Once in a position of power, does a leader focus solely on a goal, regardless of the impact on subordinates, or does a leader focus on the subordinates in order to successfully attain that same goal? There are various influential thinkers who have shared their theories as to what is the correct type of leadership, one of the most controversial and well-known ones is Machiavelli, who presented his ideas in The Prince. In comparison, more moral, modern theories of leadership have been proposed by authors like Csikszentmihalyi, who recognized and named the concept of flow:
“a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment.”
Machiavelli and Csikszentmihalyi both have prominent theories regarding leadership, and at first glance, they seem to be completely contrary to each other. Machiavelli has a notorious reputation for his widely acclaimed theories that separate leadership and power from morality. In contrast, Csikszentmihályi is known for emphasizing the importance of morality in managing people in a position of power. So while the differences are stark, there are some similarities. The difference between the two lies in the method of leadership responsibility, while the end result is very similar: leadership in order to achieve common good and order.
To understand these differences, we should first acknowledge the different contexts of these two prominent thinkers and how they contribute to the different theories. Machiavelli wrote his most famous work The Prince in Florence in the 16th century, as a politician and historian, he utilized history and successful leaders as a model for leadership responsibility.
On the other hand, Csikszentmihalyi is a contemporary Hungarian psychologist, and for this reason, he adopts a modern perspective, believing that leadership should be redefined and not modelled after history. For him, there are implications of a globally networked age in which leaders and subordinates are much more connected to one another, and thus on a more level playing field. As an example, in such a globally networked age, almost everyone has access to information that would have been selectively distributed to leaders not long ago. This redistribution of access to information redistributes power: those who have information have power. In addition, the context influenced their respective perceptions of human nature, which inevitably influence their opinions on how to lead people. Machiavelli wrote The Prince when he was exiled by the Medici family- in exile, he was tortured and threatened with execution for some time, which likely impacted his views of human nature. He believes humans to be
“inherently rotten, ungrateful, deceitful”
, generally evil, and he states that because of this, effective leadership often requires severe measures. Meanwhile, Csikszentmihalyi believes in the inherently positive qualities in people, and encourages them to flourish by reaching a state of flow, for a common order to thrive.
The most important difference in the theories of Machiavelli and Csikszentmihalyi is the process a leader chooses to deal with subordinates. Machiavelli famously stated
“So if a leader does what it takes to win power and keep it, his methods will always be reckoned honorable and widely praised”
a consequentialist quote which indicates that the ends justify the means. Extreme behavior, disregard of subjects, and actions along similar lines are all permissible if they contribute to the goal of securing power. This is fundamentally different from Csikszentmihalyi’s perspective of how intrinsic the process of facilitating flow in subordinates to keep them satisfied at work is in creating successful leadership. A leader should not do whatever is necessary to maintain power and order, rather maintain power and order it is a leader’s job to focus on the correct means to reach the end- to establish a flow friendly environment for subordinates to grow as individuals, improving their performance and organization. Machiavelli stresses the importance of the end result, whereas Csikszentmihalyi states that leadership must embrace that before the profit, product, the end result, leaders are primarily responsible for the emotional well-being of their subordinates.
Both thinkers strive to demonstrate the importance of attaining this final goal of order and the common good. However, in The Prince Machiavelli stresses the importance of sacrificing individuality for the common good, whereas Csikszentmihalyi regards focus on the individuals (and their mental state) as an integral part of achieving the common good.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong approach to leadership, there are merely different ones. In deciding what kind of approach to take, whether it be Machiavellian or flow based, one should take into account changes in time and environment that determine whether to follow in the footsteps of historical leaders or pave a new way in accordance with modern times. Machiavelli and Csikszentmihalyi provide the same end result of leadership, but the methods used to get there vary immensely.