Machiavelli for procurement professionals – being loved or feared

Before Christmas we started featuring Niccolo Machiavelli , whose masterpiece The Prince was first published 500 years ago (our first article is here). The book still has real relevance today in politics and international relations, as well as to anyone working in  organizations of reasonable size.

Today we’ll look at another of his well known maxims – it is usually quoted as “it is much safer to be feared than loved”. Indeed, this is often used to show what a wicked person he was. But the full quote is much more subtle, and takes us into some real lessons for management. Here is what he actually said:

One ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.

So the perfect combination is to be both feared and loved. But he acknowledges that this is a tough trick to pull off – although he does give some examples of successful rulers in the book who managed just that. As it is so difficult to achieve this combination, he suggest that, if you have to choose, go for the fear.

And just to stress that his outlook was not wholly cynical or evil, he is also very clear that even if a Prince makes himself feared, he must act so that he “at any rate avoids hatred”. We’ll come back to that point in a further part of this series.

But expanding on the love and fear point – Machiavelli says that the ruler must “proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable”.

So basically, he advises his theoretical Prince that his people should not be terrified of him, (and indeed, as we say, he should aim to be loved), and that he should act in a reasonable manner whenever possible. However, the element of fear is necessary so that his subjects know that if they cross him, or rebel, they will be in big trouble.

Now we might re-define ‘fear’ in a less war-like environment as ‘respect’. And if we do that, isn’t that what pretty much every business leader aspires to?

We would all like to be ‘loved’ by our team (not too physically, I don’t suppose they had sexual harassment issues in 15th century Florence), but we also know that they need to understand the consequences if they are disloyal, don’t perform, or let down the boss. Thinking back to my experience, I’ve certainly had a few excellent managers where a sort of fear did play a part - even if it was the fear of letting them down, and of their disapproval, rather than a physically based fear.

And there is certainly a lesson for new managers here. Respect has to be earned by behavior, so by all means aim for love, but remember the importance of respect and fear. You have to be prepared to exert some authority and power occasionally in a manner that demonstrates you are the boss. And you don’t achieve respect just by being ‘one of the boys / girls’.

That is also something Machiavelli covered. He talks about rulers who failed (usually they got assassinated) because they behaved in an undignified manner, indulging in sports and other pastimes (if you know what I mean) with the common people. That did not really gain them “love” and certainly lost fear and respect.

In my time, I remember one new CPO in our industry who immediately recruited a bunch of their personal friends into the new procurement function, and wanted to be both the big cheese and also “mates” with the team. That CPO-ship lasted about 18 months.

And we’ll come back to how leaders come to be hated – and how to avoid it – in our next post on Machiavelli.

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