Saturday, January 12, 2013

Managing With The Liberal Arts III

There are many management lessons and techniques to be gleaned from the liberal arts. These can be found in books, plays, and history because the modern corporation parallels the kingdoms of old. Of course the names change but the modern corporation has its kings, princes, barons, courtiers, enemies, allies and even the praetorian guard, they rise, they decline, and they fall. For the modern manager to learn how to succeed in the corporate world he need look no further than Machiavelli. Through the years Niccolo Machiavelli and his writings have been seen as amoral and unethical. Indeed a person accused of duplicity or scheming is described as “Machiavellian” but actually Machiavelli was just putting down in writing how to achieve and maintain power. He did not condone or recommend the actions he describes, he merely documented the reality. Those lessons described by Machiavelli in the 15th Century still apply and can be seen at work in any large corporation today.

One of the challenges facing a newly hired manager is gaining control of his organization. Naturally this new manager has the support of his superiors but is that enough? Machiavelli addressed this problem”

For, although one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province one has always the need of the goodwill of the natives.

This is a simple and obvious lesson – when taking on a new position do not alienate the incumbents because they can obstruct you in many ways and ultimately cause you to fail. But Machiavelli also goes on to address the downside in case there is resistance from individuals.

Upon this one has to remark that men ought to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones, they cannot; therefore the injury that is done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

The message here is clear. When you assume control of an organization treat everyone fairly and with respect for them, their positions, and their opinions. But if you encounter opposition from an individual do not spend a lot of time trying to win them over. Do not ignore them, transfer them, or demote them, terminate them, because they will work against you and could ultimately lead to your destruction. But for the incoming manager, Machiavelli offers further advice:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all of those who profit by the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order.

Essentially Machiavelli is telling the new manager to move very cautiously when introducing changes and the greater the change the more carefully he should move. But sometimes the new manager has been brought in specifically for the purpose of purging the organization of inefficiency and incompetence. In these cases the new manager changes processes and procedures but also will generally conduct a layoff. But Machiavelli also offers some advice on this activity as well.

It is to be noted that in taking a state the conqueror must arrange to commit all of his cruelties at once, so as not to have them recur everyday … by not making fresh changes to reassure people and win them over by benefiting them.

For some this advice is self-evident but many times the new manager takes some immediate actions and then steps back. After some analysis then he introduces more changes including purging people. These periodic changes can go on for an extended period and invariably lead to poor morale and performance which impacts the reputation and performance of the manager. But Machiavelli offers some further insight into how the new manager should proceed.

He who becomes prince by help of the nobility has greater difficulty in maintaining his power than he who is raised by the populace, for he is surrounded by those who think they are his equals and is thus unable to direct or command as he pleases.

When an outsider is imposed on an organization as the new manager, the incumbents may challenge his authority because he will know less than they do about the processes and procedures. When the manager has been promoted from within he can expect the support and obedience of the staff because he may not be expected to make changes. The outsider on the other hand must demonstrate to his superiors his ability to meet their goals and objectives and this cannot be done without inflicting pain on others.

These are simple examples demonstrating how Machiavelli’s descriptions of how power can be obtained and retained. There are many more in his works and they offer practical solutions not normally found in modern texts on management. But there are many other authors whose discussions of historical events can be easily translated into lessons for the modern manager; among these are Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz, whose writings can be translated into marketing as well as leadership.

Reading contemporary books on management is not discouraged but there are many lessons to be learned from the kings and princes of history. In many cases these historic lessons are more realistic than what is found in contemporary literature because they illustrate the results of bad decisions as well as good ones.

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