The Machiavellian CIO: Morality versus reality

The Machiavellian CIO: Morality versus reality

Summary: A new book by respected Gartner analyst, Tina Nunno, recommends controversial tactics for solving problems and getting ahead. Will her suggestions work or backfire on CIOs who try them?

TOPICS: CXO, Leadership

The discrepancy, or gap, between doing and achieving is a persistent problem in business. Although every experienced leader knows that functional success is fundamental to sound management, doing a good job doesn’t necessarily lead to career recognition or personal reward.

The Machiavellian CIO
Photo credit: Two faces of Machiavelli by Michael Krigsman

Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the most intriguing political philosophers in Western history, focused relentlessly on the question of achieving political success, even at the sacrifice of conventional social morality.

Because he places accomplishment, even for the greater good, above short-term moral considerations, Machiavelli’s name is associated with deceit, treachery, and ruthless manipulation. Despite this, his writings provide penetrating insights into of organizational behavior.

That’s why I found it fascinating — and discomforting — to read a new book by Gartner analyst, Tina Nunno, with the intriguing title, The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership.

The morality play. Regardless of my respect for Nunno, her book creates the same misgivings that have rained down on Machiavelli since he published his own work. Although her insights have the ring of truth, some of Nunno’s recommendations and comments reflect an unpleasant, even venal, perspective that is just so... well, Machiavellian.

Writing about the need for CIOs to master the art of manipulation, for instance, Nunno describes situations where “manipulation is more appropriate than influence and honesty”. She justifies these means by citing examples where uninformed, inexperienced, or politically motivated stakeholders demand shortsighted and ultimately harmful decisions detrimental to the organization or IT.

Following in Machiavelli’s footsteps, Nunno suggests that CIOs facing extreme challenges learn to manipulate people and situations:

Being perceived as manipulative is problematic for CIOs and all leaders; however, actually being manipulative is a necessity. CIOs who are perceived as manipulative simply aren’t doing it right.

However, Nunno cautions against getting caught:

It is important for manipulation novices to experiment with the tactics carefully when learning how to use them and testing their own ethical boundaries… The more colleagues who know about your deceits the more likely someone will tell and you will be found out.

Getting caught is not a signal to stop manipulating, but to practice more.

Although many readers will feel an instinctive moral revulsion to sentiments such as these, we all know that political maneuvering is entrenched in today’s business culture as it was in Machiavelli’s time. Although tempting to dismiss his tactics as purely amoral and unusual, doing so ignores prevalent organizational behaviors we see every day. This contradiction, between morality and reality, is the fundamental Machiavellian point that has been argued for centuries.

Practical advice for CIOs. Nunno is at her best when she forgoes a philosophical stance and presents practical advice for aligning disparate perspectives, goals, and political factions. When discussing stakeholders, for example, she boils down complex relationships to simple truths:

There are only two reasons for a CIO or anyone else to solicit the input of stakeholders – either the stakeholder has information that improve the quality of the IT decision or the CIO requires permission to make a change he does not have the power to make independently.

Likewise, Nunno describes an effective technique a particular CIO uses to filter requests for IT services:

When they approach him with ideas, he engages in their enthusiasm, but makes certain to have them fill out a few light proposal forms. If this task is too much, he knows they are not committed. If they pass that test, then he continues. If they continue to pass each hurdle he places in front of them, then knows they are likely worthy of trust

In another example of Nunno's wisdom, she presents questions that one CIO uses to evaluate new projects and filter requests the business makes to his team [bullets added]:

  • Is this direction consistent with the strategy or inconsistent?
  • What are the risks of doing this?
  • What are the risks of not doing this?
  • What are the interdependencies, and who is affected?
  • Is this likely to be a political decision and, if so, how will we handle that?

Communication, clarity, and integrity. Machiavelli is controversial because he advocates using expedient tactics that contradict universally admired qualities such as loyalty, honesty, and integrity. For CIOs and business leaders, the question of ethics quickly becomes intertwined with transparency and communication. I asked author and communications consultant, Kare Anderson, for advice on balancing the moral and communication conflicts raised by Machiavelli:

Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” I believe that you can’t afford to be feared even if you could evoke both feelings. For both and long-term success, especially in our increasingly connected world where more people can easily learn how you treated others it behooves us to be able to attract top talent.

And I agree with the co-authors of Compelling People, that demonstrating a balance of warmth and strength is most likely to attract smarter support sooner. As Machiavelli also wrote, “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him” – and smart leaders want to attract talented colleagues. And top talent always have the most choices of who they follow.

