cannot escape being hated by some, they should, in the first place, endeavour not to be hated by a class; failing in which, they must do all they can to escape the hatred of that class which is stronger (139).

    This is good advice for any decision-maker. Indeed, success in modern business usually concerns the ability to manage who are your friends and who are your enemies.

    The use of mercenaries is soundly criticized in The Prince. In chapter 12, Machiavelli describes mercenaries as "useless and dangerous" (95). His position is clear:

He who holds his State by means of mercenary troops can never be solidly or securely seated. For such troops are disunited, ambitious, insubordinate, treacherous, insolent among friends, cowardly before foes, and without fear of God or faith with man. Whenever they are attacked defeat follows; so that in peace you are plundered by them, in war by your enemies. And this because they have no tie or motive to keep them in the field beyond their paltry pay (95).

    His belief that a leader should maintain an army rather than use mercenaries can be compared to the current trend toward utilizing temporary workers. Machiavelli’s advice to today’s manager would be to cultivate his own employees and be extremely cautious in utilizing the popular temporary services.

    Machiavelli also presents good advice concerning the hiring of senior employees. In chapter 22 he says:

When you see a Minister thinking more of himself than of you, and in all his actions seeking his own ends, that man can never be a good Minister or one that you can trust…to keep his Minister good, the Prince should be considerate of him, dignifying him, enriching him, binding him to himself by benefits, and sharing with him the honours as well as the burthens (164).

    This advice is a candid appraisal of the value of trust and of cultivating trust in a senior employee. Mutiny, back-stabbing, and deceit in the quest for individual gain are altogether too common in today’s business world. Selecting and grooming proper lieutenants is as important for today’s executives as for Machiavelli’s prince.

    Synergy and alliances are as common in the business world as open battle in the marketplace. Machiavelli’s guidance for princes to choose a side, rather than remain neutral when neighbors are at war, is particularly pertinent. He puts it this way:

Declare yourself, and join in frankly with one side or other. For should you fail to do so you are certain…to become the prey of the victor to the satisfaction and delight of the vanquished…for the victor dislikes doubtful friends, and such as will not help him in a pinch; and the vanquished will have nothing to say to you, since you would not share his fortunes sword in hand (159).

    Clearly, a modern executive would do well to consider the attitudes of all the players involved in a conflict and act in such a manner as to preserve and enhance his own power and influence.

    Though all of these axioms are quite valuable for today’s executive, Machiavelli did fail to acknowledge the value of dependability and that systematic deceit, treachery, and violence will usually result in the ultimate demise of the perpetrator.

    Today’s corporate executive must routinely make decisions which directly effect the lives of thousands of individuals. To be successful, he or she must be able to identify and objectively evaluate the entire range of options, strategies, and tactics available. This involves weighing the negative implications of a decision against the anticipated gain and then acting, without hesitation, in the best interests of the firm. The Prince provides valuable and timeless insight for modern managers facing the difficult choices involved in right-sizing, acquisitions, mergers, hostile take-overs, and fierce competition in the marketplace. Any institution of higher learning professing to prepare business leaders for the challenges of tomorrow should include Machiavelli’s The Prince as part of their business ethics curriculum. Executives and business leaders serious about success or anyone whose vocabulary includes the word "machiavellian" would do well to read The Prince and, if they have already read it, read it again. As with all truly "Great Books," each successive reading reveals fresh new ideas and insights. The Prince, though disturbingly cold and frank at times, is no different.



Works Cited

Butterfield, Herbert. The Statecraft of Machiavelli. New York: MacMillan, 1956.

Jones, W. T. Masters of Political Thought. Ed. Edward, McChesner, and Sait. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.

Lewis, Wyndham. The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1951.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Hill Thompson. Norwalk: The Easton Press, 1980.

Pollock, Frederick. An Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics. London: MacMillan, 1935.

Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia. Niccolo Machiavelli. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.



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