Laurent Ledoux's blog

“Yes” if we stick to Machiavelli’s sixteenth century contemporaries acceptation of the word as “elaborately cunning”; “Not only” if we use the word Machiavellian in its more contemporary acceptation. As Jackieh remarked on a comment to a former entry to this blog (Is Obama a “wise leader”?): “There are several indications that Obama is rather a Machiavellian type of leader. […] This does not make him any less of a potential hope given the ethical character of his ends, for what we know at least. And according to me, some Machiavellian character is even required for such a position as head of state – and especially at such a level. […] Obama is maybe one of those rare leaders we hope to find Machiavellian.” In this post, partly inspired by Joseph Nye’s book, “The powers to lead” (in which he coined the concept of “Smart powers”, now regularly used by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), I provide a few thoughts on what it may mean to be a “Machiavellian leader”. A high-level synthesis of Joseph Nye’s book is provided here. Joseph Nye himself has been so kind to review this post on March 6th 2009 and gently qualified it as “both accurate and intelligent”. A modest amateur blogger like me cannot dream for more.

If you search the web for the words “Machiavellian” and “Obama”, you will find 222,000 results! Searching the web is often a humbling experience: should I waste time trying to write the 222,001st article which will provide a result for this particular combination of words? Probably not, but I’ll do it anyway because after reading some 20 of them, one quickly realizes that most of them have, at least in my eyes, a rather limited interpretation of what Machiavelli wrote and consequently often display a rather “black and white” picture of who is – or should be – Obama in the eyes of the authors: either he is an idealist heralding a new politics or he is a “Machiavellian samurai”.

From what I have read or seen from him so far, I rather believe Obama cunningly adapts his “style” or uses different skills in function of the circumstances. And that’s exactly the way it should be, I guess. I believe Machiavelli would have agreed. For Joseph Nye, it is even clearer he agrees: this is credo, as we will see below. Note that, once again, this post is not so much about Obama and his policies. It is about leadership and takes Obama as an excuse to investigate this concept.

Let’s reflect on Machiavelli first. His thought is often caricatured with the sentence “The ends justify the means”, arguing that a leader can be justified in utilizing whatever means necessarily to attain, maintain, and retain power. The contemporary, pejorative usage of Machiavellian (which probably started under the Ancient Regime, in the 19th century) is a misnomer describing someone who deceives and manipulates others for gain (personal or not, the gain is immaterial, only action matters, insofar as it effects results). But if Machiavelli is indeed fully aware of the irony of good results coming from evil actions, “Il Principe” does not therefore dismiss morality. While describing realistically politics as it is, it is not even a-moral. Instead, it politically defines “Morality”. For example, to be “acceptable”, a cruel action must be decisive: swift, effective, and short-lived (according to such standards, “Guantanamo”, for example, would probably not have been considered by Machiavelli as an “acceptable cruel action” to defend the State). Similarly, when Machiavelli writes that it is better for a prince to be feared than to be loved, we should not equate fear as the opposite of love. Hatred is. And Machiavelli made it clear that hatred is something a prince should carefully avoid (again, according to this “machiavellian principle”, George W. Bush would have been judged by Machiavelli a total failure: his foreign policy has globally fuelled more hatred than fear towards himself and his country). Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century contemporaries adopted and used the adjective Machiavellian more “properly” and closer to Machiavelli’s thought, meaning “elaborately cunning”. Cunning is probably derived from an old English word meaning or related to the verb “to know”. The Machiavellian Prince could therefore be described as somebody who knows how to orient himself according to the circumstances (“la qualita dei tempi”), how to seize opportunities (we are not far here from the “Kairos” dear to Aristotle, whose work Machiavelli knew very well) and who is able to take the necessary decisions, including violent ones, to attain and retain power. Because of this, the Prince is somebody who understands a situation can never be stable: he is therefore always dynamic and fights conservatism.

In his book “The powers to lead”, Joseph Nye fundamentally elaborates the idea that a good (effective and ethical) leader is a leader who knows how to adapt to the context or the circumstances.

Nye concentrates on the various powers (soft or hard – see table below; for more details and a full review of Nye’s book, click here), a leader can use in order to the goals he/she shares with his/her followers. Among the “hard” powers, he distinguishes “Organizational capacity” and “Machiavellian skills”. With these “Machiavellian” skills, he means here mainly the “ability to bully, buy and bargain” and the “ability to build and maintain winning coalitions”.

He calls “Smart power” the ability to combine hard and soft powers into an effective strategy. In this sense, it could be argued that Nye uses here the term “Machiavellian” in its more limited but current acceptation while the term “Smart” might not be very far from the way the term “Machiavellian” was probably understood by Machiavelli himself and his contemporaries, ie. “elaborately cunning”. An apparent admirer and connoisseur of Machiavelli, Nye is probably fully aware of this and the reason he has chosen these terms is understandingly because he does not want to trouble his readers with apparent semantics: his book is insightful and still short and easy to read.

