Was Machiavelli Right? Are the Best Leaders Situational or Steadfast?

By |Published On: February 24, 2014|

I subscribe to an electronic newsletter published by booz&co called ‘strategy+business’.  It often has interesting business and leadership related articles.  If you read this blog regularly, you know I enjoy reading about leadership, particularly business leadership.  I even have a few opinions of my own on the topic that I occasionally share.

What Machiavelli thought about leadership

A recent article in ‘strategy+business’ caught my eye.  It was titled, “After 500 Years, Why Does Machiavelli Still Hold Such Sway?”.  I was drawn to the title because I don’t think much of the leadership style Machiavelli espoused.  However, over the years I have met many people whom I would characterize as “Machiavellian” – incorporating the values (or lack thereof) described by Machiavelli in his work ‘The Prince’.

Machiavellian principles are often seen as an effective way to gain power and influence. These methods involve being manipulative, deceptive, and willing to go to any length to acquire power. His six principles for leadership are:

1) Know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses
2) The end justifies the means
3) Always keep one eye on the future
4) A leader must be able to adapt to new circumstances
5) A leader must be able to maintain power over their followers if they are going against their wishes

Situational or Steadfast leaders?

With this in mind, the writer of the article makes his claim that Machiavelli’s theories are alive and well today in leaders who practice “realism” or “situational leadership”.  He goes on to describe a study he conducted of business school students.  He provided the students with two case studies of successful business leaders.  One was a leader who had developed core values and stuck by those values even when doing so seemed to be against his “best interests”.  The second was a leader whose behavior toward others was “situational”.  If he needed to be a ruthless bully, he would be.  If he needed to be compassionate and caring, he would be.

Guess what  – the students wanted to be more like the “situational leader”.

I thought the article was interesting, but flawed.  I don’t think having uncompromising values and being situational in one’s behavior are mutually exclusive.  In other words, I believe a leader can have core values by which he governs his decisions while at the same time can recognize that every situation and every person is different.

Business ethics or individual ethics?

Now that we first discussed Machiavelli and his perception on leadership, I’d like to link this topic to a blog published by marketing expert Seth Godin. Firstly, I think Seth has some very interesting observations and useful tips on marketing.  If you haven’t read some of his books like, Permission Marketing or All Marketers Are Liars, you should.

Secondly, I don’t always agree with Seth, but he often causes me to think about something in a way I haven’t before.

Today, I read his blog titled, “No such thing as business ethics”.  I do not agree with Seth.

What is business ethics?

By definition, business ethics refers to the standards for morally right and wrong conduct in business. Corporations establish business ethics to promote integrity among their employees and gain trust from key stakeholders, such as investors and consumers.

Going back to Seth. First, he claims the “happy theory” of business ethics is “do the right thing and you will also maximize your long term profit”.  Next he claims the “unhappy theory” is “you have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit.  Period.”  His point is these two theories cannot coexist.  To make his point he says only people can have ethics, organizations cannot. He manages to get around to a good conclusion –  that we should insist the people who make up organizations do the right thing (act ethically).

Understanding why business ethics is important

Here is what I think:  organizations can’t behave ethically or unethically.  However the people who work at, volunteer with, lead, are customers or shareholders of organizations can act ethically and must “do the right thing”.  In acting ethically and in doing so collectively, these people will cause their organization to “do the right thing”.  This kind of ethical movement is much more powerful and effective than one individual person’s action.  This is one of the reasons organizations create “Values statements”, so it is clear how the people involved in the company are expected to behave and so collectively their behavior causes the organization to “do the right thing”.

Check out our company values statement at www.cmservices.com

Unlike Machiavelli and Seth Godin, I believe great leaders develop core values and make decisions based on those values – never compromising them.

Is it easy today for people to lose sight of what’s right in exchange for short term profitability? For a false and quick feeling of false leadership based on nothing? Absolutely it is.  Does that mean their organization cannot act ethically because of this “pressure”.  No way.

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One Comment

  1. George Tsichritzis June 4, 2017 at 4:55 am - Reply

    Machiavelli said that the leader should govern with love and fear, But, because this is difficult, in the case that the leader has to select love or fear, it’s better to select fear. Actually you say the same thing, You wrote “governing with love is not mutually exclusive with governing with fear”. Machiavelli says exactly the same, However he believes that governing with both love and fear is difficult. So, in the case a leader has to choose between the 2 options, fear is the safest way to go.

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