Management advice from the 16th century

The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli

Some months ago I reviewed The Kone’s Prince, a book about Pekka Herlin’s life. As I mentioned in my review, he was aid to be an avid reader. He looked for business and management advice in vide variety of books. One of the books, which were mentioned in the bibliography as Herlin’s favorite, was The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. This sounded somehow hilarious, so I decided to see what I could learn from this classic myself.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in 1469 and died in 1527. He was a philosopher and a writer and is considered to be one of the founders of modern political science. Although he has written several texts, he is best known of The Prince. It yielded his ill reputation. This was due to the two separate things.

First of all he pictured the ways of the nobility realistically, even too realistically to the tastes of the nobles. Other reason is behind the advice he gave to the rulers of the time. Machiavelli seemed to believe that “end justifies the means”. It did not matter if you cheated, lied or betrayed others if it was done in order to achieve your targets. Even now we use the word “Machiavellian” to describe the use of cunning and deceitful tactics.

The book starts with an introduction to the different types of principalities and soldiery. Then Machiavelli discusses the qualities of the princes and how they should act. His advice varies from opinion about building fortresses through the selection of the secretaries of princes to managing the public opinion.

History aside, I was trying to determine if a modern businessperson could learn something from Machiavelli. After finishing the book I would have to say that yes, he could. Some of the advice in The Prince very much resembles the advice given by the business writers and bloggers of our own time.

For example Machiavelli writes about the importance of avoiding flattery. You should encourage criticism and make sure it is clear to everyone that it is expected. It is important to be conscious about this in order to avoid getting surrounded by flatterers. I believe this is as important in our time as it was then. If you aim to succeed in your life or in business, you need good people around you whom are able to open their mouths when the situation requires it.

I also noticed that he very much stressed that you can’t please everyone. If you try, you soon run out of resources and might end up loosing everything you had. Instead you should concentrate to do the things your own way, even with the risk of some of the people not approving your actions. As Elbert Hubbard said: “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Even if The Prince underlines many issues we could learn even today, the thing I most enjoyed in it was the way it aimed to picture the reality as it is with no sugar coating. I do believe that even today “the end justifies the means” attitude is much more common that what we would like to believe. It is good to keep in mind when you do business with others.

Many of the issues in this book may have been discussed much deeper and more profoundly in the  more recent literature. However I believe that as a sort of a management classic The Prince is still worth a read, especially as you can find it for free for example in the Project Gutenberg.