Some might argue that there is still an important difference between Machiavelli and Nye’s “definitions” of a Prince/leader. For Machiavelli, the Prince’s final objective seems to be power itself: to obtain and maintain power. For Nye, the leader’s objective is not power but to help a group (his/her followers) create and achieve shared goals. But is the difference between Machiavelli and Nye so clear-cut? The 26th and final chapter of “Il Principe” is quite clear about what the end goals of the Prince should be according to Machiavelli: to free his country from oppression, to never surrender to oppression (“Non abandonarsi mai”) and in order to do so, to urge its leaders to forge an “iron” (through violence if – but only if – it is strictly necessary) alliance with their people. I’m therefore not sure that Machiavelli would have strongly disagreed with Nye, even if he probably would never have thought to use similar words (“create”, “shared goals”) to describe the objectives of the Prince (In any case, to my knowledge, he did not).

But let’s pursue with Nye’s crisp definition. By proposing such a definition, Nye integrates nicely and elegantly (ie. in a few words) at least two important concepts in today’s leadership studies:

  1. The idea of servant leadership, initiated by Robert GreenLeaf and well described in “Leadership Jazz” by Max DePree. Servanthood is rooted in humility, in courage and authentic service to others over self interest. As Bassey Eyo puts it, the question Servant leadership focus on is: “Do those we teach and lead become smarter, wiser, more confident, more authentic, more positive, more caring, more civil, and more commited to selfless service in organizations within our national context and global imperative?”. Servant leadership puts followers and their moral elevation as the final objective of the good, “wise” leader. This is not fundamentally different from Strom or Mc Gregor Burns’ views (see previous entry).
  2. The importance of the interplay between the leader and his/her followers whether to create or to achieve shared goals. Therefore, as Christof Bruchansky (see comments to previous entry) rightly points out, “wise followers” are equally important as “wise leaders”.

Nye’s short and clear definition is also helpful to differentiate leadership from other concepts such as role model, coach or mentor: a leader needs a group of followers. A leader is often a role model to a group of people but not all role models are leaders. My grand mother is a role model for me but she never led a group of people. The same goes for coaches and mentors.

Finally Nye’s definition is not contradictory with the idea that a group has often several leaders:

  • One emotional leader that people will speak with when there is an emotional conflict in the group;
  • Another leader to define the purpose of the group and;
  • Possibly another one to manage the day-to-day activities.

Now, if you think this is all a semantic discussion reserved for academics, think twice. As Gideon Rachman reported on 06/02/09 in The Financial Times, Obama and his secretary of state for foreign affairs, “Hillary Clinton signaled a ‘smart’ retreat from democratization. […] Mrs Clinton’s ‘3 D’s mantra’ (Defense, Diplomacy, Development) uses a vocabulary of the possible rather than charting grand objectives. It suggests that the US will continue to assert its military might while emphasizing the kind of diplomatic outreach many US allies called for during Mr Bush’s presidency. […] This rethinking of the war on terror reflects a broader reassessment, both of American power and of US national security. Rather than putting military power at the centre of US foreign policy, the Obama team wants to rehabilitate America’s “soft power” – diplomacy, persuasion, cultural influence, development aid and the power of example. Indeed the man who coined the phrase “soft power” – Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor – is tipped to be US ambassador to Japan or China.” And indeed, Nye actively promotes his ideas about leadership not only in his book but also in various media such as television, radio, newspapers or on his “blog” at the Belfer Center where he applies directly his concepts to current policy issues, what kind of leader Obama is or should be,… And Nye is not the only one. Rachman goes showing how important it is to examine the writings of those who will shape US foreign policy under Obama in order to understand how he will rethink US power in the world: Richard Holbrooke, Daniel Benjamin, Samantha Power, Kurt Campbell, Ivo Daalder, Susan Rice, Philip Gordon, Anne-Marie Slaughter,…

This shows how serious, academic or not, thinking may help to shape our policies, at least when you have a leader at the top who is open to it. By itself it says a lot about the kind of leader Obama is or wants to be. To me, this gives hope that philosophy, in one of the broadest senses of the word – questioning reality – may help to redefine our views of the world and, hence, change the way we act. And this is precisely what Machiavelli did. Written in 1513 but published in 1532, Il Principe’s contribution to the history of political thought can be considered as the fundamental break between political realism and political idealism: he not only described the way leaders really ruled; he also showed how they should rule. His work still indirectly influences leaders and would-be leaders today, all over the world. I write “indirectly” because too often they are often influenced by caricatural and limited interpretations of “Il Principe” rather than by the original text.

