Command and control
In a business environment in which change is the only constant, command and control management style has been criticized as being too hierarchical, too mechanistic, and too cumbersome for making timely decisions about how to best execute work. At its worst, it can also be authoritative, dictatorial, and dehumanizing. Critics of command and control advocate for a leadership style that is more supportive and collaborative and less hierarchical, directive and controlling, more about giving employees freedom and responsibility and less about trying to control them with rules and procedures or overt power.
Despite the 21st century being characterized by constant change, command and control is still prevalent in many organizations. After all, it has been around for centuries. For instance, what is known to be indicative of this leadership style was observed by Niccolo Machiavelli over 450 years ago. Many of his observations, captured in one of the classic works of political philosophy, The Prince, can explain the underlying characteristics of command and control styles.
Printed posthumously in 1532 and based on Machiavelli’s observations about leadership, The Prince was intended to be a guide to effective leadership dedicated to the Magnificent Lorenzo de Medici of Florence. Some of the more well-known statements from The Prince, that often characterize command and control leaders of today, include the following:
- Make friends not enemies
- It is best to be both loved and feared, but it is always better to be feared than loved
- The prince must be both a lion and a fox
- The end justifies the means
The name, Machiavelli, and the term “Machiavellian” have become associated with the characteristics of deceit, cunning, duplicity, and expediency. However, these traits do not necessarily reflect the character of Machiavelli himself but perhaps rather what he witnessed, the politics of his times. The Prince is a record of his observations about those that led, of which we can see the relationship to command and control management styles.
Machiavelli on Hereditary Principalities
“In hereditary states accustomed to the bloodline of their prince the difficulties in maintaining them are much less than in new states because it is enough only not to depart from the order of his ancestors, and then to temporize in the face of accidents.” (p. 6)
Machiavelli observes that when a prince attains a principality through heredity, they inherit a strong foundation—made possible by the work of their predecessors—upon which to build the future. As such, that prince will have much less difficulty in maintaining it because all that is required is to continue to do things the way they have been done previously, adapting to changing circumstances (what Machiavelli calls accidents) as they arise. Applying the above to present day, one might observe that successors who assume leadership responsibilities inside organizations, especially those appointed or anointed by their predecessors, can receive more support and buy in in exchange for their appointment if they maintain the status quo (values, beliefs, work practices, processes). In making changes only when needed, this keeps the balance of power in check between power brokers and subordinates.
Machiavelli on How Cities or Principalities which Lived by their Own Laws before they were Occupied Should be Administered
“For in truth there is no secure mode to possess them other than to ruin them. And whoever becomes patron of a city accustomed to living free and does not destroy it, should expect to be destroyed by it; for it always has as a refuge in rebellion the name of liberty and its own ancient orders which are never forgotten either through length of time or because of benefits received.” (pp. 20-21)
Machiavelli observes that in order for a prince to occupy a principality that lived by its own laws it is necessary to ruin it completely in part to eradicate the memory of the old order and in part to create a state that is friendly to them. While the image of laying “ruin” to an organization is not what we advocate, we still see leaders with command and control styles adopting this philosophy. The example of the new leader who insists on taking over and changing everything about an organization that he or she leads, often without first getting to know the people or learning why it operates the way it does, comes to mind. We’ve witnessed leaders feeling the need to out their own “stamp” on a team quickly, in an attempt to in Machiavelli’s words to forget “ancient orders” or past practices of how things have always been done. Needless to say, people never forget not only what changes but how it changes.
Machiavelli on New Principalities that are Acquired by Others’ Arms and Fortune
“So whoever judges it necessary in his new principality to secure himself against enemies, to gain friends to himself, to conquer either by force or fraud, to make himself loved and feared by the people, and followed and revered by the soldiers, to eliminate those who can or might offend you, to renew old orders through new modes, to be severe and pleasant, magnanimous and liberal, to eliminate an unfaithful military, to create a new one, to maintain friendships with kings and princes so that they must either benefit you with favor or be hesitant to offend you—can find no fresher examples than the actions of that man.” (pp. 32-33)
Machiavelli observes that a prince who solely though fortune becomes as such with little trouble must gain the support of the people of an acquired principality by establishing control and authority through whatever means the prince deems necessary. We’ve seen that sometimes people are placed into new positions or are vying for a promotion to a coveted spot and choose to act Machiavellian. They become consumed by maintaining their new position or power at all costs. This calculus can include eliminating enemies, turning partisans into friends, and building relationships with other power brokers. It also can include employing force or fraud, simultaneously showing love and fear, being pleasant and severe, being liberal and magnanimous, and creating a dedicated mass of followers.
Machiavelli on those whom Princes have as Secretaries
“When you see a minister thinking more of himself than of you, and in all actions looking for something useful to himself, one so made will never be a good minister; never will you be able to trust him, because he who has someone’s state in his hands should never think of himself but always of the prince, and he should never remember anything that does not pertain to the prince.” (p. 93)
Machiavelli observes that in his time, a “good” minister puts the needs of the prince they serve above their own. Those ministers that do not cannot be fully trusted. Applying this to a command and control leader today, these individuals often feel they need to surround themselves with a team that is, first and foremost, loyal. If a subordinate has other goals, even if it is in the best interest of and service to the larger organization, this person cannot be trusted. This lack of complete alignment to the leader’s agenda is threatening, assuming the motivation for subordinate behavior is about self-preservation and personal advancement.
In summary, while Machiavelli’s writing is nearly 500 years old, his lessons can still serve as a filter for how some individuals, and organizations, continue to operate. Let’s hope that the stories of modern organizational management and more effective, holistic, respectful and collaborative leadership live on even longer.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.