IT leadership strategies from Machiavelli

Philosopher/writer Niccolo Machiavelli, whose name has become shorthand for “the ends justify the means,” has, over the years, gotten a bad rap.

Born in Florence, Italy in 1469, Machiavelli is considered a founder of modern political science. His advice on leading and ruling, according to Tina Nunno, research vice-president, Gartner, is more relevant today than ever to the high-pressure, often war-like world of the CIO.

Nunno, who recently spoke on the issue at the CIO Association of Canada’s 2010 Peer Forum, says many of the best CIOs she has met cite Machiavelli as their inspiration.

Wait. Isn’t that a bad thing?

Not necessarily, according to Nunno.

There’s no denying Machiavelli held a somewhat dim view of humanity. Men, he said, will more quickly forget the loss of a father than the loss of their inheritance; they are infinitely wicked and fickle.

But Machiavelli, argued Nunno, who prefaced her session with the caveat that Gartner considers her research in this area “maverick,” and thus not sanctioned, is often unfairly maligned and misinterpreted. “It is assumed he is unethical, but the reality is he is actually a pragmatist,” she explains.

“One of his most commonly known quotes is that ‘politics has no relation to morals.’ What he meant was that politics is ethically neutral; it’s just the process people use to come to decisions and resolve conflicts, and people can either use the process for good or for evil.”

CIO Canada, in an interview before the event, asked Nunno to explain how the following quotes, taken from chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince — his treatise on acquiring and maintaining power in a principality — might apply to CIOs today.

Those dominions, which, when acquired … are either of the same country and language or are not. When they are, it is easier to hold them … because the two peoples, preserving in other things the old conditions, and not being unlike in customs, will live quietly together.

— “Concerning mixed

Business leaders have to be very conscious of the fact they are reorganizing communities when they reorganize a business, says Nunno. Good CIOs have to be quite masterful at change management.

“In a reorganization where, for example, IT has been highly localized by region or country and you centralize these functions, the CIO has to take special care to ensure that group is carefully socialized and that the key objectives are clear: Why are they a group? What are their shared goals and vision? What is it that they are now going to have in common other than they are now going to work on the same applications?” she says. “Often times you have to be very careful because otherwise, that unrest in a group that is reorganized can become a major distraction to the overall organization.”

One who becomes a prince through the favour of the people ought to keep them friendly and this he can easily do seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him. But one who, in opposition to the people, becomes a prince by the favours of the nobles, ought, above everything, seek to win the people over to himself, and this he may easily do if he takes them under protection.

— “A civil principality”

This is one of the least understood elements of Machiavelli, according to Nunno. While he advocated the use of power, he frequently acknowledged across all of his writings that loyalty is infinitely more powerful than force. In the IT context, CIOs can create loyalty by treating their stakeholders strategically, rather than equally.

“I encourage CIOs to think about which of their stakeholders are the most critical for them to have strong relationships with and advise them to invest a significant amount of their attention and resources towards their most critical stakeholders to make sure they’re gaining loyalty by fulfilling what those stakeholders need,” she says.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms he will stand neither firm nor safe, for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies …

— “How many different kinds
of soldiery there are,
and concerning mercenaries”

CIOs often have to be able to muster large forces, and often they are contracted. As Nunno points out, Machiavelli talked about using people temporarily as soldiers; he said you have to think carefully about what happens to them when the war is over.

“If you are working with a consultant and the consultant goes away, can you maintain that knowledge?” she asks. “CIOs have to be very conscious of the skill set of the people around them and make sure they are optimizing those skills at all time, because when people aren’t optimizing their skills they can easily become problems for the leader of the organization.”

A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for its study, than rules and discipline, for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules …

— “That which concerns
a prince on the subject
of the art of war”

CIOs are frequently under attack and arguably very vulnerable, and CIOs who cannot defend themselves cannot be effective, Nunno maintains. IT executives are often given a huge list of IT demands they can’t possibly fulfill. The rest of the business will often hand them dozens of projects to complete, none of them prioritized, and few of them fully supported. If any of those projects run into trouble, it’s the CIO’s fault. CIOs have to know how to change that dynamic.

“There is a little-known Machiavelli quote that says faithful servants will always be servants, and CIOs who are in that situation frequently feel like they’re being treated as order takers,” she says. “Machiavelli would advise them to change that dynamic and stop acting like a servant. I try to challenge CIOs to rethink their traditional roles and question that relationship. A leader doesn’t think of himself as serving the business –a great CIO thinks of himself as a business leader, and as a business leader you have the right to question the work you’re being given, to challenge it and to engage in active debate about what is and is not valuable to the organization, what’s really going to help it be profitable, and what IT initiatives are going to be a waste of time.”

Servants are expendable; they’re easily replaceable, but a leader, on the other hand, is an asset.

It is much safer to be feared than loved, when either of the two must be dispensed with.

