Machiavelli on Modern Leadership
Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago
By Michael A. Ledeen
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 Michael A. Leeden
All rights reserved.
The Course of Human Events
Human affairs being in a state of perpetual movement, either ascending or declining ...
If you're going to lead, you've got to fight. Whether you're on the way up, are striving to acquire greater power, or are at the top, fighting to maintain and expand it, you're involved in struggle. And since, as Machiavelli tells us, "Men are more ready for evil than for good," leaders and would-be leaders are bloody-minded.
The bloody-mindedness derives from ambition, and human ambition is unlimited, that of both individuals and the institutions they create. The struggle for power begins with the attempt to carve out a zone of freedom from others and continues with the extension of domination over others. "First [men] seek to secure themselves against attack; then they attack others." First comes the fight for survival, or for freedom from domination, then comes the "fight for ambition, which is so powerful in human breasts that no matter to what rank they rise it never abandons them." We have seen this process in many of the new democracies after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Heroic anti-Communists like Lech Walesa rather quickly developed a passion for power and continued to fight, no longer for a cause, but for their personal advancement. After defeating the Czech Communist dictatorship, Vaclav Havel became an international hero in part because he was a playwright who vowed to return to his literary endeavors after a brief period in government — but he is still in the Prague Castle.
The goal is power, which means the domination of others, and the winners revel in it, savoring what Machiavelli calls "the sweetness of domination." Power over others is an addictive drug that stimulates the desire for more of it. But that desire can never be fully satisfied; therefore, men, even the most powerful, are always unsatisfied. They want it all, but they can't have it. Since the desire for more power and wealth — the trappings of power — is always greater than our ability to accumulate them, he bluntly observes, "There continuously results from it a malcontentedness." Machiavelli does not believe that the haves are intrinsically different from the have-nots, nor innately superior. To be sure, they act differently, but that is simply the result of circumstance; men are "insolent when their affairs are prospering, and abjectly servile when adversity hits them." He knows that, given the chance, the have-nots will behave just as badly as the haves; it's all a question of opportunity, luck, and the grit, energy, determination, cunning, and tenacity — and sometimes wisdom — of those who maneuver for greater wealth and power.
The drive to expand is therefore built into all human institutions. Power and wealth are there for the having, and if you don't get them, somebody else will. It's an illusion, a potentially fatal illusion, to believe that your family, your country, your business, or your team, once comfortably and successfully established, can live happily ever after. You cannot opt out of this game. "It is impossible for a republic [or, in fact, any other human institution] to remain long in the quiet enjoyment of her freedom within her limited confines," Machiavelli lectures us,
For even if she does not molest others, others will molest her, and from being thus molested will spring the desire and the necessity of conquests, and even if she has no foreign foes, she will find domestic enemies amongst her own citizens.
Change — above all, violent change — is the essence of human history. Machiavelli tells a story of the origins of political systems that is all about constant turmoil. Early on, when there were few people, we didn't need governments, because mankind was scattered in small bands. But after a while larger groups formed, and each chose the strongest, bravest man as its leader. In that condition of rudimentary government — a primitive form of enlightened despotism, or the Good Czar — men learned to distinguish "what is honest and good from what is pernicious and wicked." He's not talking about ultimate values, but about politics, about the relationship between ruler and subjects:
The sight of someone injuring his benefactor evoked in them hatred and sympathy and they blamed the ungrateful and respected those who showed gratitude, well aware that the same injuries might have been done to themselves. Hence to prevent evil of this kind they took to making laws and to assigning punishments to those who contravened them. The notion of justice thus came into being.
Once the laws were in place, we no longer needed a warrior in charge; indeed, it was better to have a more prudent leader, one primarily concerned with preserving justice. That was the first Good State, its goodness guaranteed by laws rather than by the qualities of a single leader. But it didn't last. After a while, leadership became hereditary, and subsequent leaders sank into degeneracy, devoting themselves to excesses of "extravagance, lasciviousness, and every other form of licentiousness." The people hated the corrupt new leaders, and the leaders, fearful of the righteous indignation of the people, created a tyranny. This was a Bad State, and thankfully it did not last either.
Good men, "conspicuous for their liberality, magnanimity, wealth, and ability," organized conspiracies against the tyrant and rallied the people. Once the tyrant was overthrown, the leaders of the revolution were determined to avoid the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader, and so organized a virtuous aristocracy that took care to reassert the primacy of the old, good laws. The aristocrats "subordinated their own convenience to the common advantage and, both in private matters and public affairs, governed and preserved order with the utmost diligence." Another Good State — it, too, destined to fall in short order.
