The Prince

Features - Business Bookshelf

Was Niccolò Machiavelli’s aim to trumpet immorality as evil as the roads to real power? Or did he intend instead to provide a veiled satire on that same power that men seem to want so badly?

October 14, 2011

Editor’s note: To help out busy contractors, each month throughout 2011, Lawn & Landscape will run a review and synopsis of a business book – either from the accepted literary canon or a more modern classic. The 10th installment is Niccolò  Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

Was Niccolò Machiavelli's aim to trumpet immorality and evil as the roads to real power? Or did he intend instead to provide a veiled satire on that same power that men seem to want so badly?

The definitive answer remains unclear, even now, nearly half a millennium after the initial publication and distribution of his classic "The Prince," but the answers that his short work can provide today for businesses large and small are obvious. For all his cutthroat suggestions – whether he meant them deliberately or otherwise – Machiavelli provided an ideal blueprint for how to succeed in modern business. If you read closely and translate certain phrases, it becomes less a meditation on power in 16th-century Italy and more a guide for the 21st-century American business owner.

The rest of the year’s reading list includes:

How does one of the first works of modern philosophy – and almost certainly the first work of modern political philosophy – translate almost 500 years later? Just listen to Machiavelli himself.

Be proactive. Are there internal grumblings in the offices of your business? Or perhaps proverbial winds of change in your region or your industry? Better to recognize it early and take action, then to sit and allow those grumblings and those changes to fester. "When trouble is sensed well in advance it can easily be remedied," Machiavelli wrote. "If you wait for it to show itself any medicine will be too late because the disease will have become incurable."

Be quick. Most of us are, by now, numb to bad news. Layoffs are just another part of business today. So are hiring freezes and reduced hours and furloughs. They still hurt a little whenever we hear about them, but we have steeled ourselves to the pain they once delivered. The best thing those at the top can do when they do have to deliver bad news is to be quick. "When he seizes a state the new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict," Machiavelli wrote. "He must inflict them once for all, and not have to renew them every day, and in that way he will be able to set men's minds at rest and win them over to him when he confers benefits."

Be fair. There are titans in business, of course – from Henry Ford and Sam Walton, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg, on and on – but no man or woman is capable of building a monument alone. Everybody needs generals and sergeants and foot soldiers. Everybody needs help. Recognize that help. "A prince should show his esteem for talent," Machiavelli wrote, "actively encouraging able men, and honoring those who excel in their profession."

Be loved ... and feared. Is it better to be loved or feared by the masses? Is it possible to be both? Machiavelli might have argued that it is intrinsically impossible to be loved ... but he also argued that it was better to wield absolute power and destroy those you have conquered, generosity be darned. "If you cannot be both," he wrote, "it is far better to be feared than loved." Take that with a whole fistful of grains of salt, though the truth today remains largely the same.

And be smart. If you can't figure out things for yourself, at least recognize that shortcoming and surround yourself with people who can provide an informed perspective. "There are three kinds of intelligence," Machiavelli wrote. "One kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. This first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless." Be excellent. Don't be useless.


The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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