Was Machiavelli really saying evil is necessary for good? Using and abusing power today, a leadership discussion
We find few places to talk frankly about our personal experiences of holding and using power. But Niccolo Machiavelli gives us permission to talk openly. His scandalous writing explores the mysteriousness of our personalities and how they interact with random events, in defiance of psychological models. We’re successful one moment and then failing the next, for no apparent reason.
He implies, shamefully by today’s ethics, that evil is necessary for good to flourish. But, this is to misread him. He is a serious moralist, and consequentialist, wanting the best possible outcome for his people. Notoriety has coloured his reputation. In this session we re-visit Machiavelli, to discover he wasn’t the sneering coward of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder after all, but a strategic mind. In fact, he wasn’t Machiavellian.
We’re not quite sure how he achieved his position, but at the age of 28, Niccolo Machiavelli found himself in significant power, representing the much fought over city state of Florence. He moved between the King of France, the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor. And with little backing from Florence’s mercenary-only forces, who tended to disappear on a whim. His boss offered little vision and changed his mind mid-negotiation. He’d spend days waiting for an audience. At times with insufficient funds to feed or clothe himself. He’d every reason to despair his new role.
Then he met Cesare Borgia. Epic, seductive, cruel, murderous. The opposite of his ever-hesitant boss. Borgia, was, in a word, Machiavellian. The label associated with ruthless leadership. What caught the long-suffering Niccolo’s eye was Cesare’s decisive calculation, thought and analysis. Once out of power Niccolo’s conclusions were outrageous. Noting that life is often mercilessly cruel, and holding power is a brutal and brutalising experience. Uncomfortable reading for today’s humanistic social democracies like Britain; and he asks do our idealistic images of the world do more harm.
Should we despise Machiavelli for his honest reflections, or rather engage with our own struggle to steer through messy reality less naively? Do we shroud executive leadership in mystery? Join the discussion for a journey into power. Bring your own stories and insights for discussion.