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Friday, May 05, 2006

Leadership in Machiavelli for an Online Course

Downloadable mp3 file / Podcast.

Rather than simply providing a synopsis of Machiavelli's The Prince, or providing historical contexts, which can be found in many places, it can be more useful to look at leadership in Machiavelli from the point of view of guiding questions. Many have commented that Machiavelli meant The Prince as an ironic tour-de-force in which he satirized leaders and leadership qualities.

Instead of slavishly adhering to the prevailing philosophy that princes enjoy the divine right of kings, and that their birth into the monarchy reflected God's choice as a leader, Machiavelli portrayed the Prince as a fairly arrogant manipulator who was successful precisely because of his deeply flawed humanity (rather than any potential divinity). It is useful to keep in mind that the medieval order of the universe, or cosmology, expressed by Dante in The Divine Comedy was also that of Machiavelli.

The "great chain of being" placed the king at the top of the hierarchy, then the other members of the aristocracy, then peasants. Leadership required one to demonstrate one's true right to the throne, which could be done by means of trickery of all kinds, ranging from birthmarks to behaviors that would echo what might be expected of a capricious, yet righteous and omnipotent God.

Here are a few typical questions to help one look at leadership in Machiavelli's The Prince:

Does Machiavelli think humans are innately good and virtuous? Explain your response and use quotes from the text to support your position.

When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, what were the dominant characteristics of the political and economic environment?

What are three elements that Machiavelli believes are necessary to be a good and effective prince?

Select two sections that you find most thought-provoking and possibly perplexing. What gives you pause when you read the passages? Why? How does reading the passages make you reflect on your own experiences?

Machiavelli and The Art of War. I think that Machiavelli wrote one of the first psy-ops manuals, when he put together the writings that were collected as the Art of War. As in The Prince, it is deeply psychological and is based on an understanding of human needs, desires, and motivation. The basic truth is that Machiavelli, like many other writers who followed him, believed that people were inherently brutish, greedy, hungry, and vicious. Without a higher calling to keep them focused on the divine, Machiavelli's Prince and all his subjects would find good company in Dante's rounds of purgatory and the inferno, where their fleshly desires caused them to act against the laws of God and nature.

The Art of War contains interesting passages in which he discusses the efficacy of tactics that rely on deception. For example, in the Sixth Book of The Art of War, Machiavelli discusses how to give false signals and to use disguises to deceive the enemy:

Sometimes it helps to deceive the enemy by changing one of your habits, relying on which, he is ruined: as a Captain had already done, who, when he wanted to have a signal made to his men indicating the coming of the enemy, at night with fire and in the daytime with smoke, commanded that both smoke and flame be made without any intermission; so that when the enemy came, he should remain in the belief that he came without being seen, as he did not see the signals (usually) made to indicate his discovery, made ((because of his going disorganized)) the victory of his adversary easier. Menno Rodius, when he wanted to draw the enemy from the strong places, sent one in the disguise of a fugitive, who affirmed that his army was full of discord, and that the greater part were deserting, and to give proof of the matter, had certain tumults started among the quarters: whence to the enemy, thinking he was able to break him, assaulted him and was routed.

Among other things, this further reinforces Machiavelli's estimation of humans - that they are easily deceived, as well as being deceptive. In other passages, he discusses the need for self control, and the fact that soldiers and others are more likely to fall into drunkenness and licentiousness unless motivated and/or strongly guided not to do so.

In a world of individuals who, when push comes to shove, favor their weaker, brutish selves, rather than gravitating toward virtue, what does Machiavelli think the ideal leader should be? Clearly, it's not a charismatic leader. Machiavelli's leader is a transactional leader who sagely considers actions and their consequences.

The Prince.

JiffyNotes - The Prince.

Seven Books on the Art of War.

History Guide -- Machiavelli.

Aphorisms from The Art of War.

WebMuseum on the Renaissance.

Machiavelli: The Board Game by Avalon Hill.

The Art of War.

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