• October 29, 2013
  • OWHolmes

    Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

    Good friend, all around smart guy and kitchen magician, Michael Krigsman reviews Gartner analyst Tina Nunna’s new book, The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership, and wonders about the appropriateness of using Machiavelli as a model.  After all he was so…Machiavellian, and his approach leaves moralists cold, but I would differ with them.

    Machiavelli gets a bad rap in my book, largely due to some people misunderstanding his purpose for writing The Prince and other works like The Art of War.  In War, he cut to the chase and said if you’re going to have a war, and you’re going to be good at it, you’ve got to kill people.  It seems obvious and that’s the kind of frankness that can seem chilling.  Perhaps we are instinctively repulsed at killing and an ambition to be good at it when we should be repulsed by war itself.  Regardless, from this we may have gotten the sage phrase that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.

    People think that in The Prince, Machiavelli was dispensing advice for how to act as a ruler and while to a degree he was, he was really boiling down some case study data into some applicable practices.  He may have been the first true political scientist and in Machiavelli’s writings you get a strong sense of the scientific method at work.  His observations form the write-up of natural experiments, not the controlled things we do in labs but the equivalent things that happen in life when, for instance, identical twins are separated at birth.  If you study enough of these situations you can see patterns emerge that are noteworthy.  In short, Machiavelli was telling us what he saw in everyday practice and in The Prince, and many of his writings, he was simply telling us where the eggs are stored in case we’re making breakfast.

    Later generations see Machiavelli as all kinds of things — as a proponent of ends justifying the means, of opacity when transparency is needed, but I don’t.  I see him more the way I see the brilliant author of The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Holmes was many things, above all a highly original thinker, a Supreme Court justice, and a thrice wounded Union officer and Civil War Veteran.  I see each man as a scientific observer of his time reporting on natural experiments, on what is rather than what some moralist sees who is intent on prescribing what should be.

    In The Common Law, Holmes examined a hodgepodge of laws that seem to make little sense and are sometimes outright contradictory but he sees them as unified for one very important reason — practice.  The common law is the way it is because that is the way we are: contradictory, in the moment, and even Machiavellian.

    In Krigsman’s review of Nunno’s book, he laments the sometime lack of morals that accompany leadership and those times when we need to be manipulative to get what we want for the good of the enterprise, which could happen anywhere but his focus is the IT arena.  To this I say, and?

    Saying we are manipulative is stating the obvious and condemning it is wishful thinking, and it also misses the point.  Blaming Machiavelli for being the news instead of being the messenger is the obvious mistake here.

    One of the hallmarks of our species is our ability to manipulate our environment and the environment includes other humans.  We’ve developed it into quite an art form or possibly even a science but certainly into a set of business practices lately with new disciplines springing up such as behavioral economics and behavioral finance all supercharged by social media.  We study these things for the same reasons medical students study anatomy — not simply for their own sakes but to give us insights we need to diagnose and prescribe.

    Holmes studied law, not in the abstract but as it is practiced in the real world and I think that’s all Machiavelli did, a few centuries earlier and at a time when human life was cheap and murder in the furtherance of a political cause could be easily justified.

    The CIO who is Machiavellian is so to further the aims of his or her department and enterprise and while I now need to read Nunno’s book to be sure, I deeply suspect that her insights based on Machiavelli are rooted in identifying best practices in the real world rather than best intentions in the realm of the theoretical.  For my money, business is amoral and Machiavellian in the best sense of the word, and it should be.

    Published: 10 years ago