Specificity is also a key, as it leads to clarity in expectations. Since we react more quickly, intensely and longer to negative words and behavior, successful leaders are usually adept at praising the specific actions that move a company team towards their top goals. They praise in vividly specific ways and in front of others whose behavior they seek to shape.

Like Machiavelli, top leaders should be direct and candid with individuals about specific behavioral changes they expect – from peers as well as those they supervise. But, that advice is offered with respectful language and in private.

The most successful bosses explicitly ask for equally specific, constructive feedback from those around them.  Expect to see more advice about how companies can thrive by cultivating a constructive mindset from the seven years of research that renowned Stanford Business School professors, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao, put into their 2014 book, Scaling Up Excellence.

The conundrum of Machiavellian ethics has existed for centuries and continues to challenge CIOs and other executives. However, professor Lydia Segal, who teaches business ethics at the Sawyer business school at Suffolk University in Boston and is author (PDF) of numerous books and articles, cautions contemporary business people against using Machiavellian tactics:

There is a tradition of looking at business as a game where ethics and morality do not apply and in which the business world is seen as amoral. However, studies have shown, repeatedly, that doing the right thing pays off in the long term.

Especially in today’s world, people in business are considered global citizens bound by unspoken rules of action. Machiavelli presents an antiquated way to think of business ethics in our modern world of WikiLeaks, YouTube, instant access, and stories going viral with immediacy and transparency. Machiavelli’s view does not work in business today.

Although it is impossible to deny Machiavelli’s political truths, his advice is fraught with career-terminating danger. In the modern business and technology environment, transparency is the CIO’s best reference point, friend, and path.

What do you think about Machiavelli's advice and do you agree with Gartner's suggestions? 

Also read:

Topics: CXO, Leadership

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  • This is why

    This is why capitalism is intrinsically wrong and amoral. This is what turned me into a socialist. That and seeing a starving mother with a one year old infant begging for change in the 110F Arizona summer sun.
    • And....

      What did you do?

      How many meals have you bought for someone who was hungry? How many times have you given clothing to someone who needed it? I don't mean by donating to a food bank or Good Will. What have you done on a personal level to improve someone's life? When was the last time you got personally and hands on involved in someone's basic needs dilemma?
      • Missing the point. The appeal of socialism

        is that you can get the government to force other people to be charitable for you, so you get to pat yourself on the back, and declare you compassionate you are without getting off your backside and actually doing anything compassionate.
    • There is no mother with an infant in this country

      who ever needs to fear starvation or beg for money in this nation. WIC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps, Rent subsidies, Medicaid, mean that single Mom with that infant qualifies for about $30,000 a year in direct cash payments and subsidies.

      If she's starving and begging for change in the 110F Arizona sun, there's some other reason than she can't get food or money.
    • Machiavelli's principles are Agnostic

      The Principles are about the manipulations of people to achieve a desired outcome- "he places accomplishment, even for the greater good, above short-term moral considerations" this is applicable regardless of your socio-economic paradigm whether you are trying to get people to work harder so the Company makes more money or getting them to Work harder for the "good of the party/people/nation) manipulation is what is it and applies no matter who you think should get the money.
  • Did you know...

    ...that The Prince was a *parody*? Machiavelli's *many* other writings flatly contradict The Prince.

    There's a *reason* for that...
    • The problem with the Parody is..

      that it was based on many "Truths" and if applied correctly could lead to very good outcomes for talented practitioner-- but the could also end up getting your head cut off if you weren't.
    • Actually,...

      "The Prince" was written after Pope Julius II, with Swiss mercenaries basically conquered Florence, during Machiavelli’s defacto exile and fall from power.

      Il Principe (The Prince) was written to highlight a subset of ideas, which were espoused in his larger work "The Discourses" in which he distilled his thoughts on political theory.

      His fall from grace was permanent.
    • Perhaps You Meant?...

      It occurred to me that you might have meant "The Prince" was written as propaganda, as Machiavelli wrote in attempt to reconcile with Lorenzo de Medici and be reinstated.

      I have seen scholars state that The Prince uses a subset of ideas from "The Discourses," but they don't state The Prince presents a change of view on power. Perhaps Machiavelli changed the way he presented those ideas (subset) thinking that it would be more palatable to those in power. But it wasn't.
  • The problem is...

    ...much of our society functions on trust, which is undermined by underhanded tactics. New princes (in the Machiavellian sense) may have to play power games to survive, but most of us are not in that situation and good model of hell is a society in which it is not rational for anyone to trust anyone else (such a society is also highly inefficient).

