When you embark on your treacherous journey into the realms of entrepreneurism, there’s just one thing you know for sure; it won’t be easy. It should come as no great shock that 50% of new businesses fail within the first four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So how do you achieve success and build an empire that’s secure?
You might want to look into using a somewhat Machiavellian system. Before you gasp with sheer horror, you should understand that the late political writer was not the moustache-twirling villain he’s portrayed to be. Instead, he was a visionary who set out the key principles for a stable government in his book, The Prince.
So, how does that apply to the world of business? Well, in essence, the foundations of a powerful government and a successful enterprise are the same. On reading Machiavelli’s work, many have gleamed priceless knowledge, which they have then applied directly to their own endeavours.
So let’s look at 10 Machiavellian business lessons.
1. A feared or a loved leader – which works better? A grave mistake that many CEOs make is desperately seeking approval from their employees. When Machiavelli set out the bold phrase that it ‘is much safer to be feared than loved’, it was a controversial statement, but it also applies to the modern-day entrepreneur. This principle is not about instilling fear in the hearts of your employees. It’s about creating clear boundaries and aims for them, rather than pandering in attempts to be ‘loved’.
There’s been research to this effect. According to a 2016 study published in Personnel Psychology, whether a manager is perceived to be a ‘good boss’ or a ‘bad boss’ has absolutely no effect on staff retention levels. Quite the contrary; the study found that workers left these two opposing types of manager in equal measure.
According to a 2016 study published in Personnel Psychology, whether a manager is perceived to be a ‘good boss’ or a ‘bad boss’ has absolutely no effect on staff retention levels.
2. Encourage criticism and frankness: Overlooking the significance of employee feedback is a mistake, but a far worse one is neglecting to ask for upward criticism. It’s just as crucial for managers to understand their own weaknesses as it is for employees. ‘There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you,’ writes Machiavelli.
To excel in any field, you have to expect criticism and, once you have it, use it to your advantage. One five-year long study into upward feedback found that it’s how managers use this information that’s crucial. Those who met their employees to discuss the feedback after receiving it were far more likely to improve their working style than other managers.
3. Make a choice – any choice: There are times when every entrepreneur has to make decisions on behalf of their companies. But what if none of the available options is without disadvantage? In such a case, simply remember this quote, ‘Prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil.’
As the director of a company or a CEO, you have to take the bull by the horns. This is actually an area in which men, in particular, must improve since a recent study found that women are more decisive in a business world. So, when you’re next faced with undesirable options, be clear and decisive.
4. Don’t micromanage, but focus on one goal: Micromanagement is the bane of many a would-be successful business. Don’t be mistaken; business is war. If you take your eyes off the battlefield, you will be ruined. As Machiavelli put it, one ‘ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war.‘ In terms of business, this can be translated into the notion that your entire focus should be on your core goal. Trust those below you to do their jobs and focus only on your role in the company.
The dangers of micromanagement have been well documented and it’s something of an epidemic. ‘A micromanager can be much more than just a nuisance in today’s complex organisation,’ wrote Dr. Richard White in his review, The Micromanagement Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Cure, before going on to explain that this type of management style is rarely effective, if ever.
5. Let passion be the foundation of your business: Perhaps one of the most critical ideas put forward in The Prince can be summed up as ‘where the willingness is great the difficulties cannot be great.’ This cardinal rule is true in many areas of life but none more than in the cut-throat world of business. Creating a marketplace out of something you already love means that your life’s work will be meaningful and fruitful.
Creating a marketplace out of something you already love means that your life’s work will be meaningful and fruitful.
In the UAE, there’s a wealth of united, passionate entrepreneurs. Just last year, the Global Competitiveness Report named us as one of the top 20 economies in the world. There are many times when people have asked me why this is and I always give the same, direct answer: We’re a nation of passionate business people.
6. Capture the zeitgeist: Fashions come and go, but your enterprise must remain strong and stable. ‘He will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times‘ stated Machiavelli. In truth, to become an industry leader, you need to keep your finger on the pulse when it comes to the sectors that are declining and those that are set to soar.
You must always be on the lookout for the next area of significant growth. A relevant example right now is that of the UAE retail industries. According to a report by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, this area of business is set to grow by a whopping 5% each year. Simply being ‘in the know’ on matters like this one means that you can capitalise on the trends of the time.
7. Make friends in high places: Above all else, business is about connections. This was a topic on which Machiavelli was crystal clear. One of his principles was that you should ‘endeavour with the utmost diligence to avoid the hatred of the most powerful’. So what’s the next step for avoiding bad relationships with senior figures? Building good ones.
Positioning this in a modern context, social media is your greatest tool. You now have access to entrepreneurs all around the globe at your fingertips. A colossal 80% of LinkedIn members believe that networking is essential to their success. They’re not wrong. Creating bonds with people who can help you further down the line is a wise business move.
8. Beware of ‘yes’ men: ‘The servant thinking more of his own interests than of yours, and seeking inwardly his own profit in everything, such a man will never make a good servant,’ stated Machiavelli and in this instance, anyone below you can take the place of that figurative servant. Needless to say, you can easily transform your employees into ‘yes’ men, but that doesn’t mean that you should believe them when they tell you that you’re in the right. After all, perhaps they have their own motives for doing so.
9. Deal with business threats swiftly: When something threatens the stability of your business, the sooner you defend it, the better. Machiavelli gave this example: ‘The Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head, for they knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others‘.
When something threatens the stability of your business, the sooner you defend it, the better.
So, how should a leading entrepreneur respond when their business meets a threat? Well, research in the Harvard Business Review identifies three essential action points. First of all, you need to practise teamwork within your business, then you also have to inquire inwardly about the problem at hand, and finally, you need to experiment with various solutions. The more you practise these three small actions, the tougher your barrier against threats will be.
10. Learn from the greats: ‘A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme‘ wrote Machiavelli, and it’s a message that should be at the heart of every entrepreneur’s ideals. Learning from the great businessmen that have come before you is a sign of strength. One way to do this is by enlisting the help of a mentor.
The business mentorship trend has been going strong for decades now with proven results. Despite this, research published in the Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning journal stresses the importance of finding the ‘right’ mentor for you. That is to say that you ought to seek out a businessperson who aligns not only with your field, but also with your business style and code of ethics.