Machiavelli on “virtu”

machiavelli-sNiccolò Machiavelli is among the least understood, therefore least appreciated thinkers in western intellectual history.

For example, consider this passage in his classic, The Prince: “how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation, for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his profession of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

Machiavelli’s central insight is that successful leaders have to follow a special ethical code, one that differs from their private morality and from Judeo-Christian ethics. He affirms virtu, his word for the moral code of public life in an perilous world. Virtu is a combination of vigor, confidence, imagination, shrewdness, boldness, practical skill, personal force, determination, and self-discipline.

In Machiavelli’s time and in our own, leaders need to address three questions:

1. Have I done all I can to secure my position and the strength and stability of the organization?
2. Have I thought creatively and imaginatively about my organization’s role in society and its relationship to its stakeholders?
3. Should I play the lion or the fox?

Machiavelli: “The lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves.” Do whatever the situation requires to prevail. Be as strong as a lion and as cunning as a fox.

I am among those who are convinced — as was Machiavelli — that leaders must see the world as it is, not as they wish it were. In fact, because great leaders are realists, they see more clearly than anyone else can how the world should be. That vision drives their efforts make it a reality.

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