05th Dec 2013

What learnings can today’s business leaders take from Machiavelli?

Machiavelli’s The Prince has been top of mind for many throughout 2013. This year is believed to be the 500th anniversary of its publication, or at the very least, the anniversary of the first time that the book was distributed in one form or another. This week, the BBC dedicated an episode of the documentary series Imagine… to the book which aired on Tuesday. The broadcast explored, among other things, the book’s relevance in today’s society and whether or not it is applicable to today’s political and business leaders. The presenters* explored a number of Machiavelli’s observations and has provided me with great food for thought this week. So I’ve decided to look at top three themes that have stayed top of mind with me following the documentary, and their relevance to the contemporary business leader in their first 100 days.


First off, in The Prince, Machiavelli suggests that successful leaders possess the traits of two types of animal: the lion and the fox. He writes that “the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves”. Today’s political leaders possess the traits of both lion and fox, with the successful political leader being predominantly strategic and fox-like. This was the agreeable argument of Tuesday’s BBC documentary, with both Obama, Merkel and Blair being drawn on as examples. The documentary also made reference to today’s superstar CEOs, including Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs. Certainly the analogy of the strategizing fox is appropriate when making comparisons with the very best of leaders. Every leader needs to be strategic – and there’s no better time to lay the foundations for this than in the first 100 days! Secondly, Tuesday’s documentary looked at Machiavelli’s observation on the importance of building alliances and knowing when to leverage these relationships. One would think this has very different connotations for a 16th century Prince, a 21st century political leader and a 21st century business leader. For the Prince, it’s about managing allies, subjects and political figures (among others). For the 21st century political leader it isn’t all that different (perhaps substitute “subjects” for “electorate”). For the contemporary business leader, it is also important to manage stakeholders and relationships on a number of levels. This is true both inside and outside of the business. Leaders need to be mindful of building and maintaining stakeholder relationships at board level, in the C-suite, with direct reports and teams, and with clients and market players. Leaders need be fox-like in their approach to leveraging these relationships when and as appropriate. The third and final trait that was identified as being present in a successful leader in Machiavelli’s time (and indeed today) is adaptability. Leaders need to be flexible and adapt to the climate, in both politics and business. A leader needs to be able to take people with them, and adapt to the climate. This may involve walking a new path and muddling through to an end goal, or even changing the end goal and creating a new road!

Being strategic, investing in relationships and being able to adapt are all key traits in successful leaders in both politics and business. For leaders starting in a new role, it’s important to place emphasis on these three themes in their first 100 days of a role, building the foundations for success. The Prince is arguably the first publication purposely created as a guidebook on how to be a successful leader. Five centuries later it is possible, albeit with a somewhat cautionary and philosophical approach, to take some positive sentiments and useful advice from the pages!

 Colm Flood

*One of the shows presenters was none other than Peter Capaldi. You might recognise Capaldi as The Thick of It’s lead character, Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious fictional parliamentary spin doctor rumoured to be based on Tony Blair’s advisor Allistar Campbell. It recently came to light that the character is in fact based on Capaldi’s numerous encounters with agents and producers in the film industry.

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