The causes of and impediments to corporate Machiavellianism

In Freda Utley’s fascinating memoir, Odyssey of a Liberal, she wrote about her youthful interest in Machiavelli:

“In my essay on Machiavelli, I argued that there was not really such a disparity as generally supposed between the Florentine’s advice to tyrants, as expressed in his “Prince,” and his eulogy of Republican Virtues in his “Commentaries on Livy” – the Roman classical historian. As I saw it, when fifteen years old, men are usually ready to condone, or even approve, actions taken by their state or country which they condemn when taken by an individual, so that what seemed admirable “virtue” in the Romans was regarded as wickedness in an individual Italian prince. I wish I still had this old essay of mine. All I can now remember is its main argument that Machiavelli’s precepts for Princes – his description of how tyrants maintain their power, which came to be called “Machiavellian,” – was not different in essence to the precepts and practices of the Roman Republic or modern nation states.”

That’s one incisive high school essay!

If certain unchanging principles apply to ancient Romans, Florentine princes, and modern nations, it isn’t a huge leap to believe that these apply to businesses too. On the other hand, corporate Machiavellianism is arguably even less popular than individual Machiavellianism. These two opposing factors help explain why corporations are only Machiavellian to a moderate degree. And your estimate of this degree is probably correlated with your level of disapproval of it.

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On the unintended consequences of leadership training programs

On a weekly “open thread” for The Diff, I wrote:

Although the founders weren’t laid off, they founded Health-Ade Kombucha in 2012 while at GSK when it was going through a series of lay-offs. Daina Trout and Vanessa Dew were both in sales at GSK, and in the early 2010s it was struggling to adjust to competition from generics. GSK notoriously mismanaged the process in 2010 by laying off sales reps just days after promising no layoffs at their sales convention: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/glaxosmithkline-layoffs-follow-promise-of-no-cuts-at-national-sales-meeting/

To improve morale and innovation, GSK started a rotational innovation / leadership program that Daina went through. However, after having this inspirational confidence-building experience, she was sent back to her old job in sales. The rotational program and repeated layoffs were both bad for employee morale by bringing “false dawns” followed by disappointment. Having said that, you might say that GSK’s choices did in fact build confidence and innovation, but only in ways that didn’t benefit GSK itself.

Daina Trout’s interview on the How I Built It podcast is great btw: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/25/916944612/health-ade-kombucha-daina-trout