    It should also be remembered that:

    1. "The Prince" is for the most part, a guide for tyrants, conquerors, and usurpers (who Machiavelli described as "new princes"). Machiavelli's advice to "hereditary princes" (established ones) was govern in whatever manner his subjects were accustomed, as his legitimacy depends upon it. I've long thought that officers of both corporations and constitutional republics have to function in much the same way, as failure to appropriately manage expectations is often severely damaging to one's career and may constitute professional/political suicide.

    2. "The Prince" was intended to comment on monarchies ("principalities"), not republics, which Machiavelli (by his own admission) dealt with at great length in his "Commentaries". It seems to me that publicly traded corporations function more like republics than like monarchies (except when an individual has a controlling interest, or there is a single founder who's still in charge); and even if it were otherwise, the CEO would be the prince, not his underlings.
    John L. Ries
    • What it amounts to is...

      Machiavellian behavior by corporate executives tends to undermine the trust that the company needs to function effectively. If you betray your employees, the ones that can will look for other employment, and the ones that can't aren't going to work any harder than they have to (it's not worth it). If you betray your customers, they'll patronize the competition, or they can't, there are likely to be political implications. If you betray your stockholders, the value of your stock is likely to fall substantially, and they may be motivated enough to get rid of you. If you betray your colleagues, they'll plot against you.

      It's true that "don't get caught" is often an effective strategy in the short run, but it's hard to keep up over a long period.
      John L. Ries
    • Sorry to Disagree with You, John

      Actually, Machiavelli was a staunch republican (as in Florence as independent republic, with a titular ruler who was elected every two months by the guilds). It was his analysis of how power worked in Florence, and between other principalities during the height of his influence in government that got him into hot water with the Pope and the Medicis.

      So when the Pope "restored" the Medicis to power in Florence, Florence went from having an "elected" government to one of hereditary monarchy and Machiavelli was toast . He was even imprisoned and tortured and then released into exile, during which he wrote The Prince, The Discourses, and other treatises.

      So if #1 is true, then his advice to the "new" hereditary princes to govern as the people have been used to, is really a recommendation to hereditary princes to follow some form of elected government. I believe this is more than just managing expectation, but providing some form of inclusiveness and collaboration with the subjects (customers, and co-workers in companies).

      Regarding #2, it seems that corporations who create defacto monopolies, act more like monarchies than republics. They force out smaller players in their markets, create customers who are captive to their products/services, and for the most part, dictate the nature of the supplier-vendor relationship. In fact "choice" for all parties is really an illusion—

      * "Sure there are competitors in the market" (but due to our scale, we can be the last man standing in any price war we start or enter)

      * "Sure you can take your stuff off of my cloud any time "(but your systems and data are so baked in, migration to another platform and infrastructure would be very disruptive)

      * Look, we’re not making you do business with us; you can sell to another company (but there aren’t really any other customers within your sphere)
      • Which is why... many voters (including myself) are suspicious of big business, helping to establish my point. You can try to force people who don't trust you to do business with you anyway, but the practice has associated costs (coercion is expensive in more ways than one).

        And internally, corporations do tend to function more like republics than monarchies, which is why Mark Hurd was fired as the CEO of HP (if corporations were monarchies, this would never happen); they're nowhere close to being democratic, but only a very foolish CEO would behave like he owns the joint (unless, of course, he actually does).

        And I did mean to say "Discourses" instead of "Commentaries", and yes it is a matter of history that Machiavelli much preferred republican government to monarchy.
        John L. Ries
        • The fallacy

          The naive view of "free enterprise" asserts that because people are free to trade as they like, that it is impossible or at least, insanely difficult) for a dishonest person to succeed in business; ergo, the senior executives of large corporations are manifestly trustworthy. But in reality, crooked business dealings go on all the time (Adam Smith's model of perfect competition holds only if there are perfect information and no barriers to entry). But betrayal of trust, if detected, *always* leads to loss of trust, and even if dishonest dealers aren't caught, the perception that the game is rigged causes the public to lose trust in the system as a whole. And the market runs much less efficiently if people don't trust one another than if they do.
          John L. Ries
          • Put it this way

            If workers trusted the free market to pay everyone what they were worth, there would be no labor unions. If consumers trusted the market to insure that the goods and services sold were worth what is charged for them, there would be little or no demand for consumer protection legislation. If vast majority of the general public believed that an unregulated market was guaranteed to serve the public interest, or even that the vast majority of vendors and employers were honest, there would be little demand for commercial regulation.

