10 Business and Leadership Lessons - From Machiavelli

Last Updated Feb 15, 2011 7:32 PM EST

Business and Leadership Lessons From MachiavelliFew historical figures are as divisive and polarizing as Niccolo Machiavelli. The fact that this Renaissance philosophers works date back 500 years hasn't blunted its impact or controversy one bit.

Some view him as the father of modern materialism, inspiring people to do or say anything to achieve personal gain, i.e. the ends justify the means. Indeed, the word Machiavellian - derived from his most famous work, The Prince - has come to mean cunning, deceit, and manipulation.

Others, however, see him as the world's first great realist and a positive influence on modern politics and capitalism. Some even think Machiavelli was the first to apply empirical scientific methods to human behavior by making innovative generalizations based on experience, observation, and history.

Being a realist - much like Machiavelli - I'm not inclined to weigh in on the man's overall affect on the world, good or bad. Regardless, many of his ideas for achieving long-term political success and power translate extraordinarily well into the current business climate of intense global competition.

Moreover, I never realized how closely my own ideas on business, leadership, and entrepreneurial culture resonated with his until I read this post by author Mark Harrison. It turns out that I've more or less been quoting the guy for years without even realizing it. Coincidence? Hmm.

In any case, he predates us all by a few centuries, which makes these 10 Business and Leadership Lessons from Machiavelli remarkable, to say the least:
  1. "Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times." As I wrote just the other day, "Leaders must learn to adapt in a fast-changing world to avoid corporate or political disaster." That is, after all, why most companies fail.
  2. "Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage." An entrepreneur's first and most important goal is to find a unique and innovative solution that solves a big customer or market problem. Without obstacles, there are no opportunities. And those same obstacles provide barriers to competitors, down the road.
  3. "Never was anything great achieved without danger." I've often said that willingness to take risks is a critical success factor. In Irreverent Career Advice for Up-and-Comers, I encourage young folks to, "Take big risks -- now!" since, "It gets much harder as you get older and begin to 'acquire' things you don't want to risk losing."
  4. "Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great." Finding your passion is not only the key to happiness, but also the key to business success. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. The only way to do great work is to love what you do." Amen.
  5. "I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it." Most of you know that I abhor the status quo. In Why Skeptics Make Great Leaders, I wrote, "Cynics question common wisdom and those in authority. [They] aren't just okay with the status quo. [They] seek a better way to do things. [They] break rules and break molds."
  6. "The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him." Weak leaders surround themselves with weak lieutenants. Strong leaders always hire the best at what they do ... assuming they can afford it.
  7. "The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos --" In Are You a Dysfunctional Manager? we discuss how dysfunctional managers get stuck in one stage of human development and "look just like ordinary adults, but actually behave a lot more like children, acting out, throwing tantrums, and generally making life miserable for everyone around us."
  8. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. So true. It's also true of startups, mega-mergers, and big corporate change initiatives.
  9. "The wise man does at once what the fool does finally." I've always favored decisive action versus over-planning which, in dysfunctional organizations, often results in analysis paralysis.
  10. "The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it." Regarding Google's recent announcement that co-founder Larry Page will become CEO, I concluded that Founders Do Make Good CEOs ... When They Grow Up. We're all getting older, but are we also becoming wiser? Let's hope so.
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