Machiavelli’s Guide to Autocrats & How to ‘Oppose’ Them

Margaret Thatcher. Love her? Hate her? There’s no middle ground.

On a more micro level, Rob Ford, the Mayor of my great city, Toronto, keeps repeating one simple line, ‘Get rid of the gravy train’ and comes at a time when the finances and effectiveness of city management need close attention. He seems determined, at all costs, to angrily impose his will on cost control by blaming his many opponents.

When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.     – Machiavelli

Does your organization have an autocratic leader?

Some leaders are right for their time. Thatcher seems to have been around when Britain needed to change and no one else seemed capable of making it happen. But, by the end of her term, her autocratic ways had run their course and she’d lost her relevancy (it could not occur to her that pushing for the invasion of Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein, a totalitarian murderous leader, was inconsistent with supporting Chile’s equally totalitarian and murderous Pinochet).

So, we sometimes need autocratic leaders – countries and companies – to break the status quo. In a democracy, they have to be ruthless in order to break the existing outdated ‘rules’.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.      – Machiavelli

These leaders are almost always: a) visibly successful on a short to mid-term basis; b) oblivious to any incidental harm they cause; c) make many bad decisions; d) can’t see the tide of opposition that eventually rises to defeat them.

Many would argue that Canada’s Stephen Harper’s recent Senate scandal denial demonstrates many of the same characteristics.

Sadly, opponents of autocratic leaders refuse to listen to any change proposed and fight to preserve their status quo. In doing so, they hand the keys for change to the autocrats who get even more intransigent and obnoxious. The autocrat’s mind’s been made up. Pissing them off only concretizes their position. Opposition protest clarifies their cause.

What can the ‘opponents’ do … other than patiently wait for the autocrat to run their course? What does an organization need to do when an autocrat takes over?

Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.               ­ Machiavelli

Listen actively and first have them ask themselves:

What is it that the autocrats actually want?

What’s the bigger goal? Setting aside our distaste for them, what are they saying that makes sense?

Suppose the autocrat is correct about their cause, what elements of it will be useful to us?

If we recognize that, what can we negotiate with them to modify? 

Before all else, be armed.                   Machiavelli

Given autocrats don’t listen, what can we do help them get their way in a slightly more efficient fashion, less damaging way? Ask them:

Assume that your opponents have something in common with you. What is that?

How can you achieve what you believe is right and not cause collateral damage just to prove you’re right?

What is it that you want in the long term for which you’ll be remembered?

What are the principles you espouse that will be useful to people in the long run?

What benefits in your proposal are useful to everyone?

Will these questions make a big difference? No.   Will they make the transition a little less painful and reduce collateral damage? Probably.

Will it help the opposition make more sense of what’s happening and therefore enable themselves to oppose more effectively? Yes. 

It’s not about fighting fire with fire. It’s about thinking to yourself, ‘What would Machiavelli say about this and how can we make sense of what’s going on?’

Do you have an autocrat in your organization?

How do you work with them to minimize damage?

Alan Kay is a Solution Focused change management practitioner. Clients say about his work: ‘Alan gets people to do things.’   ‘Alan helps organizations fulfill their potential – the work results in clear stretch strategic objectives fleshed out with practical action plans.’ ‘Alan has helped us transform our organization. He is an outstanding teacher, facilitator and coach.’ 

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