What is leadership all about? As we found out at our recent ECPR workshop, many of our ideas lead back to that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince. His aim was to explain the end point of leadership capital-what makes leaders succeed or fail?
His problem for posterity was that, as Quentin Skinner put it, he was honest, possibly too honest, about the need for politicians to be dishonest. Machiavelli spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of political leadership. Since the Prince was published in 1513, Machiavelli attracted criticism from Shakespeare and praise from Mussolini and Napoleon, which didn’t really help his reputation. He is still used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband. His exact meaning is still debated-see these recent pieces by Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff and philosopher John Gray.
So what advice would Machiavelli give to modern leaders? First, Machiavelli welcomed clarity. He advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument-being neutral meant you lost either way. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.
Second, when deciding on a course of action, Machiavelli warned that a leader must ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’.
Third, Machiavelli, rather unexpectedly, advised that a good leader should go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat (that’s still hotly debated) but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him or her.
Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’. So a politician needs to be able to move with events. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’. The final theme is the central one: that of uncertainty. Change is inevitable. He repeats often how a politician must shift if circumstances change: ‘one who adapts his policy to the times proposers’ and one who does not will fail. Hence his advice to do what is good when possible and bad when necessary-in the name of adaption. This is the essence of Machiavelli. Leaders take note…