Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

What Would Machiavelli Do?

I can relate a lot of my personal life to Sex and the City episodes. In difficult romantic situations I often wonder, “what would Carrie Bradshaw do?” I can relate a lot of my business life to texts I was forced to read in AP literature class. When an old business colleague asked me for advice on how to best manage her team, I thought, “what would Machiavelli do?

Many know Machiavelli for his famous line on governance in The Prince, “It is better to be feared than loved.” If you were brave enough to read the whole book, you’d know he really said, “It was better to be feared than loved IF you cannot be both.” If you were forced to analyze the concept more deeply, you would also know that he felt great men should develop virtue and prudence. He also stated that although it is better to be feared than loved, the worst of all leadership traits was to be hated. Awwww, that Machiavelli had a soft spot after all! Perhaps he and Carrie Bradshaw would have gotten along.

Some of this sounds like common knowledge, but many company executives forget virtue and compassion in their thirst for power and ruin their careers due to broken relationships. There was someone I worked with years ago that was very keen to rise through the ranks through iron-fisted ruling. When her promotion was on the table she worked extra hard to show management she had a grasp on her employees’ productivity. When one of her staff asked for a personal day to visit his mother in the hospital, she said no. When another planned an in office bridal shower, she cut it short. When management asked me for my consulting recommendation of her candidacy for VP, I paused. “You know, you should ask her staff.” They did and decided against her promotion. What good was a leader that no one liked?

I know that Silicon Valley thinks Steve Jobs was great partially due to the fact that he was a jerk. Please bear in mind that Steve was an anomaly and an outlier on the social intelligence vs. leadership graph. Steve, I do love you but you are not statistically relevant. I’ve worked with executive levels across multiple industries. Those that rose to the top generally did so because they had an ability to care about and motivate those around them. Those that didn’t usually stayed middle managers who complained to me. Who wants to promote a complainer?

If you want to relate this to Sex and the City (and who doesn’t) remember how Miranda had such poor luck with men when she was critical of them. She was a constant debbie downer that we all wanted to throw shoes at. It wasn’t until Steve reminded her that she needed to loosen up that she fell in love.

Of course, I wanted to give my colleague sound leadership advice that went beyond Sex and the City and books that dated back to 1512. I scanned the shelves at my neighborhood bookstore. Wow— I really didn’t understand where “leadership” ended and “self help” started. Titles ranged from “Awakening the Leader Within….(tiger roar)” to “Be the Boss your Employees Deserve” to “How to be a Happy Executive in 5 Easy Steps.” I’m happy Machiavelli wasn’t with me or he would have vomited inside his mouth.

I needed something less Tony Robbins and more….zen? I scanned the web for more articles and stumbled across Fast Company’s, “Empathy Is The Most Powerful Leadership Tool.” After reading the first paragraph I swooned. I had my nugget.

It states, “Anything we’re trying to make happen as a leader involves other people, and the fact is, most people don’t have to follow us. They don’t have to believe in our great ideas, buy our great products, or do what we want them to do. Even when we have authority–as parents of teenagers will tell you–our power doesn’t go very far without others believing that what we want them to do is in their best interests.”

Hmmm…now what would Machiavelli think? In the Middle Ages people didn’t really have much of a choice but to go along with their ‘Prince’ Torture was legal (drawing and quartering anyone?) and most people lived in unpleasant fiefdoms. However, even back then royalty had to prevent uprisings and keep order. This was probably easier when they had the plebeians’ interests in mind.

The author of the Fast Company articles states that in order to effectively lead, “become the other person and go from there.” From the plebes of yore to your staff, this is sound advice.

This helps not only in leading but in selling as well. For example, I now work in business development conferences. There is no way I am going to get anyone to sponsor an event unless I first understand their interests and goals. I help myself by helping them first. I am not sure if this is what Machiavelli meant by virtue, but it does seem a much more pleasant way of doing business than “my way or the highway.”

Fearful leaders may be respected. However, empathetic leaders are more often admired.

A return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one man. His good example has such an influence that the good men strive to imitate him, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to his example.
-Niccolo Machiavelli

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