What makes a leader? Is it the decisions they make? The opinions of others? The way they can take control of any situation? There are political leaders, business leaders, group leaders, and so many other types of leaders that the list seems never-ending. What if there was a book that told you everything you needed to know about leadership, or at least someone's subjective view on it? Well, there is. However, it is quite infamous for it's radical ideas and many people are torn by the advice that is given.
Of course, I am writing about The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. It is a text that was written in the 16th century to advise Lorenzo de Medici on how to rule over his people in an attempt to get out of prison. Machiavelli was a politician and a diplomat during the renaissance, and during his time in this position he communicated and advised a lot of officials. He was regarded to have a strong knowledge on politics and leadership. However, in a bid to be with the stronger family of the time, he started to work for the Borgia's. It was a bad decision since the de Medici's regained their position a few years later and Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured. With all of his knowledge and years in politics, he wrote this text to get back into the good books of the de Medici's and to advise Lorenzo on his leadership.
Fast-forward to today and The Prince is still a text read by many leaders for advice. It is one of the most translated texts in the world and people are still talking about it. If you haven't heard of it before, don't be alarmed since there is a high possibility you have heard of the quotations or concepts that come from it, which I will talk about later. The book itself is not a fictional tale like the one's I have reviewed before. It is more like a pamphlet or a really long essay since Machiavelli uses examples of leadership from his time and before as his references (they didn't have the handy-dandy Google or the Harvard Referencing System back then). All he is doing is writing to persuade Lorenzo that he is a valuable asset in politics, which can be easily identified in the flattery that Machiavelli slips into his teachings.
Altogether, there are 26 sections (or chapters) that cover different aspects of leadership. The first 11 chapters are about the different kinds of principalities, and what Machiavelli thinks of them and his subjective opinion on each. 12-14 focus on the military and warfare and how a prince needs to be educated in the different kinds of militia. Then, the rest of the chapters revolve around the qualities a prince should have, how they should act, and what to look out for. Although the text is written to advise a prince and the chapters are more in relation to how it was hundreds of years ago, the leaders of today who read it have been able to make modern the advice presented. Here are two examples:
When attempting to lead, making others powerful will destroy you (Chapter III)
This comes from the quotations 'men must either be pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones' and 'whoever is responsible for another's becoming powerful ruins himself'. Basically, Machiavelli is stating that when coming into leadership, the former leaders and their associates should be cut from their positions as to not regain their control, and that a leader needs to be careful in the power he gives to others. This can be seen a lot these days in politics and in warfare, so it still bears it relevance.
It is better to be feared than loved (Chapter XVII)
This is a very well-known concept that a lot of texts have adopted, quoted, or intervened with. The quotation for this is 'it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both' and Machiavelli states that a person is far less likely to turn their back on you in fear of punishment than if they love you. It is also stated that a prince can control fear but not love and, therefore, should only rely on what he can control. This can also be related back to politics nowadays as well as business.
Other concepts included are being able to judge a prince on who they surround themselves with, the dangers of having enemies within your walls, and that a prince should recognise that they won't please everyone. It is interesting to know that Lorenzo de Medici never read the text, which might say something about the content or that a leader can be a leader without any knowledge of this text. It should be noted that, since this is a translated text, every translation will be different. Some translators rewrite the text to be about a Ruler, not a Prince. Some quotations will also be different, which can lead to lead to different connotations. However, the main points generally stay the same.
What I thought
I'll be honest, this was a very difficult text for me to read. It is written in a very formal language that isn't the same as what we use now and there is just so much information filled in there that it was quite overwhelming. Reading this text did educate me in some ways about leadership but I probably would not take the advice to heart since it is quite radical and not really for our time. I can understand people modernising the advice for their own uses, and in which case I probably would take on some of it, but I would recommend against taking it on wholeheartedly because you probably won't win over a lot of people, which contradicts the point of the text.
I think my favourite concepts were the ones about being able to control one's destiny if they have the right means, attitude and people surrounding them, and the importance of surrounding oneself with people who add to your life rather than bring you down. I did also find some enjoyment in the contradiction Machiavelli himself makes by flattering Lorenzo at the beginning of the text and then later writes about the folly of listening to flatterers.
Would I read this again? Probably not. I think, after reading it once, I have been able to collect most of the information from it and I don't want to go through it again. It is pretty dry, but I would recommend reading it because a lot of TV shows, books and other creative texts intervene with it and it's fun to be able to pick out the concepts and advice from it in them. This is particularly relevant for shows such as Game of Thrones or House of Cards and so many other popular texts like them that are floating around at the moment. I also recommend trying to take the main quotations and remembering them for later because you can sound really impressive if you throw them into a speech, job interview, or in general conversation, and who doesn't like to sound impressive?
So I'd say give it a go, but I can understand if you can't make it to the end. Give yourself a pat on the back if you do, and let me know what you thought of it.
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.