            The reason why we have an anti-business political climate isn't because of socialist conspirators or other "outside agitators", but rather because too many of us don't trust the market to work in the public interest on its own. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of evidence that this mistrust is rational.

            You might get away with being a cheat and might even make a large amount of money doing it, but by doing so, you still undermine the trust on which the market depends for efficient functioning, causing people to resort to other means (political and otherwise) to "keep it honest".
            John L. Ries
        • Let's Put it Another Way...

          Good point.

          Or rather, corporations run internally like ancient monarchies (European or Chinese) --- as long as they have the mandate of heaven. In other words, until their conduct precipitates their downfall – i.e. they have transgressed some unviolatable internal code. The evidence is that the order of the universe has visited enough natural catastrophes or insurrection as to indicate that you’ve lost your mandate. Until that point, the CEO can continue "doing business as usual." So, in the case of

          * Mark Hurd, (your example), he crossed some policy that he instituted, which was deemed significant enough that the board ousted him

          * Ron Johnson, did massive re-engineering of jc penny, not understanding who the JC Penny customer was and how that influenced the way JC Penny operated. He lost the mandate when the customer refused to buy, creating the current business disaster threatening JC Penney’s survival.

          * Dennis Kozlowski, a former ceo of Tyco International, who is now serving prison sentence for embezzling -- $81 million in unauthorized bonuses, the purchase of art for $14.725 million. But until then, he had 10 years of a free hand running Tyco as ceo.

          The list could go on.

          Free markets, and Adam Smith go beyond perfect flow of information.

          To create anything approximating a utopian society through free markets and Adam Smith would work if people were perfect—that they all thought and operated with pretty much the same moral code (Say plus / minus 10%). No one (or entity) would seek an unreasonable advantage over anyone else, every one would share (more or less) the same perspective of what "comfortably well off" means, and every one would be compensated fairly so that they could live a comfortable life.

          But that is not human nature. And free markets do not follow a moral code.
  • The Death of Truth

    I've been toying with the above-titled book every since my exterminator told me he couldn't treat for lady bugs (Asian beetles actually) since they were an "endangered species".

    From politics to IT; news to bugs, truth is no longer a driver. Only self-interest. While I tend to subscribe to the precepts of free enterprise, I wonder if it's entirely played out in the current form of 'concentrated' capitalism.

    Perhaps that's why we're still talking about Machiavelli 500 years later. He was probably onto something. :)
  • Constructive Review


    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and constructive review of my book. In your comments you get to the heart of the most common concerns about Machiavellian philosophy, that it advocates the use of less than total transparency in specific situations. This is a legitimate concern as pointed out by you and the other commentators in your piece.

    You noted, “Machiavelli is controversial because he advocates using expedient tactics that contradict universally admired qualities such as loyalty, honesty, and integrity.” I agree with you. But are loyalty, honesty, and integrity indeed “universally admired”? If this were true, and I greatly wish it were, then there indeed would be no need for Machiavellian approaches. Unfortunately I do not believe this was true 500 years ago in the time of Machiavelli, and it is not true today. Hopefully it will be true someday. Until then, I believe the world will still need Machiavellian Wolves.

    For more, please refer to my blog…”Why IT and the World Need Predators”

    And if your readers would like to know which Machiavellian animal they are, they can feel free to take the Wolf Quiz by following this link.

    Thank you again.

    Tina Nunno
  • We must disagree...


    Machiavelli is a tricky proposition because we don't live in a perfect world and his techniques are both effective and ugly.

    As I said in the book review, there is no question that any CIO would find your insight and experience helpful. At the same time, I find it hard to embrace the Machiavellian premise and remain concerned that the techniques can backfire, especially if not used skillfully.

    In any case, your book certainly raises a perspective on the CIO that is worth discussion and examination. Thank you for commenting.

    All the best,
  • Machiavelli and Tina

    Hi Michael. I believe the reason so many of your comments have been focused on Machiavelli, rather than your review of Tina, is based on the assumptions you made about Machiavelli's contribution. Essentially, Machiavelli was not saying that the role of the leader was to be right or wrong, as those are not "goods" or "truths" that carry enduring meaning, but that the stability of the society is all that can make things "better". The Prince needs to make things better, and should therefore do what needs to be done to make it so.
    Tina is quite right. The CIO has as her or his first objective, to make things better, not right or wrong. She quite rightly points out that CIOs that cruise along, essentially achieving nothing, allow the organization to assume the risk, while they "hope" to coast to their year end bonus. Right or wrong, I want a leader who tries to achieve.