Leader, Power, Treachery, Greed– Machiavellian: Precepts for Success in Business, Government… Game Changing?

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Beware of modern-day Machiavelli! We all know them– sly ones, cunning, manipulative… Modern workplaces provide a wealth of opportunities for the ambitious and unscrupulous. The sad fact is that very few people are leaders. A leader channels the energies of people toward a common goal, tempers self-interest, and build networks, rather than fortresses. However, instead many people; cajole, criticize, threaten… which is not leadership; it’s bullying, and it’s the only strategy they know. What’s wrong with today’s leader?

Can the writings of Machiavelli provide the keys for being an effective leader? The application of Machiavelli’s principles to today’s leader raises issues that are generic to migration and transformation of ideas created in one specific historical and social context to another time periods. Although, many experts says that there are basic human behaviors that transcend historical time… According to Machiavelli; nothing defines human beings better than his willingness to do irrational things to survive the jungle of greed, treachery, and if left unchecked places private interest above public interest… 

According to Alistair McAlpine; natural human corruption takes two forms: Ordinary citizen– tendency to be lazy; and for active aspiring citizen– tendency to be ambitious. Machiavelli sees successful leader as one that seeks– fame and greatness by governing well, which means two things; first, securing prosperity for the enterprise and its citizens; second, creation of an enterprise that transcend the term of the leader– that is, securing the survival and success of the enterprise for generations to come… Machiavelli was a student of political strategy and tried to change the way– games of politics and life is played….

In the article Machiavelli: Elements of Power by Dr. Mike A. writes: Machiavelli thoughts on the ‘rules of power’ encompass the struggles at every level of power from worker to the strategies of the world leader… His philosophies have been viewed as evil throughout the centuries, but as most business leaders and politicians agree Machiavelli has only defined the ‘physics of power’

Machiavelli set the precedent for the cold and calculated leader regardless of the century they live in. He was in the business of power preservation not piety, and frankly discussed the necessity of cruel actions to keep power… For example, he said; the leader must ‘stick to good’ so long as he can, but when compelled, he then must be ready to ‘take the way of evil’… 

Machiavellianism implies that in the arena of power– the end justifies the means. The priority of the leader is to keep security of the enterprise regardless of the morality of the means. However, Machiavelli did not believe in pursuing evil for evil’s sake, but when the only way to keep power is to act evil, then one must: Good and evil are equal in the contest for power… So then, under what circumstances would a leader call for amoral or evil actions in the modern society?

Henry Kissinger said: There are situations when survival is threatened, and the narrowing of choices for pursue of marginal means; unless you would rather have your society destroyed… Are there such threatening situations in the modern world that made it necessary to resort to marginal means? For example, looking back in recent history; what caused U.S. to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The casualties reached approximately 120,000 with the extending effects of radiation. To quote Henry Kissinger: Was survival of the U.S. so threatened that the use of such ‘marginal means’ was necessary? It has been stated that the strategies of Machiavelli show no prejudices for good or evil means. The U.S. used Machiavellian principles to support democracy, but others have used his tactics for other ideals. For another example, Vladimir Lenin used

Machiavellian tactics for a communist revolution in Russia… However, according to Alexandre Solzhenitsyn; the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being– no matter the intention… Machiavellian was not only interested in the survival of the leader, but also the way the leader acquired power. Most (all) human struggles boil down to the struggle for power: It’s the basis of social Darwinism

In a n article Machiavelli Art of Management byShyamal Majumdar writes: It’s easy to dismiss the Machiavellian approach for running organizations in today’s kinder, gentler world of new-age, team-based management. It’s wrong to assume – as Machiavelli did – that it’s a jungle of greed and treachery in the world of business, government…

But the fact is, however, as devious as his principles may sound to the moral brigade, a careful reading of his ideas shows that he was essentially trying to develop the concept of the ideal leader to forge a humane and stable government. Interesting to note; Machiavelli was motivated in his philosophy by the same goals as Confucius– both had a deep underlying concern for the good of people through stability in government. And, ideas have applications in modern organizations even more than 500 years later.

