THE PRINCE: 5 lessons a Strategist can learn from Machiavelli

By - CTL
March 9, 2017

By Marcus Honesta.


What did George Santayana (philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard) say: “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

The past has many valuable lessons to teach today’s young marketers.

To be called Machiavellian you are considered to be unscrupulous, immoral and deceitful. He was after all the man that wrote since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved’, and “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli born 3rd May 1469 and lived until 21st June 1527. He was an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer. He was, for many years a senior official in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He wrote many things but is best known for his masterpiece, The Prince (Il Principe), published in 1513. It is from this book that much valuable knowledge can be drawn.

In spite of his jaundiced worldview, or maybe because of it, Machiavelli has been called the founder of modern political science and realpolitik,  (from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. It is often simply referred to as pragmatism in politics, e.g. “pursuing pragmatic policies”. The term Realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian and provides 5 lessons that can benefit the young marketing strategist.

The first lesson is to be the agent of change. Machiavelli wrote that “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it”. He understood that the world doesn’t stand still for anyone, that the only constant is change, and that if we don’t embrace this change and drive it, we will be caught unawares and swept aside by it. He could be talking about our lives in the digital age when he writes ‘whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times’. The digital revolution has brought unprecedented levels of change, all happening at disorienting speed. The strategist needs to recognize and embrace this.

The second lesson is to understand that you will always face resistance to the change you are driving. He writes, “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” Enterprises and the people that work within them are not wired for change. They are designed to maintain and build on the status quo, particularly when it works to their advantage. It is far too easy to grow comfortable within the machine. The graveyard of history is littered with the bodies of technology and business giants that became complacent and resistant to change. Recognize that there will be resistance to your efforts to drive change and you can plan accordingly. Look at Kodak.

Which brings us to the third lesson, that of speed. Machiavelli writes “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally’. A marketer needs to act decisively, to move quickly, to test, to fail fast and to move on. The digital fingerprints of failure are impermanent, so the stakes are lower. But the impact of inertia can be crippling.

The fourth lesson is an understanding of the capacity of people to react to both good and bad news. He writes “. He must inflict them once and for all”. Later, he adds “Benefits should be conferred gradually and in that way they will taste better. This is an interesting one and requires some explanation. It is based on the idea that our capacity for anger or happiness is limited. That is to say, we can only be so angry or so happy at any one time. As a marketer you can use this to your advantage. If you have bad news for example, give all your bad news at the same time, because the recipient will be just as angry with a single piece of bad news as they will with three. The inverse is the case with good news. Bt delivering it in small doses over time you will give your audience a heightened and sustained sense of well-being and be able to drive your change agenda more consistently.

The fifth and final lesson is to be subtle and pragmatic. Machiavelli writes that “Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see and few can feel. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are”. He builds on this theme of subtlety by reminding us that “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution”.

While we don’t subscribe to his worldview of being unprincipled, we do believe that it is important to not to be rigid or ideological. To be pragmatic is to acknowledge that circumstances change and that the future is unpredictable. To be pragmatic is to be supple enough to change course when necessary. To be pragmatic is to focus on the goal, on the outcome and not the individual steps. In short, to be pragmatic is to be strategic.

Most revisionists write that someone controversial was a man of their time who’s views and opinions need to be considered through that lens, and not from the perspective of a modern sensibility. Our interest here is not to gloss over Machiavelli’s more controversial and less palatable views. Our interest is to understand how some of his core ideas remain vital in the digital age, and how applying them makes us more effective strategists and marketers. Machiavelli obviously did not have a very high opinion of human nature, but he did understand many of the fundamentals of what it took to succeed.

As he wrote, “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command”.




One thought on “THE PRINCE: 5 lessons a Strategist can learn from Machiavelli

  1. Great article a lot to be considered from it well done Marcus

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