What do people do when suddenly confined at home because of unforeseen events?
An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665 led Isaac Newton to go home and revolutionise science. Enforced retirement from Florentine politics gave Niccolo Machiavelli time to write The Prince, his notorious manual on realpolitik.
But psychopaths planning world domination beware. As I’m discovering on my first reading of this seminal book, Machiavelli is rather less, well, ‘Machiavellian’ than many of the clichés about his dark arts would suggest.
I’m only halfway through, but the book seems to be a measured (if steely eyed) assessment about the levers different leaders needed to pull to gain and hold onto power in 16th Century Italy. Most of it isn’t about how to perfect the art of being duplicitous and honey tongued.
In my case, I am not just reading Machiavelli because I suddenly find my diary starting to clear and am having a middle life intellectual meltdown about all the books I should have read but haven’t (that one’s for another day). I’m also in the middle of researching a book chapter on ‘The Art of Influence’ and how it can be applied to working in public affairs in Brussels.
For me one of Machiavelli’s most elegant but simple ideas is his view on the relative effectiveness of force versus persuasion. His argument is that strong leaders who are in a position to use force to get what they want should do so because it’s a decisive, unilateral act. In contrast, leaders who have to use persuasion are always more vulnerable because they have to rely on other people. And people, as we know are unreliable and can change their minds. i.e. they can be unpersuaded too.
Like many original thoughts this idea may sound blindingly obvious. But it’s a good and timely reminder that if you are in the business of trying to shape policy outcomes to your advantage you can do everything by the book and it still may not work out for you because the unpredictability of other people can make situations extremely dynamic.
So far, I’ve come up with around 5 qualities that I think influential public affairs practitioners need to have. You’ll have to wait for the book to find out what they are but I’m interested to know what yours would be.