To sum it up: Yes, I believe Obama should be and probably wants to be a “Machiavellian” leader, ie. a “smart”, “elaborately cunning” leader seeking to use effectively the best possible mix of skills and powers according to the circumstances or context. We can’t judge at this stage if he will succeed in doing so but at least he is trying and hints at it, among other things, by promoting scholars or experts who advocate such an approach. This differentiates him explicitly from other current leaders. Take Sarkozy for example. His confrontational and bullish style, disrespectful of rules and institutions, is refreshing and has proved an asset in times of crisis, such as the recent financial crisis. But he does not seem to be able to switch to another style and power mix. This is a problem: the power mix that proves so effective in times of crisis could prove to be a disaster in “normal” times, at least in the long run, as it could undermine the stabilizing powers of rules and institutions, necessary for a well-functioning society. Sarkozy might be “Machiavellian” in the narrow, contemporary, sense of the word; he’s however not very “Machiavellian” so far in its original, sixteenth century version. Do you agree with these descriptions of Obama, Sarkozy and their fundamental difference in terms of leadership? Do you have other views about what it means to be a “Machiavellian” leader and its merits?

Does all this make Obama a potential “wise leader”? Not yet, at least in my eyes. This sentiment is aptly captured in Jackieh’s sentence: “Obama is maybe one of those rare leaders we hope to find Machiavellian.” Why? Because it hints at:

  • qualities or goals that Obama might possess or pursue;
  • the belief that a man/woman with such qualities will less be tempted to misuse the powers and skills of a “Machiavellian” leader;
  • the belief that a “Machiavellian” leader will more effectively pursue (than say, a naïve or idealist leader) the goals of his group of followers.

To further investigate these questions and issues, we will concentrate in future posts on the work of other authors such as Mark Strom, Joseph Badaracco or Ronald Heifetz, among others. In our next post about leadership, we will detail what Mark Strom understands by “wise leadership”. While Nye focuses on the power mixes leaders should adopt in function of the context in which they operate, Strom focuses more on what he calls the “arts” of leadership and on the character attributes of the “wise leader”.

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  1. Laurent, wow! That is quite a post. I have read Machiavelli, but not Nye so I cannot compare the two, but I will agree with your opinion about “M”. I felt that his entire thesis was devoted to maintaining power – at virtually any cost. That may be a simplistic interpretation, but it was mine. However, I didn’t really get the feeling that he dealt so much with acquiring power from a standing start. Perhaps this is poor memory, it is some years since I read The Price.

    Enough about my poor recollection, this was an excellent piece of writing.

    Thank you.

    Stuart Langridge
    Director of Blogactiv

  2. Laurent,
    I thought your blog would be mainly about philosophy, management and Europe – quite an agenda already! – and here I discover a world view with a historic perspectiv…

    My memory of ‘Il principe’ vanishes at least as fast as Stuart’s. But I seem to recall one major difference between Macchiavelli and Obama: that’s democracy (in the modern sense, not just patrician co-optation in Italian city-States originating in the Middle ages)

    On occasion, you might be interested in a look at the book ‘Macchiavelli in Brussels’, from the Dutch Prof Rinus van Schendelen, notably here:

    This is more about public affairs than world politics, but ankered in today’s Europe. After all, world leaders are good if they do effect change, in policies, where needed.

    Yes, we can!


  3. Hi Laurent,

    Thanks again for this article. I general agree with the concept of smart / Machiavellian leader. But I think of an exception maybe. If the leader is in a very strong position, he might have so much effect on his environment that he might set himself the trend, without adjusting his style. Not that I’m a fan of her politic, but Mme Thatcher could be a good example. I think people need leaders of this kind from time to time, to break with the past and the context. Things are not black and white, and you need a part of Machiavellian to reach this stage anyway. In that sense, stopping being Machiavellian when in a dominant position is Machiavellian.

    About Sarkozy vs Obama in terms of smart leadership, a difference I would notice is that Obama surrounds himself with people not necessary like him or with the same ideas (Hillary!). Sarkozy, on the other hand seems to look for a team fully behind his ideas and in-line with his methods. The tactic of Sarkozy (also applied by Georges W. Bush) might be sometimes an advantage in terms of effectiveness, but it also narrows down the possibilities of adaptation. So, as for everything, a leader can become a smarter leader if he chooses carefully his team.

  4. I can’t see how anyone could reach the highest political office in the world and not have some Machiavellian tendencies. I guess we will find out how Machiavellian in the not too distant future.

  5. Thank you very much for this rich post. The link between leadership & power is necessary. I will certainly check out the authors you mention. I’m not an expert in leadership, power or politics. And all notions have their value.

    But still. Is it possible to combine everything, as Nye seems to suggest? Is it possible to be truely inspirational and transactional at the same time? Isn’t Obama losing his inspirational power by being in a position that forces him to make all day long transactions? Aren’t there any choices to be made along the road for leaders?

    As an academic told me once: “there are probably no universal laws on good leadership. Probably the criterium that comes closest is: “A good leader knows when to quit.”

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