Colin Lewis: Machiavelli was right – it is better to be virtuous than fortunate

The path to leadership doesn’t always match the advice being dished out so perhaps marketers should look elsewhere for inspiration.

Earlier this year, Marketing Week featured some superb insights on marketing leadership. However, something struck me while researching my own article on leadership: the biggest challenge for the marketing leaders of the future is making sense of the plethora of literature on leadership.

There is so much out there, and most teaching on leadership is filled with recommendations about being authentic, honest, modest, truthful and never, ever being a bully, or god forbid, being shouty or abusive.

I hate to be a buzzkill but this does not sound like any place I have worked – and that includes three continents, three industries and a career spanning over 20 years.

In short, a lot of CEO and leadership writing is about ideals, about how people wish the world is – rather than it actually is. Why is this? Because leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the reality of what they did and the games they played to get to the top.

READ MORE: Do you have the Anatomy of a Leader?

As a guide for obtaining leadership and positions of power, recommendations about being authentic, honest, modest and truthful are flawed.

Most CEOs are not ‘level 5 leaders’, a concept outlined by Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’. He describes these leaders as individuals who are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy”, who get the best out of employees by not soaking up all the limelight and making all the decisions. Maybe the rarity of such leaders may be why so few organisations go from good to great.

Unfortunately for you and me, the path to leadership often bears little resemblance to the advice being dished out.

People prefer to believe that the workplace is a just and fair place and that everyone gets what they deserve if they work hard. If I just do a good job and behave appropriately, things will take care of themselves. If you believe that, I suggest that you look at the behaviour of the current incumbent of the White House to disavow you of that notion.

The path to leadership often bears little resemblance to the advice being dished out.

What about the carefully honed images of the tech lords of Silicon Valley, whose brands are burnished to show their workplace as a playful, T-shirts and jeans, sitting on beanbag type environment? The reality is more ‘Game of Thrones’ than fun and games. Turf wars, hallway lobbying and political infighting are de rigueur between the powerful and power-hungry since, well, the Lannisters.

So, stretch your imagination for a moment. If you had a choice of career advisers between, say, a famous CEO/entrepreneur whose name is always in the paper, or an adviser such as Niccolò Machiavelli, author of ‘The Prince’, who should you pick?

Yes, that Machiavelli, the one whose name has become synonymous with deceit, cynicism and machinations. For better or worse, Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, is one of the most influential – and most misunderstood – tomes of them all.

Indeed Machiavelli’s ideas have become so famous that the man who described them and wrote about them is perceived by many as the one who practised what he defined.

A handbook for leaders

The Prince could be considered to be primarily a manual on leadership. Sure you can cherry pick juicy quotes to show Old Nic can be dismissed today as an amoral cynic who considered the end to justify the means, but The Prince has remained in print for 500 years and the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting.

His book was put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books – just like Milton, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Hugo, Kant, Flaubert, Zola, Sartre and Simon De Beauvoir – not a bad recommendation in and of itself.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince to serve as a handbook for leaders, and he writes throughout the book that he is not talking about ideal republics or imaginary utopias, and prefers to see the world as it is, not as one would like it to be: “There is such a gap between how one lives and how one should live that he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation.”

Machiavelli is, in fact, a crystal-clear realist who was a great observer and analyst. Turns out Machiavelli used irony to hide his real beliefs. He often withheld his own views to force the reader to think for himself. He felt it necessary to hide his real beliefs given the regularity of sackings and changes of leadership (that last sentence might strike a chord with marketers today).

When the very concept of leadership appears elusive today, it is incumbent on would-be marketing leader to not delude ourselves about our source of advice.

Machiavelli’s primary contribution was not a static set of leadership principles, but honest observations about human nature. He challenged conventional thinking of the day, not just Christian doctrine but that of the ancient and classical writers on power. This was a radical shift for the time.

Indeed, he gives less notorious reasons for actions that we don’t normally associate as Machiavellian. For example: ‘Know your limits’, ‘don’t try to win every battle’, ‘treat other people with respect so you can get them on your side and keep them there’, ‘observe justice with enemies as well as friends’.

READ MORE: Marketing leadership means being brave, bold and quick to market

There is nothing warm and fluffy about Machiavelli’s ideas. You might not like them. You might not approve of them. But that has no impact on the truth. Indeed, when the very concept of leadership appears elusive today, it is incumbent on would-be marketing leader to not delude ourselves about our source of advice.

The enduring theme in The Prince is what Machiavelli calls virtù and fortuna (virtue and fortune), often translated from the original Italian as ‘ingenuity’ and ‘luck’.

Becoming a marketing leader is not easy, just as it was not easy to become a ‘Prince’. Acts that make princes and marketers ‘virtuous’ or ‘ingenious’ require us to act differently from others in order to go above and beyond.

Career success requires, as Machiavelli calls it, “new modes and orders” and points out that it is better to be virtuous than fortunate. So, there you have it, get cracking on your virtue and ingenuity, and don’t rely on luck. Maybe Old Nic was not so Machiavellian after all.

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Comments
  • Heather MacDonald 23 Oct 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Super article! So true! It’s important to be intelligent when you want to reach the top, and that means genuinely understanding human behaviour and manipulation. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to be a complete asshole but you do have to think strategically.

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