The business book club: Machiavelli’s The Prince says the secret to being an authoritative leader is to act like one

CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS

Today we use the word “machiavellian” to describe someone who gets what they want by lying and cheating, but Machiavelli himself had a profound understanding of human nature. 

Machiavelli’s The Prince

His treatise on Renaissance statecraft and power has been inspirational since it was published more than 500 years ago. Undeniably controversial, this analysis of ways to gain and retain power offers much to the OSH practitioner. Machiavelli’s “prince” is closer today to a business leader than a politician, so here’s how you can learn from the master.

First, he advises princes to “go and live among” the subjects so that “troubles can be detected as they are beginning”. It’s what US leadership thinker W. Edwards Deming called “management by walking around” and what’s become known in safety as “felt leadership”.

Next, he states that “rulers maintain themselves better if they owe little to luck”. Machiavelli digs into strategy development in chapter six using a recipe that today could be illustrated as talent + opportunity + drive = success.

Machiavelli argues that the secret to being an authoritative leader is to act like one. He advises that “men judge more with their eyes than their hands” so it’s about getting out there. As he says: “A ruler should personally lead his armies.” Someone has to step up and show the way, so it might as well be you. If you want to make a significant change, it’s always better to be in the vanguard.

A list of leadership virtues appears in chapter 15: generosity, mercy, moderation, affability, strong spirit, morality, and more. But sagely he points out that no one ruler has all these virtues so, rather than trying to be perfect, identify your weaknesses and don’t let them dominate.

Not everyone can be a prince, but Machiavelli shows that, if you want to lead, do it for a reason you believe in


Chapter 21 seems written especially for OSH professionals as Machiavelli asserts that “all courses of action involve risks”. We should keep our eyes open, stay alert, assess risks proportionately and act accordingly. The chapter goes on to advocate the use of risk registers.

The latter part of the book focuses on the importance of shrewdness, which Machiavelli defines as being able to recognise good advice and take appropriate action. This means taking the views of multiple advisers and using one’s skills to choose the way forward. There’s a direct correlation here for us in safety, what Harvard scholar Bob Kaplan calls a “balanced scorecard”. We could see a balanced scorecard as a series of learned advisers providing data that can give us a clear direction. Like Machiavelli’s prince, we need to apply weightings to each “adviser” to strike the balance.

Machiavelli provides his manifesto in plain, direct language and the final lesson for us is clear: unless you can say what you mean, it’s impossible to guide people to take the right action. Like Machiavelli, it takes courage and leadership to reduce tough challenges to their simplest elements. But as a prince, you don’t have a choice.

Not everyone can be a prince, but Machiavelli shows that, if you want to lead, do it for a reason you believe in. Yes, you’ll need power and influence, but also inspiration and invigoration. This book provides plenty.


CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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