On “The Prince” by Nicolo Machiavelli

machiavelli
Image from Jacobin

Anyone interested in change should be interested in Machiavelli.

That many of the observations in The Prince have been cited by leaders with questionable methods in fields such as business and war means the 16th Century Italian adviser has a negative reputation. But investing time in reading the source text on which most of Machiavelli’s reputation is based (i.e. not including The Discourses) will reveal more subtlety, wisdom and honesty than you might expect.

For anyone at any level who is interested in driving or influencing change, it provides plenty of practical advice:

[N]othing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

From within this setting derives much of Machiavelli’s advice about how to work with different groups of people in the new order. This includes both people who have become “enemies” and, perhaps a harder group to manage, those who were supportive of change. In the latter’s case, Machiavelli recommends you, first, understand the motivations for their support:

[H]e must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them.

and then understand the implications:

and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.

A risk of not addressing either enemies or supporters quickly enough is the emergence of factions, on which Machiavelli has a clear view:

I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist.

As well as considering external circumstances, there is equally sound advice for the ‘Prince’ or leader of change, especially in how they should carry and prepare themselves:

But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves[,] to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did, who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him, and whose achievements and deeds he always kept in his mind

and

he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.

Machiavelli is clear this holds at all times, not just at times of change:

A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.

Such diligence can help prepare for whatever eventuality may arise, which it surely will:

And in examining [great leaders’] actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.

Preparation will also allow “evils to be foreseen” and an ability to “distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”. Ultimately, building such foundations will also help with sustainability:

 Nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength.

Of course, all of these insights aimed at ‘princes’ are equally useful for those seeking to influence change: they help provide an insight into the way leaders may be thinking, and therefore an indication of how influencers should accordingly position themselves.

The Prince is only short. Even then, a reasonable proportion is taken up with describing the actions of various leaders drawn from Italian history and beyond that can (unless interested) easily be passed over. Investing time in reading it, and putting to one side what you think Machiavelli might represent, is time well used.

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rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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