September 24, 2008 |

Winner Takes All

Machiavelli on what makes a great leader.

The greatest analyst of power in the last 500 years, the Florentine Nicolo Machiavelli, made a basic distinction between those who ruled and those who governed. He insisted that legitimate power rested on popular support and that the most durable governments throughout history were republics or–like Sparta–states with mixed constitutions. He believed brilliant monarchs and emperors, while rare, existed. They too conformed to Machiavelli's model; their power was the consequence of their popularity. He agreed that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Durable political power therefore rests on the relationship between leaders and people, and Machiavelli insisted that the best leaders were virtuous men and women. Indeed, he sometimes used the word “virtue” to mean “power,” and he was unrelenting in his criticism of successful military and political leaders who were insufficiently virtuous. Without virtue, power is simply the use of force to impose the leader's will on his subjects or followers.

The highest form of virtue is military virtue, which requires selflessness, discipline and an utter abhorrence of all forms of self-indulgence. “A prince must have no other objective or other thought or take anything for his craft except war,” he wrote, meaning that the virtues of the warrior are those of all great leaders.

Preparing for war toughens you and strengthens the qualities necessary for victory: prudent judgment for the most part, but a willingness to take risks when necessary; alertness to changing conditions; bravery under fire; courage when challenged; devotion to the common good; and total commitment to the mission. These qualities are required of all successful leaders, whether in politics, business, sports or even religion.

The greatest leaders–those who acquire the greatest power and the greatest glory–maintain these qualities even in peacetime. To take just three such men in our recent history: Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington all demonstrated their virtue in both war and peace. These are the sort Machiavelli was looking for. “In what man ought the country to find greater faith than in he who has to promise to die for her?”

At the other end of the scale are corrupt leaders, those who put self-indulgence before the common good. In a famous passage from The Art of War, Machiavelli reveals his scorn for such a leader:

“They thought … that it sufficed for a prince … to think up a sharp reply, to write a beautiful letter, to demonstrate wit and readiness in saying and words, to know how to weave a fraud … to conduct himself avariciously and proudly, to rot in idleness, to give military rank by favor …”

Such leaders were doomed because it was only a matter of time before they earned the contempt of their countrymen, the greatest danger to those who wish to be powerful. Virtuous leaders are never held in contempt, and they rarely need to resort to force to retain or even expand their power.

Late in the Revolutionary War George Washington faced an impending mutiny from troops who had not been paid on time and felt snubbed by the Continental Congress. He went to the men and called for calm, trying to read them a letter from a member of Congress. But the penmanship was hard to read and Washington was at first too vain to use his glasses. Finally, he put on his spectacles, and said to them, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” He carried the day.

But there are times when charm will not carry the day, and virtuous leaders know when to get tough. Machiavelli famously asked if it were better for a leader to be loved or feared, and his answer goes to the heart of power: Either one may work, he said (as the Washington example proves), but fear is more reliable because “fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.” Great leaders all know the power of fear. Even Washington did: In 1794 he led the Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, and afterward everybody knew it did not pay to cross him.

The key to a successful use of power, in Machiavelli's view, is that it must not be arbitrary, any more than the decisions of a commanding officer on the battlefield. All leaders will have to do unpleasant things, and will be most successful if their decisions are deemed appropriate. “What makes [a leader] despised,” Machiavelli wrote, “is being considered changeable, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, irresolute; [a leader] must strive to make everyone recognize in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity and strength.”

Finally, Machiavelli taught that virtue is much more than its own reward, for it is virtue alone that makes good government possible. Those leaders who emulate the great warriors know they must win, because defeat removes them from the scene and brings their enemies to power. This is why Machiavelli is reluctant to criticize any leader who resorts to extreme measures to save his country. “If you are victorious,” he reminded would-be leaders, “the people will always judge the means you used to have been appropriate.”

As Vince Lombardi, a true Machiavellian, once put it, “Winning isn't the most important thing; it's the only thing.”

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