History Repeating: What are the Good and Bad Qualities of Leadership?

Comparing The Prince (Machiavelli, 1992/1513) and The Peter Principle (Peters & Hull, 2009/1969).

Niccolo Machiavelli (1992/1513) wrote about essential positive and negative leadership traits based on his experience with the Popes and Florentine political machinations with the Medici, the Sforza, and the infamous Borgia families. Centuries later, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (2009/1969) observed and wrote about the lack of strong positive traits they observed in corporate and legislative governance. Their collaboration on organizational leadership is still relevant reading today. The basic premise of their book is that we will be promoted beyond, and because of, our good skills to a place and position where we have few or no skills.

By Peter and Hull (2009/1969)

Both books (the former in a 1992 translation) sound as if they were written today and support rereading. In many ways, they should serve as a warning and model-system for reviewing the differences between current leadership beliefs and ultimate real practices. Though Machiavelli experienced both strong and weak leaders he managed to literally keep his head. The consequences of some of the problems that Peter and Hull describe can lead to a figurative and very public head-chop. Bear in mind, these books were written more than 400 and 50 years ago, respectively.

By Niccolo Machiavelli

On government:

• “Is it smart men putting us on or imbeciles who really mean it?” (P&H)

• “Attaining leadership with limited prowess - Attain the power with ease but hold it with difficulty.” (M)

On aggression:

• “A prince must have no other subject or thought, nor acquire skill in anything except war, it organizations, and its discipline.” (M)

• “Hatred develops among the followers – for they bear the burden but not the glory.” (M)

• “Every aggressor has a weakness. Find it, engage it – as he would himself.” (M)

On leadership:

• There is a measure of solitude that accompanies authority. (P&H).

• Exceptional leadership cannot make its way in an established hierarchy (P&H)

• Top dog fear – fear that the underdog will become the top dog (P&H).

• The bold will succeed better than the hesitant. Lofty ideas are second to safety seeking strategies (M)

• On praise and blame - “a man who acts virtuously in every way comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.” (M)

On doing work:

• Those who have not reached their level of incompetence accomplish real work. (P&H)

Finally, Peter and Hull gave fun names to some of the organizational issues they experienced. See anyone you know or work with here?

• Teeter Totter Syndrome - Inability to make decisions

• Tabulatory Gigantism - Bigger desk (bigger office)

• Percussive Sublimation - Being kicked upstairs

• Paternal Instep - Promoting family

• Peter’s Inverts - Always obeys, never decides

• Lateral Arabesque - A move to corporate oblivion with a bigger title.

Dr. Shawn Michael Nichols

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