— “Concerning clemency and cruelty, and whether it is better to be feared than loved”

Machiavelli was a phenomenal student of human behaviour; he was very interested in how people behave, and in cause and effect. Ideally, he wanted leaders to build loyalty because it binds people to leaders like nothing else can, but he also said when loyalty doesn’t work, it helps to have other tools in your kit, such as punishment or instilling fear. Great CIOs are constantly scanning their environment to find out what is happening and how to get the best outcomes.

“A leader who can do only one or the other (inspire or threaten) tends to be weak: if the only tools in your kit are socializing people and trying to get people to come along with you, you won’t be able to lead effectively and if you’re on the other end of the spectrum where you only use power against people,” Nunno says. “You penalize them, take away their raises and their bonuses and you kind of run a terrorist organization – that also makes you a very weak leader.”

A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be much more merciful than those, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies …

—”Concerning clemency and cruelty, and whether it is better to be feared than loved”

Machiavelli was known for saying if you must assassinate someone, do it in the village square. If you do it publicly, you’re much less likely to have rebellion last for any length of time.

“This is one of the hardest things a CIO has to do. Interestingly, Machiavelli never indicated any sense of pleasure in doing this, and leaders should find this difficult to do,” says Nunno.

But he would also say sometimes you have to do this to ensure the rest of the organization is healthy.

“Machiavelli looked at leadership as a responsibility and a burden, but he believed a strong leader was preferable to an organization in chaos. The best CIOs have really wide toolkits of resources to deal with difficult situations, and they are willing to do the difficult thing even if there is a personal cost,” she added. Overall, we find their organizations tend to be higher performing as a result and they can be much more effective and bring more value to the enterprise.”

There was never a new prince who has disarmed his subjects; rather, when he has found them disarmed he has always armed them, because, by arming them, those arms become yours, those men who were distrusted become faithful and those who were faithful are kept so, and your subjects become adherents.

— “Are fortresses and many other things to which princes resort advantageous or hurtful?”

The most confident leaders don’t fear having strong people; they welcome it because they understand how it creates a strong organization. Part of that organizational strength comes from providing ongoing training and skills development, but that has been difficult for many organizations to maintain during the recession, although many CIOs have made significant efforts to find the funding.

“In his book The Art of War, Machiavelli said although a republic may be poor and able to give but little, yet she should not abstain from giving that little,” Nunno says. “He said particularly if you give when resources are scarce – such as in a recession – if you are one of few organizations able to scrape out money to train, to send people to conferences and do development activities, employees will appreciate it more in this environment than they do when cash is flowing freely, because they know you really had to make an effort.”

I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist.

— “Are fortresses and
many other things to which princes resort advantageous or hurtful?”

Too often we see the different areas of IT will be at war with each other; they don’t work well together. IT needs to develop high-performing teams so they can deliver what they say they can deliver and exceed expectations. When IT is performing at a high level, Nunno says, it makes the CIO much more powerful; it gives the CIO weaponry he doesn’t have if it is not functioning well. If the CIO is under attack from a stakeholder because IT is not delivering, the CIO has a limited number of tools to defend himself: the weaker opponents have to retreat.

“We’ve seen this in organizations where the CIO is strong. In one instance where the CIO was blamed for something, the CIO fired back and said, ‘You’re the problem because you’re not giving us what we need as a sponsor; you’re not engaging and you’re not giving us the resources we need,’” she says. “That executive (not the CIO) got fired, and while we certainly don’t want to see people be fired — we don’t want to do the ruthless thing if we don’t have to — part of being a leader is sometimes having to do the difficult thing.”

A prince ought to endeavour in every action to gain for himself the reputation of being a great and remarkable man.

— “How a prince should conduct himself so as
to gain renown”

One of the most powerful things leaders can do is highlight the accomplishments of their team. CIOs should do more to promote not only their own personal reputation, but the reputation of IT overall.

“If a CIO and IT have been diligent in being vocal about their positive accomplishments – articulating when they’ve helped the enterprise grow, when they’ve helped to enhance the mission and reduce costs – then when these things go wrong, these incidents are seen as aberrations and exceptions to the strong reputation of the CIO and IT. In fact, we have found in our research that CIOs who invest in their reputation get more budget money than CIOs who do not, and in many ways their reputation becomes like Teflon: when bad things happen they don’t stick.”

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage everyone from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

— “How to avoid flatterers”

Machiavelli advised against being democratic about receiving input; he said you have to pick and choose those people from whom you want to receive input.

“Strong leaders do want to hear the truth, I believe, and any senior executive who is not comfortable with hearing the truth from others is destined to be a weak executive because it makes you vulnerable to surprise. On the other hand, truth is frequently malleable; we all have our own versions of the truth, so a leader has to be wise enough to listen to what they’re being told and be able to interpret what they’re being told to find out what’s actually going on.”

When something goes wrong in IT, the CIO may have to listen to a few different points of view and deal with the situation.

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