Machiavelli’s The Prince is an unapologetic masterclass in leadership that should be on the bookshelf of any corporate, political, or wannabe figurehead. Over 500 years after it was published, this seminal work has been studied by everyone from Napoleon to Bill Clinton.
Not that many people would admit to reading it; thanks to the author’s ruthless but realistic approach, the term “Machiavellian” is now (unfairly) associated with evil manipulation and betraying your way to the top.
But dig deeper and you’ll find realistic, practical lessons that can be applied as easily to office politics as they can to government…
1. It’s better to be feared than loved.
Concern yourself with maintaining authority, not friendships, says Machiavelli. Use your authority to full effect when necessary; only leaders who are decisive in the face of moral dilemmas and ruthless in pursuit of their own ends can protect themselves—and therefore their teams. Love can be betrayed, Machiavelli says, but you can prevent betrayal with power.
However, avoid contempt and hatred; ill-feeling among your subjects will encourage contests to your leadership.
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, is notorious for being icy and ruthless (the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada and the preceding book of the same name were based on her direct and arguably hostile manner) and she has admitted, “I make people nervous.” But it’s working: she has been at the helm of Vogue for 28 years and Forbes ranks her among the 30 most powerful women in the world.
2. Morality is not always relevant; morals can be exploited.
Steadfastly behaving in a moral way, leaves a leader open to manipulation by those who want to maintain or increase their own power. Politics is judged by success and the “great founders” of history are remembered for greatness when in fact they used power to commit crimes.
In a world where people are willing to be ruthless (as, Machiavelli argues, we all have the potential to be), a moral leader makes himself, and his state, vulnerable. His morals might make him hesitant to act—and this would cost him everything.
In order to succeed, Machiavelli advises, leaders must separate leadership from ethics and do whatever it takes to maintain your authority: a notion that was not lost on Mark Zuckerberg when he famously cut his co-founder out of Facebook.
3. Be ruthless when necessary, while appearing to be moral.
“Never mind how you act; appear how you want to be,” advised Machiavelli. He studied history’s greatest rulers and concluded that the most effective among them used morality as a convenient function to dupe lesser men.
Great leaders will lie, deceive, and be cruel when necessary, only maintaining a virtuous reputation for the public’s sake. Machiavelli believed that this is the only way to gain and keep the support of your subjects.
This lesson might have gone some way to preventing one of England’s most tumultuous periods: the Wars of the Roses. Pious Henry VI — a virtuous leader in both reputation and action — couldn’t control the escalating power struggle between his own advisors. His eventual fall from power led to decades of upheaval and civil war as claimants to England’s crown fought over the right to rule. As for Henry VI, he is remembered as one of the most unsuccessful rulers in England’s history.
4. Make your subjects love you by giving them gifts.
It is necessary to seem generous, but it is not practical to be generous with one’s own resources. “Of what is not yours or your subjects’,” Machiavelli says, “you can be a more generous donor.”
This notion of limiting resources that will affect leadership ability seems obvious, but Machiavelli would likely argue that ruthlessness is the key to survival. One of the reasons for Amazon’s early success was its unrelenting focus on frugality; the company went as far as repurposing doors as desks as a startup, but they came out of the dot-com boom intact while other (more excessive) startups failed.
5. “A Prince must not have any other object or any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war.”
Leaders should concern themselves exclusively with gaining and maintaining power.
The measure of a ruler’s worth is how well he can adapt to new circumstances and how well he can anticipate those circumstances, Machiavelli argues. Learning to spot these opportunities requires a ruthless obsession with how to achieve your own ends. A leader who is distracted by other tasks will be left vulnerable to more opportunistic competition.
This was a philosophy shared by the late Steve Jobs. Apple’s illustrious co-founder once stated: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
Jobs applied this philosophy to every area of his life: like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, he is known for choosing to wear the same thing every day (Jobs filled his closet with 100 black turtlenecks while Zuckerberg favors gray t-shirts) to reduce time and effort spent on making frivolous decisions.
To quote the American author Henry David Thoreau: “Our life is frittered away by detail… Simply, simplify.”
6. The end justifies the means.
Machiavelli argued that political survival depends on doing whatever it takes to protect the state (or, in the corporate world, your team) — even if that means separating morals from actions.
This is a lesson applied to boardrooms across the world on a daily basis. Difficult decisions like layoffs and cutbacks are necessities for a company’s survival, whether, like Machiavelli advises, we can successfully separate our morals from our actions or not.