Machiavelli believed in success by any means. He writes in The Prince that “the skill of an individual leader is the key factor in determining the success of a state or enterprise.” In today’s world, the behaviors, competencies, and responsibilities of the project leader are key factors in determining the success of the project.
The main function of project leadership is clear when Machiavelli discusses conspiracies in The Prince and concludes that “…a prince should not worry too much about conspiracies, as long as his people are devoted to him;” Project leaders need to create bonds with the project team. People create projects; project plans don’t create projects.
Positive expectations have powerful effects on performance. The wise project leader makes sure that all team members know that what they do matters. The successful project leader finds ways to express and cultivate positive expectations.
Richard Vetere, a playwright, found the spirit of Machiavelli-style leadership refreshing and engaging. He suggests seven principles as Machiavelli’s advice to today’s project leaders:
1. Anticipate the worst and take action. Risk can never be eliminated, but it can be contained by those who plan ahead and take appropriate action.
2. Reliable allies are those who benefit from our successes. Team up with those who truly benefit from our victories.
3. Free time and work time really are all part of the limited amount of time we have at our disposal to succeed at our goals. Do not squander them, not even during periods of rest.
4. Forgiving those who do us wrong is a mistake. When we forgive those who do us harm, we undercut the efforts of those who are loyal. Punish the disobedient; love the loyal. This was Machiavelli’s perspective. I do not share this opinion, and you may not either. Machiavelli believed that to forgive those who do us wrong was a mistake. You may find this to be contrary to your own moral compass, and the point he was stressing was that if a project leader was to forgive in the sense of overlooking or accepting poor workmanship, this undercuts the efforts of the diligent, conscientious project team members. Reprimand when necessary, praise wherever possible.
5. Passion is the best motivator. It pays to seek out people who believe passionately in what they do.
6. Trust enemies above friends for frankness. We can trust our enemies to criticize us when we deserve to be criticized. Friends are often less honest with us.
7. The hard road to the top is often the best. Machiavelli believed that leaders who inherit their success are often more likely to fail than self-made leaders who are forced to learn important life lessons during their own climbs.
So for project leaders, it seems that Machiavelli’s iron rules are as timely and important today as they were 500 years ago.