Few books are still read 500 years after first being published. It is even more unique if such a book is still on the required reading list at schools (like MBA graduate level schools). The book I am talking about is The Prince by Machiavelli. Despite its age and brevity, the book is still very relevant and influential. A beginning course of management theory and political science wouldn’t be complete without commenting on his writing.
Machiavelli discusses how a ruler, or Prince, could accomplish conquest and rule his subjects, and rule in the face of both internal and external threats (still useful in the modern corporate situation). For example, this book gave us an expression “Machiavellian,” which is still used in politics today and refers to a sneaky way to keep power. One of the earliest mentions of the slur “Machiavellian” was even used in a Shakespeare play, centuries before The Prince was even translated to English. Students of leadership and management heard the term "Machiavellian Management.” The term refers to a certain kind of management style, one where the ends and glory justify the means.
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a little book of advice for those who would set out to conquer other countries. He also gives a historically accurate account of 1500s century southern Europe, mainly France and Italy. He gives us his reasons why certain rules succeeded and why others did not. For example, he illustrates how they conquered other nations, kept people in submission, kept them ruling and on the throne, all without being overthrown and avoiding major uprisings.
On its journey through the centuries, this book came a long way. At the time the book was misunderstood and even forbidden. This book may be one of the reasons why Machiavelli lived most of his life in exile. He was a diplomat in Florence, Italy from 1494 to 1512, but lost his office upon the rise of the Medici's. The Prince comes from his diplomatic experiences coupled with a study of history. He has written several books, but this is his best known work.
Machiavelli is describing various human behaviors, not necessarily advocating them. Anyone who has achieved almost any level of leadership would be familiar with Machiavelli's warning against flattery. He counseled that, "there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you." He comments on mistakes committed by prior great rulers and the management style of Moses. He states that everybody wants to be both loved and feared, but it is hard to be both. One should rather choose to be feared then loved. His other advice is that “He who helps other succeed loses himself.” He advises people in power that they should avoid all flatterers and should never listen to them, which is still very relevant in today’s workplace. He also comments on circumstances if one became a prince because people were unhappy with the previous prince, or if his rein follows a popular prince.
The Prince is not an easy read. It is full of dry humor and satire. Many passages are open to interpretation or could be meant as sarcasm. It is hard to tell authors' intentions 500 years later. At certain parts, readers are not sure if it is really sage advice or just black humor. However, the new 2008 translation is easier to follow than some earlier translations that I had to read in school decades ago.