A Tale of Two Princes: A Modern Day Story with a Machiavellian Twist (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on November 14, 2012


Editor’s Note: The following is a post that appeared in Roz Usheroff’s The Remarkable Leader Blog.  Shortly after this post was written, Microsoft gave Steven Sinofsky the proverbial boot.  Even though both Forstall and Sinofsky had incredible success in driving the fortunes of their respective companies, they had reputations for being extremely difficult to work with.  Is this a sign that perhaps production is taking a back seat to personality?

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes, “The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” As Machiavelli asserts, commitments made in peace are not always kept in adversity; however, commitments made in fear are kept out of fear. Yet, a prince must ensure that he is not feared to the point of hatred, which is very possible.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Apple’s Forstall dumped and Microsoft’s Sinofsky booted . . .

I recently read an article by Jim Kerstetter in which he talked about Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky and Apple’s Scott Forstall.  Specifically Kerstetter focused on the fact that while both power executives have a strong track record of success, they are also known for being incredibly difficult to work with.  In the case of Forstall however, his stumbles with Apple’s last two iPhone releases have actually led to his being ousted.

All this being said Kerstetter concluded “If there’s a lesson to be learned, I suppose it’s that personality doesn’t matter all that much in the executive ranks,” and that “Success doesn’t justify unpleasant behavior, but it often excuses it.”

He then went on to offer the following caveat . . . “That is, until something goes wrong. That’s when the knives come out, as Forstall finally learned.”

This got me to thinking about the Machiavelli classic The Prince, and more specifically the question of whether or not it is better to be loved or feared.

If one were to continue to follow Kerstetter’s line of thinking in which he concludes that “humility and playing nice” isn’t exactly what made Sinofsky or Forstall successful, one might be more inclined towards the fear side of the equation.

This is because when we talk about political politeness or correctness which is often associated with humility and playing nice – these men mentioned in the article didn’t think about this as a need in their personalities.  Their single focus was on being major contributors to the bottom line, carving out a reputation for their company that differentiates their services or products and pleases their investors by generating huge profits.  In this light they can get away with “naughty” behavior.

But watch when they screw up!  The bees swarm and sting because they see an opportunity to give back the arrogance and pain they have endured.

Conversely, being well liked means very little if you cannot deliver the goods when needed.  Think about the old axiom about nice guys finishing last.  In the end and no matter how amiable you may be, you are where you are to provide value to your company and/or customers.

Yet I cannot help but think that we do not have to operate in the realms of extremes if fear is equated with respect.  What do I mean?

In part 2, I will share with you my perspective based on my 20 plus years working with top executives for some of the world’s most well-known companies.  In the meantime, let me know what you think . . . is it better from a career standpoint to be loved or feared?