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The Test of Time

Last month, in Rick's Rules of Survival, I summarized methods of managing a difficult boss. But how is it that we have created a corporate environment

Last month, in “Rick's Rules of Survival,” I summarized methods of managing a difficult boss. But how is it that we have created a corporate environment that supports these difficult bosses? There must be something endemic in our companies that rewards these behaviors, regardless of corporate vision and strategic statements to the contrary.

Below I am providing you a series of leadership and management strategies and maxims that have stood the test of time. See if you can find evidence of these management practices in your utility today.

On Perception: Everyone sees who you appear to be, few really know who you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many.

On Control: Men will always prove untrue to you unless they are kept honest by constraint.

On Love: Love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage.

On Power: Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries. The injury done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

On Generosity: Nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even while you exercise it, you lose the power to continue to do so and thus become either poor or despised.

On Human Nature: While it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion.

On Those with a Silver Spoon: Some such stand simply elevated upon the goodwill and the fortune of him who has elevated them — two most inconstant and unstable things. Neither have they the knowledge requisite for the position.

On Flatterers: There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

I selected these quotes from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Reading the preface to The Prince, I learned that Machiavelli was a diplomat in Florence, Italy (then a republic), where his duties had him interacting with various European courts. When political tides changed and the Medici family again ruled Florence, Macchiavelli was imprisoned, then exiled and finally allowed to return to Florence. After his diplomatic career ended, Machiavelli began to write about the political climate and intrigues of the day. He was not a philosopher but merely reported on what worked and what didn't when it came to gaining and keeping power.

Now, 500 years later, I am embarrassed to say I see these same tactics being deployed around the world in both government and business. I have a pull quote taped to my bookcase that states: “Trust is the foundation of all forms of influence other than coercion. You need to foster it.”

Our world has evolved mightily in the 500 years since Machiavelli. Unfortunately, the dark side of human nature can still be seen in many of our managers who resort to deceit and crushing power to gain short-term results and maintain control.

Although we teach enlightened leadership and participative management, I expect your corporation has allowed thugs and bullies to push you using Machiavellian techniques to hit short-term financial goals, and that to the long-term detriment of you and your customers.

The quote that struck me most was Machiavelli's comments on the difficulty of innovating: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new conditions.”

But we are seeing a rapid disintegration of companies who depend on command and control to maintain order. Looking forward, our companies can never move fast enough to survive using 14th century management techniques. Instead, let's build engaged and committed organizations so that we can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Editor's note: To give Niccolo Machiavelli his due, the man was an insightful observer who also commented on the skills and traits that allowed rulers to maintain their territories or conversely led to their ruin. See if these insights seem particularly cogent today.

  • In the beginning of the malady, it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure.

  • He who does not properly manage this business will soon lose what he has acquired, and while he does hold it, he will have endless difficulties and troubles.

  • In ordinary affairs, one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles and to choose the lesser evil.

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