Machiavelli & Lao Zi

I am truly behind in my reading, more than 500 years in some cases. I have heard of Machiavelli’s The Prince for years, and I have certainly used “Machiavellian” often enough to be curious about its origin. It’s only recently that I read the thin but impactful manuscript. What a read. It’s also amusing to follow up on Lao Zi’s non-intervention principles, of last week, with Machiavellian’s downright meddling principles. I contend that skillful and effective leaders and managers employ both Lao Zi’s and Machiavelli’s ideas.

Regardless of historical speculation regarding whether Machiavelli wrote The Prince as satire or as earnest advice for princes in their governing, the convergence of analysts’ opinions is that he was pragmatic. Machiavelli focused on the governing of actual kingdoms rather than imaginary or theoretical governing bodies. Lao Zi’s The Way is both philosophical and idealistic, almost poetic, and with little reference to any governing bodies.


To be “Machiavellian” is to be manipulative, calculating, and downright cold- blooded, and it isn’t just applied to politicians but to anyone who plays politics in any environment. However, there are Machiavellian principles (somewhat oxymoronic?) that hold true in today’s organizations. For instance, one of the recurring themes in The Prince is this: If a prince acquires his kingdom through easy means, such as, by inherence, quick conquer, or by appointment, he has to work much harder to earn his subjects’ support and/or loyalty. On the other hand, if a prince has won a state by arduous methods, he would have an easier time to gain his new subjects’ respect. Isn’t that true in modern organizations? Those new managers who appear on the scene having more charm (or rich relatives) than actual credentials usually have to work much harder to win the direct reports’ respect…if they care to win such respect. And the ones who reluctantly accept their promotions, probably after some persistent persuasion, generally would be on better footing for winning respect from others.

The book is unnerving because Machiavelli lays bare the side of human nature that most of us call ugly, not just concerning princes, but their minions, soldiers, townspeople, etc. Yet, the most disturbing aspect of reading the book is that it doesn’t disturb me that much. Though an optimist and idealist in general, I am also a realist who has studied human behavior and psychology. Machiavelli made a penetrating study and his sparse writing exposed our dark side quite accurately; it is that he makes this exposure without any apology that makes it unnerving.

What fascinates me is the application of some of the Machiavellian principles in modern management. The really successful managers – though not quite rendering their positions pointless (see last week’s post) – often anticipate obstructions and detect bumps ahead of others. They head off these traps for their people to ensure better and smoother operations…yes, by manipulating a few people, bypassing or maneuvering around a few rules. As a result, people reporting to these managers can do their jobs more effectively and even joyfully. The managers with humility would not expose their manipulative techniques, and as a result, on the surface, their people might not realize all the behind-the-scene work. Managers in such category are both Machiavellian and Zen (It’s Zen because they massage the work environment without seemingly doing much).


Though a fictitious figure, Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series is consummate in mixing some Machiavellian methods with Zen principles. For real figures, look at Presidents Lincoln or Roosevelt (FDR). Indeed, Dumbledore manipulates many things and many people, particularly Harry, but he does so to lead the willing ones toward their own enlightenment. Yes, Dumbledore teaches his students how to fish instead of giving them fish. In the final encounter between Potter and Dumbledore at King’s Cross, I find Dumbledore’s words particularly apt for modern management:

It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” In another context, at an earlier and happier time in the story line, Dumbledore imparts other words of wisdom, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is in such spirits that I find often it’s those “reluctant” leaders who do best for all.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s