New aristocrats then came to power who "had no experience of the changeability of fortune," and took their power for granted, assuming it would last forever. They sank into degeneracy, just like the descendants of the Good Czar. Power became hereditary, greed and licentiousness became widespread, civic rights were disregarded, and an evil oligarchy took over. In time, the people came to hate the oligarchs, and, inspired by a suitable leader, destroyed them. And since they had by now learned that the Good Czar became a tyrant, and the noble aristocrats became corrupt oligarchs, the people created a democracy, with safeguards against the accumulation of power by either a strong individual or a limited group. This was the third form of good government, and it, too, was shortlived. Within a generation, democracy degenerated into anarchy, and a new strong leader emerged to restore order, thus starting the cycle all over again.
If there were no foreign enemies, the cycle might go on forever, but in practice, very few states survive long enough to return to Go. During one of its moments of degeneracy, weakness, or chaos, a stronger neighbor takes it over or wipes it out.
It's a political fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it tells us some basic things about ourselves. Machiavelli reminds us that all political systems are fragile and can be toppled from either within or without. Given the history of the race, it should surprise no one when rulers fall, or when one country is conquered by another, or even when mass uprisings take place. Such events are in the nature of politics, because each type of government is fundamentally defective. The good ones — the Good Czar, the noble aristocracy, and the pure democracy — tend to be short-lived, while the bad ones — the Bad Czar and the oligarchy — are hateful and vicious, provoking violent opposition that eventually leads to their ruin. Anarchy simply opens the door to a new tyranny.
As nations and empires come and go, so do the other ambitious human enterprises. Eastern Airlines is gone, along with Pan Am, once the greatest airline in the world. Packard automobiles are gone, along with the gorgeous Bugattis, Stude-bakers, and Dusenbergs. Fokker is gone, along with Curtis Wright, Douglas, Grumman, McDonnell, Sud Aviation, Vick-ers, and De Havilland, all glorious successes in bygone days of aviation, all either vanished entirely or gobbled up by their enemies. Great banks like BCCI, First American, and Banco Ambrosiano are gone, too, and Woolworth stores, archetypes of our national life, have closed all over America. Royal families are gone to their graves, like the Romanovs, or into exile, like the Italian House of Savoy and its counterparts from Greece, Libya, Bulgaria, Albania, Iran, and Romania. George Bush, at one time the most popular president in the history of the United States, was defeated a few months later by Bill Clinton, an obscure governor of the inconsequential state of Arkansas.
The tempo may vary from moment to moment, but stability exists only in the grave, not in this life. It therefore behooves the man or woman of action (Machiavelli is well aware of the greatness of women), and especially those who would lead great enterprises, to be ready at all times to change strategies and tactics. As Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do."
On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, the Duke of Wellington was asked by one of his generals to describe his strategy for the next day, so that in the event Wellington fell, the others would be able to carry out his master plan to defeat Napoleon's armies. Wellington was flabbergasted by the question. "If you want to know my plan," he replied, "you must first tell me what Bonaparte is going to do." Wellington intended to win by watching what his enemies did, and then acting accordingly, a flexible strategy entirely in keeping with Machiavelli's view of the world. Successful leaders have to be ready to change their methods, because conditions are very difficult to predict in the first place, and even if you get it right at the beginning, things are going to keep on changing.
"Anyone wise enough to understand the times and types of affairs," Machiavelli tells us in one of his typical "good news/bad news" phrases, "would always have good fortune ... [and] the wise man would rule the stars and the Fates." He doesn't entirely believe this — as we'll see, he is in great awe of Fortune — and he knows that no one is wise enough to understand the times for very long. The imperative for leaders is absolute: get ready to change.
The Change Artists
On Wall Street or Main Street, as in politics, athletics, or war, success most often goes to the person who sees that he has made a mistake and quickly changes, or to someone who senses that a winning strategy is running out of time, and abandons it, even while others are copying him. Winning leaders are invariably good "game coaches," because they are the first to see how things are going, they quickly figure out why, and then they make the appropriate changes. How many times have you seen a football or basketball game turn around dramatically at halftime? The "halftime adjustments" are just like Wellington's improvisations on the battlefield, once he came under Napoleon's attack.