But, why did he recommend that a leader must be ready to be cruel and devious? He himself gives the answer: A leader who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must be prepared to deal with so many that are not good. Therefore, it’s necessary for a leader that wishes to survive– he must learn how not to be good and use this knowledge according to the necessity of the case...

According to James O’Toole; the operative word here is ‘according to the necessity of the case’, which in other words means; ‘it all depends’. A leadership style cannot be straitjacketed… and must change as the situation demands; after all, expediency is name of the game in effective leadership. For example, pundits derided one great business leader – GE’s Jack Welch – as a modern-day Machiavelli.

Listen to Machiavellian ring in Welch’s own words: Managements that hang on to weakness for whatever reason–  tradition, sentiment, goodness or their own weakness–  won’t be around…  But while adopting this seemingly ‘cruel’ style of management advocated by Machiavelli, Welch didn’t forget the thinker’s advocacy of the ‘human’ face. Welch believed that victims of layoffs deserved compassionate treatment– generous financial settlements and humane consideration of their feelings.

He personally answered letters of complaint from laid-off employees, and directly intervened in cases of injustice that came to his attention, and executives who mismanaged corporate downsizing felt his wrath… The past and present Machiavellians  are only practicing a dictum that has now become an all-too-familiar phrase: Reform with a human face…

In the article Machiavelli and Modern Business by Peter J. Galie and Christopher Bopst write: Machiavelli’s thoughts have been subjected to more interpretations than any other political thinker. The many interpretations include; teacher of evil, supreme realist, political pragmatist, dispassionate scientist, anguished humanist

According to Isaiah Berlin; Machiavelli’s ‘originality’ lies in the notion of a two-world view: There are two ethical codes; one of ‘ethics’ another of ‘politics’, but they are two conflicting systems of value… According to Machiavelli; it’s not possible to build a successful enterprise and remain consistent with the ideals of traditional ethics. The application of Machiavelli principles to modern corporate world would suggest that one cannot be a decent human being and simultaneously build a successful enterprise.

However, Machiavelli argues that a leader should only resort to immoral means when it’s needed to preserve the enterprise, and also that an ambitious leader must create and maintain a strong and well-governed enterprise. The ideal Machiavellian leader must exercise what he called– virtue (i.e., inner strength, vigor, shrewdness…) in service of– security, power, glory, and expansion of their enterprise.

However, realistically, these two systems of values are incompatible; they represent two different views of the ideal social order: One must choose good or virtuous in traditional sense, or good or virtuous in Machiavellian sense… The implications of adopting Machiavellian ethics in modern corporate world are as profound as they are disturbing…

Machiavelli is not out of fashion, because power is not out of fashion. His teachings seem as relevant today as they were a half-millennium ago. According to John J. Mearsheimer, in his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ writes: Machiavelli’s ideas about power and leadership, though rooted in a specific time and place, are being  reformulated and reinterpreted by contemporary business executives.

According to James O’ Toole; there is merit in timeless rules and stratagems penned by Machiavelli, but most of his principles are outdated in the present context. For example, when Henry Ford set up his first plant, he was generous in providing; free schools, hospitals, subsidized food for workers… which was unheard of at the time. His labor welfare measures were termed revolutionary and progressive, but Ford’s approach was essentially Machiavellian (manipulative) in nature.

His purpose was that his workers should have more disposable income so that they could turn out to be potential and captive buyers of the cars he produced. This met with some success. But to Ford’s utter surprise, one day the workers went on strike as they found their owner (Ford) was trying to be too much of a ‘paternalistic’ manager by trying to control their lives through dictates, such as; no worker’s children could study in any other school but the one he had set up...

According to Borger; essence of Machiavelli’s message and the cornerstone of his philosophy of leadership are revealed by his many expressions of admiration for the leader that– ‘boldly seize the day’, and his expressions of contempt for a leader that– ‘timidly drift along’, allowing events to control them rather than other way around… Machiavelli’s most important principle is the need for the leader to be proactive and seize the initiative…