Want to be a ruthless boss? Read Machiavelli

The Ruthless Leader Edited by Alistair McAlpine (Wiley, £14.95)


The Ruthless Leader is a compilation of three independent books in one volume, presumably for convenience.
The Art of War, by the Chinese general Sun Tzu, was written around 500 BC;
The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli, some 2,000 years later; and
The Servant some 500 years after that by Lord McAlpine, treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. While the three works have some common themes, they are independent treatises.

The Ruthless Leader is a compilation of three independent books in one volume, presumably for convenience. The Art of War, by the Chinese general Sun Tzu, was written around 500 BC; The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli, some 2,000 years later; and The Servant some 500 years after that by Lord McAlpine, treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. While the three works have some common themes, they are independent treatises.

Lord McAlpine has assembled them under one cover, with an introduction in which he argues that "the combination of these three works makes a devastating statement about human nature". Each of these texts, he says, "is useful to the one working his or her way through any organisation". He adds: "Sun Tzu's The Art of War, ostensibly about the tactics and the day-to-day practice of warfare, also bears a totally different interpretation: the tactics of day-to-day business." So does this book, as the jacket-flap promises, really offer much to a businessperson "trying to get ahead in today's volatile, globalised business world"?

There is benefit in combining Machiavelli's The Prince and Lord McAlpine's The Servant, in a single volume, thus seeing a common situation from different perspectives. Both texts are essentially books about politics and politicians. Machiavelli's ruthlessness is blatant. He writes: "A prince should not flinch from being cruel if thereby he keeps his subjects in their allegiance." Or take this piece of cynicism: "A prince, therefore, is not obliged to have all the aforementioned good qualities in reality, but it is necessary to have them in appearance." Lord McAlpine is equally cavalier with the truth, which he sees as "in fact, truth is what people believe. The servant, knowing this, can create his own truths".

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is a guide to strategy and tactics. In fact, some translations refer to the book as The Art of Strategy. It is about how to win, not how to govern or accumulate power, and in this context it is relevant to today's organisations. This is the essence of The Art of War, which is not really the art of war at all but "The Art of Winning".

Sun Tzu writes: "To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." Such advice is further emphasised by Sun Tzu's theme, "in time of war prepare for peace and in time of peace prepare for war", an essential prescription for all negotiations. The Art of War contains so many brilliant guidelines for almost every sphere of action. Imagine how more successful the England footballers would have been if they had put the following into action: "The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat and then wait for the opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands and often the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself ... he wins his battles by making no mistakes."

Some of Sun Tzu's ideas are simple: "The control of a large force is the same in principle as the control of a few men. It is merely a question of dividing up their numbers." This may be helpful advice for chief executives undertaking unecessarily complicated corporate restructuring.

Lord McAlpine's central thesis, and his reason for bringing these three texts together, is set out in his introduction: "A disciplined approach to the task at hand ... is of the highest importance and nothing must be spared to achieve that end." It is this principle, he states, which is common to all three works. I have searched for less obvious areas of common insight. Both Machiavelli and Sun Tzu stress the importance of spies. Sun Tzu devotes the whole of his 13th chapter to this and Machiavelli states that a prince "must have intelligence with the natives if he means to conquer a province". Both also argue the importance of not conquering a foreign country unless intending to live there. Company bosses might like to consider this before making overseas acquisitions.

Both The Prince and Sun Tzu's generals are urged not to attack walled cities. Machiavelli feels "men are generally wary of enterprising anything that is difficult, and no great easiness is to be found in attacking a town well fortified and provided". Sun Tzu, on the other hand, states "if you lay siege to a town you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the state will not be equal to it". The former is about human nature, the latter about economics.

My advice to would-be ruthless leaders? If you are interested in The Prince and his adviser's relationship, get this book and pay particular attention to the introduction.

But if you want to learn about strategy and tactics, there is nothing comparable to Sun Tzu's The Art of War - although several more contemporary translations can be recommended.

The reviewer is chairman of Howard Hyman & Associates, business strategists. He was previously deputy-chairman of Charterhouse Bank and global head of corporate finance at Price Waterhouse

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