How can a 500 year old book possibly be relevant in today’s society? A fair question, but many religious texts are far older, and they still mean a great deal to the faithful of their respective beliefs. I’m actually referring to “The Prince”, Nicolo Machiavelli’s best known book, written in the early years of the 16th century.
Machiavelli was a civic official and diplomat from Florence, who wrote “The Price” as a study into how people gain, retain, and, in many cases lose, the right to rule. It was all about conflicts, and power, and devious behaviour, and winning hearts and minds. Hang on… doesn’t that sound like some aspects of modern business? Yes, of course it does, although I have not knowingly met anyone who kills his would-be opponents, thankfully.
What I took from the book was the view that if you substitute “businessman” for “prince”, most of old Nicolo’s observations remain remarkably acute in today’s business environment. This is, I suppose, why I’ve seen this old book referenced in a number of modern business guides. If you want people to like you, don’t follow the advice in the book, but if you want to be successful, maybe there are some lessons there that you should follow. And if Machiavelli is to be believed, being liked and being successful are probably not compatible in the long run!
See what you make of these pieces of wisdom, selected from the many worthy comments in the book:
- “An able statesman out of work, like a huge whale, will endeavour to overturn the ship unless he has an empty cask to play with.” Do you have any able statesmen who get up to mischief if they are not kept busy? What are you doing about it?
- “Men will not look at things as they really are, but as they wish them to be – and are ruined. In politics there are no perfectly safe courses; prudence consists in choosing the least dangerous ones.” Sound advice?
- “In the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure.” In other words, look for problems and nip them in the bud. Seems like good advice to me.
- “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then 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.” Probably Machiavelli’s best known quote, and deservedly so.
- And finally, two quotations that should be considered together: “Every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.” and “It is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” Tough choices!
Iain Millar, 24 March 2011