Born in Florence on May 3, 1469, Niccolò Machiavelli is widely regarded as the founding father of political science, the original political schemer, intriguer and, some say, a cynic, devoid of any morals. Writing at the height of the Italian Renaissance, the Machiavellian legacy lives on to this day, the epitome of a philosophy that says success, and success by any means. His most famous work, The Prince, strikes right at the heart of what it is to be a good leader. Or, as Machiavelli would more likely say, an effective leader – the leader who is prepared to get his hands dirty and do what it takes to get things done. And that, really, is what this article is going to be all about.


If you recall, we opened this Famous People in History series with a look at the legacy of Genghis Khan – a classically Machiavellian mix of cruelty and vision, if ever there was one – and now, I want to trace that curious mix of light and shade in the great leaders of history as we consider the Machiavellian perspective of what it means to lead, and lead well.


1. Criminal virtue – the ends justify the means


In The Prince, Machiavelli speaks admiringly of Cesare Borgia, a man known to exploit discord and employ great violence to secure his own power. The reason Machiavelli approves of this is that these underhand tactics are employed to a greater end; they are strategic, not wanton – and, says Machiavelli, the end therefore justifies the means.


In our own, not quite so bloody, times, the point is this: any leader will, as a matter of course, be faced with difficult decisions that potentially require them to sacrifice individual principles for a greater end – and that how they react in such situations may well determine their effectiveness as a leader.


Imagine, for example, that you are a manager leading a team. Sadly, you have one bad apple in the group…fighting you on every decision, undermining your authority, sapping everybody’s morale. As the manager, you know that you are in a position to force that person out of your team – but do you do it? On an individual level, it might not be the “nice” thing to do. But in terms of the overall team, you know it’s what you need to do, since otherwise that bad apple will only rot and fester. A tame example compared to chopping off heads, I know, but this, in essence, is the Machiavellian mindset.


Put another way, you just can’t be too nice. Machiavelli’s main thesis was that an effective ruler is more than good, kind, and just – he is a person that can be relied on to get things done. An effective leader will, at times, offend people. Confront people. Perhaps even employ dubious tactics to get their way. But that, says Machiavelli, is the price of effective leadership. And, as the excellent Steven Fry would say, that’s a thought to take out for a cream tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon.


 2. Public relations


These days, any big company or organization – not to mention politics and politicians – will have teams of people working away to craft and communicate a certain image. It’s what we call PR, and it’s big business. Actually, though, you might consider Machiavelli as one of the first PR men all the way back in the 15th century. For a prince, says Machiavelli, will be judged solely on public perception and the results he obtains – not the means by which he achieves them. Accordingly, he must take every care to portray a virtuous image, whatever the actions he is required to undertake.


Putting aside the undertone of deception that underlies this whole passage, Machiavelli is on to a very valuable point: that a leader must take great care with the image he conveys, since, like it or not, it is on that image that he is judged. Decisions have to be communicated, positions justified, relationships with stakeholders maintained – this is the very essence of effective modern leadership and Machiavelli is pointing to that need right from the very start. A leader is only as good as what he inspires in others, and that is a point that is more relevant than ever today.


3. Attract smart people


“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”


Carrying on from the point of public image we have just discussed, Machiavelli was also a firm believer that the people a ruler surrounded himself with were an important part of that impression. Like Genghis Khan in our last article, Machiavelli thought it a great advantage to surround oneself with people of talent, intelligence, and capability.


Today, teams and team building are a vital part of the way business is done. No one person can possibly have all of the skills needed to pull off today’s complex and multidisciplinary projects on their own – which is why identifying the people with the skills you don’t have and getting the best out of them is such a key part of leadership and management today. It’s not just about one person, it’s about the people around them as well, and this is something that Machiavelli certainly appreciated.


With that, we come to the end of this discussion of Machiavelli and leadership. While Machiavelli has perhaps not fared well in the judgement of time, I do believe that there are elements of pragmatism and truth to his assessment of the very difficult situations and decisions faced by those in positions of leadership and responsibility. I hope it’s provided you all with some food for thought – and be sure to stay tuned for the next instalment of Famous People in History!