Effective action: Advice from Machiavelli

By Mark Harrison

January 10, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat and writer. He lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a time when Italy consisted of a large number of independent cities, all in a virtually perpetual state of war. As Machiavelli navigated through this complex and dangerous environment, he learned the skills needed to survive and thrive. Among his writing, the most famous and important work is The Prince, in which he outlines the mental attitudes and strategies necessary for achieving security and being successful in a hostile environment.

Today, we tend to associate Machiavelli with being self-serving – the mercenary and those who seek to achieve power at any cost. In a sense, we (meaning those of us living in the ‘first world’) do live in a more civilized kind of society, where competition is not so obvious or so brutal. And yet, under the surface, there can still be a strong current of rivalry. As the world becomes more connected, competition is becoming more obvious and we need to be skillful in navigating through the many dangers we might encounter.

Machiavelli has a lot to teach us about being effective in our modern, interconnected world.

Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.

There is a widespread myth that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is composed of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’ This is completely wrong, but the sentiment is sound – as the old saying goes, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ We cannot avoid trouble and misfortune, but effective people can turn any setback into something good. If you can always do this, how can any harm come to you?


I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.

Things are always changing. Those with power and influence will naturally seek to maintain their position and privileges, and they others with fewer resources – and less to loose – will try to rise and displace the leaders. This is true in nature and it is true in all organisations, despite any amount of talk about collegiality and inclusively.

Effective people are aware of this and, if not actively seeking to change things, are sensitive and able to respond well to the natural and inevitable change taking place around them.

Never was anything great achieved without danger.

People are often afraid to take risks. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread – awareness and preparation are important, but action is necessary, and there is always risk. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is an essential part of growth, and this always feels difficult and dangerous. But we are always moving – and if not forward, then back. Danger and insecurity are the only option for effective people.

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

So many people let their life slip away. They can see it happening, and this gives them a mild feeling of anxiety. But it is all too easy to divert ourselves from this feeling with the many little pleasures in life, and we can play all kinds of mind games to convince ourselves that everything is OK. In reality, we have little time left. Remembering our own mortality can bring great focus – life is fragile and precious, and there is no time to waste.

The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.

It is sensible to plan well, but if something needs to be done, it should be done as quickly as possible. People are often afraid of tasking decisive action, through fear of confrontation or what others might think of them, but as everyone knows, the only way to tear off a sticking plaster is to do it quickly. Dragging things out can only make matters worse.


Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.

History is full of people overcoming adversity. George Washington Carver overcame the enormous difficulties of being born a slave – he ended up attending university and becoming an influential figure in botany, agriculture and education. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. To achieve great things, the effective person will find a way around any problem.

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

Everything changes and that includes ourselves. We are not what we were five years ago. We have learned; we have changed; we have grown. Many people are not very deliberate about this, and drift along allowing themselves to be influenced by circumstances. Effective people respond to change in a more proactive way, consciously molding themselves with self-reflection and education. Times are changing faster than ever, and if we are to survive and thrive, we need to keep up. We all know what happened to the dinosaurs.

Machiavelli tends to get a bad press these days – his advice is associated with getting what we want by deceit and treachery. But effective people are not partial to where they find insight – precious stones are often found in the mud.

Written on 1/10/2011 by Mark Harrison. Mark Harrison writes about personal growth, communication, and increasing personal wealth. Check out his new book, Thirty Days to Change Your Life. Photo Credit: rjhuttondfw
Mark Harrison

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