Friday, August 07, 2009

Be More Machiavellian

I'm heading off to an all-day retreat for the deans today. As the Dean of Academic Support Services, I'm invited as sort of the court jester, which suits my personality. This got me thinking about leadership last night, and I retrieved my copy of Machiavelli's The Prince from my car. It's a different translation from what's found here on, but the quotes are similar.

Leadership is a big topic, of course, and I mean to narrow it to the interaction between a leader and his or her direct reports, as we would call them. Machiavelli calls them ministers or servants. The first thing is their selection:
The choice of servants is of no little importance to a prince, and they are good or not according to the discrimination of the prince. And the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognize the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them.
Second is how to assess their performance:
But to enable a prince to form an opinion of his servant there is one test which never fails; when you see the servant thinking more of his own interests than of yours, and seeking inwardly his own profit in everything, such a man will never make a good servant, nor will you ever be able to trust him; because he who has the state of another in his hands ought never to think of himself, but always of his prince, and never pay any attention to matters in which the prince is not concerned.
And how to motivate them. Note that Machavelli recommends fear over love when necessity requires it, but not hatred. But there he is speaking about subjects. With ministers it is very different:
[T]o keep his servant honest the prince ought to study him, honouring him, enriching him, doing him kindnesses, sharing with him the honours and cares; and at the same time let him see that he cannot stand alone, so that many honours may not make him desire more, many riches make him wish for more, and that many cares may make him dread chances. When, therefore, servants, and princes towards servants, are thus disposed, they can trust each other, but when it is otherwise, the end will always be disastrous for either one or the other.
But bringing ministers into the leader's circle of trust has its own problems, one of which is flattery. Herein lies a dilemma:
Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.
Machiavelli's solution is ingenious. First, don't take unsolicited advice:
Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others;
But solicit advice on everything! And listen carefully.
[B]ut he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councilors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions.
This solution leaves control with the leader, avoids flattery from the masses by not inviting their opinions, and creates a decision-making engine that doesn't invite contempt. The gloomy alternative is also spelled out:
He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.
How Machiavellian is your leadership?
  1. Do you choose wise and respected subordinates? (yes)
  2. Is your circle of trusted advisors less than eight? (my interpolation here, since eight is the kiss of death for committees) (yes)
  3. Are they committed to your success? (yes)
  4. Do they only give advice when asked? (yes)
  5. Do you ask them about wide-ranging topics? (yes)
  6. Do you get truthful, frank answers? (yes)
  7. Do you take advice from those outside your leadership team? (no)
  8. Do you stick to decisions, once made? (yes)
If you scored a perfect eight, congratulations! You may be qualified to run a small Italian principality. Tryouts for CBS's new reality show "The Prince" are just around the corner...

No comments:

Post a Comment