The executive princes

The New Machiavelli

February 27, 1998

Alistair McAlpine is a director of a leading construction company. He is better known, however, for his devoted service to Lady Thatcher. As Treasurer of the Conservative Party during her tenure of its leadership, he not only raised substantial sums, not all of them from desirable sources, but enjoyed access to the inner councils of her advisers. For these services, he received a peerage. Dissatisfied with the direction of the Conservative Party he joined the late Sir James Goldsmith's ill-fated Referendum Campaign.

When you learn that McAlpine is the author of a management book entitled The New Machiavelli, you probably have the same expectations that I had when I picked up the volume. You will expect to find a glorification of selfish individualism: an explanation of how greed and cynicism are the values most conducive to business success. Is not the New Machiavelli, Al Dunlap, whose book Mean Business has spent many months in the US bestseller lists? Mr. Dunlap has earned the nicknames "Chainsaw Al" and "Rambo in Pinstripes" for the stewardship of the assets entrusted to his care, and his best-known contribution to business wisdom is the comment "if you want a friend, get a dog".

You would be wrong. Both Machiavelli and McAlpine have minds a good deal more subtle than Dunlap. Machiavelli's scheme of thought did not seek to advance the interests of the individual ahead of the state, or business organisation - rather the reverse. And McAlpine understands this well. The review I intended to write would have explained that corporations thrive only if they add up to more than the sum of the individuals and that unashamed greed, far from being the mainspring of capitalism, threatens to destroy it. But these points are well made by McAlpine himself. His book is full of balance and good sense. There is no better starting point for any modern student of Machiavelli than Isaiah Berlin, whose essay observes that there are almost as many different interpretations of Machiavelli as there are comments. But "the commonest view of him, at least as a political thinker, is still that of most Elizabethans for whom he is a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom". Not so, Berlin explains. "Machiavelli believed that what men, at any rate superior men, sought was the fulfilment and the glory that come from the creation and maintenance by common endeavour of a strong and well governed social whole."

So Machiavelli should not be interpreted as offering incitement to the unrestrained pursuit of self interest in politics, instead he insists that a sceptical view of human nature is indispensable for those who would promote the true interests of the state. Similarly, McAlpine should not be interpreted as inciting the unrestrained pursuit of self interest in business but scepticism. Neither firms nor states are well run by those who not only profess altruistic motives themselves but assume these in others. But to understand this is not to think that states or firms prosper by the laws of the jungle.

The analogies between Machiavelli's discussion of princes and states and McAlpine's discussion of chief executives and companies are clever. The comparison between conquered states and acquired companies is developed at length. The similarities between the intrigues of counts and corporate bureaucracies are obvious. But McAlpine is shrewd enough not to pursue the analogies too far. He recognises that the conflicts between medieval states were routinely aimed at mutual destruction. Despite executives' use of military metaphors business rarely has those objectives or those results.

The format allows McAlpine to take liberties unacceptable in a more conventional business book. An entire chapter is devoted to an unspecific, but clearly deeply felt, attack on "the establishment"; the pretext is a parallel with Machiavelli's attack on the corrupt church of his day. And there are parts that are embarrassing in their banality: when giving parties, for example, pay attention to the quality of the food and drink. This is not a major contribution to new business thinking. But it is an entertaining format for some homespun practical wisdom.

John Kay is director, Said Business School, University of Oxford.

The New Machiavelli: Renaissance Real Politik for Modern Managers

Author - Alistair McAlpine
ISBN - 1 85410 671 3
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £14.99
Pages - 167

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