Some coaches have been able to change their methods in accordance with the players under their guidance. For example, the basketball coach Pat Riley has produced winning teams with radically different styles, each suited to the talent on the team. His championship teams in Los Angeles featured razzle-dazzle ball handling and fast breaks. In New York, the Knicks were a slow, deliberate team whose personality rested on tough defense. Then, in Miami, Riley showed he could win even with mediocre talent that had been decimated by injury and demoralized by the loss of two star players. Using different methods in different circumstances, adapting himself to the changing challenges he found, Riley repeatedly adjusted his way of doing things to the conditions of his times. It's a rare enough phenomenon, but even rarer is the leader who can change careers without a drop in brilliance. We can count them on our fingers.
George Washington was first a political figure, then a military leader, then a great president. Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower, distinguished military leaders, became outstanding presidents. Napoleon was a military genius whose contributions to politics and the rule of law — the Napoleonic Code-will long outlast the effects of his military prowess. Colin Powell was a successful military leader who has become a political figure and would like to become president. There aren't many like them. The success of these select few shows how rare are those who excel in more than one kind of endeavor — individuals known as Renaissance men.
Of the current generation of global business leaders, no one embodies the flexibility Machiavelli writes about as well as Bill Gates of Microsoft. Gates set out to become a lawyer but left Harvard in 1975, when a close friend who was a mathematical whiz, Paul Allen, convinced him that Intel's new 8080 microprocessor chip had made home computers possible. Unlike some of their early competitors, who hitched their wagons to specific products or concepts, Gates and Allen set out to please the customer — all the customers they could reach. At each stage of Microsoft's evolution, Gates was building on the work of other people, trying to adapt Microsoft's products to fit well with the latest hardware and the jazziest software. Gates and Allen created the programming language, Basic, for the first really popular microcomputer, the Altair. Basic was produced in as many versions as there were separate microprocessors and separate operating systems. Gates wanted his language in all computers, whatever they were like, and wherever they were operating. From the beginning, Microsoft products were sold in the United States, Europe, and Japan. This strategy required considerable flexibility, as Gates would have to be able to adjust to rapid changes in three very different markets with three very different cultures.
Gates is a great Machiavellian because he built change and flexibility into Microsoft from the very beginning and because, while he ruthlessly fought to dominate the market, he never tried to dominate its direction; he concentrated on understanding where it was headed and then becoming the dominant force in the next phase. Basic was the first example of Gates's strategy; two more followed: DOS/Windows and Internet Explorer. The success of Basic was the result of hard work and a sound fundamental insight into the emerging computer market.
For the most part, leaders do not change with the times, for two very good reasons. First, we can't change our own natures (so if we're poorly suited for the changed conditions, we're doomed). The second reason is, paradoxically, derived from the nature of successful people. Having succeeded in the past, they assume that the same methods that got them there will keep them on top. "It is this," Machiavelli reminds us, "that causes the varying success of a man; for the times change, but he does not." And not merely a man alone; "the ruin of states is caused in like manner."
There are even some areas of competitive activity, such as the real estate business, in which failure to change, and hence the ruin of the leader, seems almost an integral part of the thing. Real estate values fluctuate with inflation, and anyone who adopts Machiavelli's methods and studies the history of real estate investments quickly sees that periods of inflation are inevitably followed by deflations. Investors who fail to protect against future declines in value can be severely damaged. This has been said over and over again by both analysts and practitioners, yet real estate tycoons continue to fall prey to the should-have-been- expected deflationary swings. They are encouraged in their folly by the tax laws, which almost everywhere take a substantial bite out of capital gains. Not wanting to pay the taxes, the real estate magnates seek to recycle their profits. The typical real estate empire is therefore highly leveraged, as profits are constantly plowed back into new, bigger investments, thereby making it even more difficult to cash out in time.
The most recent example of this recurring catastrophe is the spectacular collapse of the Reichmann empire in the early 1990s. Immigrants to Canada in the mid-fifties, they started a tile importing business, did very well, and invested their profits in Toronto land. These investments did even better, and their firm, Olympia & York, expanded rapidly to become Canada's leading real estate company. By the late seventies they had become a force in the United States and England as well. Barely a decade later, Olympia & York was a vast real estate empire that had become the biggest landlords in Manhattan and embarked upon a multi-billion-dollar project in London known as Canary Wharf. This grandiose undertaking proved to be the Reichmann's undoing. To finance Canary Wharf they borrowed heavily against the paper value of their other holdings and the value of their reputation as infallible investors. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Machiavelli on Modern Leadership by Michael A. Ledeen. Copyright © 1999 Michael A. Leeden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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