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Niccolo Machiavelli: the patron saint of power.

Throughout most of the five centuries since his death, Niccolo Machiavelli has not been a popular figure. There have always been a few people who appreciated his genius, but most have so closely associated him with intrigue and dark deeds that the term Machiavellian has entered almost every European language--a word that means something very different from good management. Fortunately, in the last 100 years or so, a more reasoned view of his work has developed and the enormous value of Machiavelli's philosophy, and its remarkable relevance to modern society, has emerged progressively.

No one has done more to develop the comparisons between Machiavelli's ideas and current management practice than Antony Jay. In his now classic 1967 book, Management and Machiavelli, Jay gives us a masterly interpretation of Machiavelli's philosophy in twentieth century terms. He then examines, with the eyes of a historian and political scientist, how this philosophy has influenced the development of management science and the work of so many business practitioners and researchers.

Courageously, Jay takes on Peter Drucker and other management thinkers who have marvelled at the rapid and unchallenged way in which management science has emerged as a new institution (even discipline) in the twentieth century, despite the absence of a tenable theory of business practice. Jay sees this as no miracle. While accepting that there may be no useful theory, he believes there is a sound political theory of business enterprise. "The new science of management is in fact only a continuation of the old art of government," Jay suggests, "and when you study management theory side by side with political theory, and the management case studies side by side with political history, you realise that you are only studying two very similar branches of the same subject." Once this relationship is accepted, the importance of Machiavelli, the first great analyst of political theory, is firmly established.

Jay identifies Machiavelli's contribution to management science precisely when he says, "...however marginal his relevance to academic historians, [Machiavelli] is in fact bursting with urgent advice and acute observations for top management of the greatest private and public corporations all over the world. You only have to look for it."

Life and career

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469, the son of a Florentine lawyer. He first came to public notice, when, in 1498, aged 29, he was appointed Secretary of the Second Chancery--part of the complex bureaucracy that ran Florence as a city state. His appointment came after the execution of Savanarola, the friar-politician who, after leading a revolt that expelled the Medicis and established a democratic republic, dominated Florentine life until he fell foul of the Papacy and was burned for heresy.

Machiavelli held the post of Secretary for 14 years, during which time his influence was significant. He took part in 30 foreign missions, meeting most of Europe's key politicians and rulers. This opportunity to learn about government, politics and economics must have been unique. Unfortunately, it was not to last. In 1512 the Medicis returned to power and Machiavelli lost his post immediately. He was then suspected, quite wrongly, of plotting against the Medicis, for which he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Although eventually found innocent, he was expelled from Florence and forced to spend the rest of his life in exile on an isolated farm. His many attempts to re-enter political life failed and he died in 1527 still struggling to regain his lost influence.

Whilst Machiavelli may not have enjoyed his time in exile, the world has gained immeasurably from it. The enforced idleness allowed him to write prodigiously about his experiences and ideas. His written works include a history of Florence, several plays and two books that established him as a great authority on power politics: The Prince and The Discourses. Professor Max Lerner, in his introduction to the 1950 Random House edition of The Prince describes the book as "a grammar of power". There can be no more fitting description of this seminal work.

Key theories

Machiavelli presents no instant management theories, no clever techniques for solving day-to-day problems. He deals mainly with broad strategies and to get value from his writing one needs to interpret it and make comparisons. Perhaps the best approach is to first read Jay's introduction on the art of making such comparisons and then to read Machiavelli with a personal checklist of interests and questions.

Some insights

The following examples show how certain passages in Machiavelli's writing bridge the seemingly huge gap between sixteenth century politics and twentieth century business.

* Leadership--Machiavelli provides several examples of good leaders and leaves his readers in no doubt about the importance of skilful leadership to the success of any enterprise. He dismisses luck and genius as the key to successful leadership and goes for "shrewdness". The dangers and risks a leader faces are dramatically illustrated (happily for us these are less terrifying today than in Renaissance Italy) and comparison is made between the relative ease in getting to a position of leadership and the difficult task of staying there.

