Exactly 500 years ago, in 1512, the Medici family gained power in Florence, during the Italian Renaissance. A civil servant in the Florentine Republic – named Niccolò Machiavelli – was imprisoned after allegedly conspiring against the new ruler Lorenzo de Medici. In attempt to win Lorenzo’s favour, Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince, which outlined how to run a principality and hold onto power. The book has been a source of controversy and inspiration ever since. Now, its 26 chapters have been developed into an unorthodox online learning programme.
Despite the fact that it was written in an age of corruption and brutality, the ideas and dilemmas raised in The Prince remain relevant and compelling for today’s leaders. For example, Machiavelli discusses the question of whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared. He actually says that it is desirable to be both. However, as this is difficult to achieve, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved. Above all, he claims, a prince should strive to avoid being hated. He states:
“Because men are ungrateful, fickle and ‘greedy of gain’, a prince who relies on their words without other security is ruined. So long as you shower benefits on men, they will offer you their blood, provided the necessity for it is far off but when it is near at hand, they revolt. For friendships that are won by rewards – and not by greatness and nobility – cannot be depended upon in times of adversity. Men have less hesitation in offending one who makes himself loved than one who is feared. For love holds through a bond of obligation, which can be broken whenever it is in the interests of the obliged party. But fear holds by the apprehension of punishment, which is something that never leaves men.”
So what are the implications of this for leadership development? Firstly, it should be recognised that this is a valid question. Leaders are usually either loved or feared. They often choose a certain leadership style – and they must be aware that their choice will affect the culture of the entire organisation.
If you’re wondering whether fear and intimidation can be an effective means of motivation, then think of a typical drill sergeant! Hannibal and Genghis Khan were successful military commanders who were renowned for their cruelty. Their enemies were terrified of them but so too where their own men. Yet their armies were still prepared to follow both leaders with some degree of loyalty and devotion.
A dictatorial management style based around fear and control can be effective for some teams or departments. For example, for those working in a set and specific role in a highly structured environment. If you want to control people and get them to undertake certain tasks, through orders and instructions, then fear and intimidation can work as a way of getting people to do what you want.
The downside is that fear creates mistrust. In an intimidating environment – or where people are fearful of losing their jobs – they may work hard but they won’t deliver to their real capability because they’ll want to ensure that they don’t make mistakes. They won’t rock the boat or take risks because they won’t want to get punished. As soon as they feel that there will be consequences if they don’t succeed, they’ ll stop performing.
In contrast, being ‘loved’ as a leader has its advantages when you want to empower people with freedom and responsibility so they can take initiative and be creative. People will only ‘dare to perform’ to the best of their ability, or go the extra mile for a leader, if they feel trusted and respected. They’ll be more willing to take risks in an environment where smart mistakes are accepted as the price of progress.
Leaders should aim to create this kind of productive environment. If they are loved, as opposed to being feared, they are more likely to foster a climate of trust and collaboration in which people can give their best.
Machiavelli, however, wasn’t writing specifically for leaders of organisations. He was trying to gain the attention of a ruler of a totalitarian regime, for whom being liked by the population was not a necessary political investment. Nevertheless, a key lesson from The Prince is that the attitude and behaviour of a leader – good or bad – will ultimately cascade down to affect the entire organisation. That’s something that every leader should understand.