What Machiavelli can teach us

ThePrince I was listening to Jonathan Powell on the radio recently, talking about his new book, “The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World“, about Tony Blair’s term as Prime Minister.  Powell was Blair’s Chief of Staff and uses Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as a hook for his book.

Having started drawing lessons from one mediaeval text (Hagakure – the Way of the Samurai) for earlier blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I thought I might flick through my tattered copy of The Prince and look for some gems.

Bad News

Have you ever had to face your sponsor with a raft of reasons why their project will be delayed or over budget, or news that your team has uncovered a whole new set of risks that require further contingencies, or with news of trenchant resistance to the changes you need to make?  If you have, you have doubtless wondered whether it would be better to break the news gently and hope that you can resolve some of the problems before having to disclose them all:

“We have some challenges, but we can keep them to a couple of weeks of slippage”

followed by “We had hoped to contain the slippage, but I am confident that another two weeks will be enough”

followed by … You get the point

If that sounds familiar, then Machiavelli has some advice.  Never mind the integrity issues of hiding the truth:

“The prince should inflict all injuries once and for all, and not continually need to renew them daily.  In that way you will set minds at rest and later win them over.”

Troublesome Stakeholders

If you think you have no friends in your project environment, and need to manage your stakeholders well, welcome to the world of The Prince:

“There are two things a Prince must fear: internal dissent from their subjects, and external hostility from foreign forces.”

That doesn’t leave much then!

Stepping in

Stepping in to take over an established project is fraught with personal and reputational risks.  If it goes well, there may be little glory and if it goes badly, you’ll be the one who is remembered:

“the evil that men do lives on: the good is oft’ interred with their bones”
Mark Anthony, of Caesar, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Machiavelli recognised this problem: “The actions of a new Prince attract more attention than those of the hereditary ruler.” His advice is this:

“When your actions are characterised by prowess, they win us over and secure our allegiance.”

If you take over a new project, you must do something that marks you out as exceptional: exceptionally skilled, strong, courageous or able.  Take the time you need to properly assess the situation and decide upon what ground you will make your mark.  Then act decisively.

The “so what?”

Machiavelli is outdated and contemporary at the same time.  His language and some of his methods would be absurd in our culture.  Yet there is much that we can relate to and remains good advice for anyone seeking to lead people, make change happen and spot the social and political risks inherent in their plans.

Last Thoughts

Far be it for me to offer advice to politicians; but it was very much Machiavelli’s goal.  The UK has a new(ish) administration about to put a defining set of policies to the nation.  Big cuts all in one go, enemies within and without, the need to find the right decisive act of prowess.  1514 to 2010 is nearly 500 years.

“Plus ça change: plus c’est le même chose”


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