* Centralisation versus Decentralisation--Anyone thinking that the problem of opting for centralised or decentralised control is a modern dilemma will be quickly persuaded otherwise by reading The Prince. Machiavelli's examples are drawn from strictly government and military events, but the comparisons with today's business world are easy to make. Perhaps his best advice comes when he is talking about the government of colonies and outposts. Poor communications in Renaissance times usually made decentralisation the only option in such cases, and Machiavelli's recommendations centre on what today we would call selection and training. The colonial governor must be carefully selected for his experience and loyalty, trained thoroughly in the state's way of doing things and made so familiar with "best practice" that however isolated from "head office" guidance he might be, the job will get done in a highly predictable way. Shades of William Whyte's Organization Man?

* Takeovers--The equivalent of a takeover in Machiavelli's world was the conquest of another country or the establishment of a colony. In such matters his advice is very clear. One either totally subjugates the original inhabitants, so that rebellion is unlikely and the cost of garrisoning the place reduced to a minimum, or, and Machiavelli makes clear this is his preference, the conqueror puts in a small team of "key managers". This team will only displace a small number of the original inhabitants, who being scattered cannot rebel, and the remainder will quickly toe the new management line since they have everything to gain from cooperation and a clear indication of what happens to those who do not cooperate. Parallels with business takeovers are frighteningly stark.

* Change--Machiavelli has little to offer in the way of ideas for coping with change, but shows very clearly that the problems of introducing change were just as awesome and hazardous in the sixteenth century as they are today. In The Prince he says "It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things."

* Federations and bureaucracies--Machiavelli compared the "management" of sixteenth century France and Turkey. He saw France as a "federal organisation"; a collection of independent baronies whose retainers regard their baron, and not the King, as the "key manager". Such organisations are difficult to control, impossible to change and the ruler is easily overthrown.

Turkey, on the other hand, was in Machiavelli's time a classic bureaucracy with a highly trained civil service. Civil servants were frequently moved around, hence they developed no local loyalties, and had a strict, hierarchical relationship with "top management". The ruler in such a state, being appointed by the "system" is secure, respected and powerful. The comparisons with today's large organisations needs little interpretation.

In perspective

The impact of Machiavelli's writing on politics has been accepted for some time, but the relevance of his ideas to business had to wait until the second half of the nineteenth century, when companies began to operate as large, complex organisations--the equivalent in Machiavelli's terms of a move from tribal society to corporate state. An English parson, writing in 1820, compares Machiavelli unfavourably with the devil, yet by the 1860s Victor Hugo was able to say "Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a cowardly writer, he is nothing but the fact...not merely the Italian fact, he is the European fact."

Machiavelli's image is not helped by what many see as an amoral attitude towards power. It is easy to take offence when he unashamedly says "A prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist".

Such statements are easier to accept if we remember they were made in times very different from our own. They were also the words of a man who was a true observer; he reported what he saw and measured results dispassionately in terms of practical success or failure. He had moral views, as can be seen in his other writing, but on political issues he is a cold realist. He had, as Professor Lerner so aptly observed "...the clear-eyed capacity to distinguish between man as he ought to be and man as he actually is--between the ideal form of institutions and the pragmatic conditions under which they operate."

By being so linked with intrigue, cruelty and opportunism, Machiavelli remains a man of his time. However, if we set him aside from the harsh realities of sixteenth century Europe and look at how he observes human nature and organisations, one sees a man who was centuries ahead of his time.

Key works by Machiavelli
The Prince and The Discourses (introduced by Max Lerner)
New York: Random House, 1950

A number of editions of The Prince and The Discourses are currently in print.

Further reading
Management and Machiavelli, Antony Jay
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967

The organization man, William H Whyte
London: Jonathan Cape, 1957
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Date:Dec 1, 1999
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