The Practice of Pragmatism

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On the surface, juxtaposing the tenants advocated by Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Jim Collins’ best-seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, seems to create a laundry list of stark differences.  For example, as Collins advocates an ideology of patience and humility, Machiavelli encourages his audience to be tenacious and, at times, outright duplicitous. However, a closer examination of these two texts reveals that these two businessmen possess ideological similarities that serve as the foundation for their beliefs. Specifically, the pragmatism both authors promote throughout their respective texts is a value that I believe is often neglected and invaluable in the pursuit of success in the corporate world. 

Although both authors assert that pragmatism is a foundational principle in any successful enterprise, it is important to understand the contextual differences that make their ideologies distinct. The Prince, written during the middle of the Italian Renaissance, served as Machiavelli’s effort to gain favor with and placate the powerful Medici family. His study of antiquity and past empires was meant to function as an investigative study to form a blueprint of what allows kings to preserve political power. He is not interested or impressed by individuals who feel bound by the morality of their career choice actions.  Jim Collins (2001), conversely, is committed to the idea that the ideal leader is analogous to “Lincoln and Socrates [rather] than Patton or Caesar" (p. 12). While maintaining virtues like patience and humility are paramount to Collins’ value system, Machiavelli’s mind is devoid of idle platitudes concerning human morality or goodness, which is why The Prince has remained such a diabolical and enigmatic work in the Judeo-Christian West. Good to Great, on the other hand, commits itself to a moral paradigm that Machiavelli would dismiss as myopic or limiting, and it is this difference that defines the variant forms of pragmatism that both authors preach. 

Machiavelli and Marriott’s (2011) remorseless brand of pragmatism is encapsulated in the following statement, “the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation” (p. 62).  Machiavelli recognized the fallibility of human nature and consequently recognized that men in the pursuit of attaining and preserving power had to adhere to this principle. Similarly, Jim Collins (2001) suggests that great companies must maintain absolute faith in their ability to succeed but, at the same time, "confront the most brutal facts of current reality, whatever they might be" (p. 83). This sentiment underscores the idealism of Collins theory that is absent from Machiavelli’s writings; however, both statements show that each author is committed to the idea that persons and companies wishing to succeed cannot simply rely on good fortune or karma to instigate success. Furthermore, Collins and Machiavelli posit that success is forged within the synthesis of enduring and anticipating the vicissitudes of (human) nature. 

Although I recognize the import of Machiavelli’s perspective, I feel that my values and motivations are more congruent with Collins’. Collins preaches the importance of the collective over the individual, whereas Machiavelli treats others as a means to an end. I think that ascribing to and upholding a value system is fundamental to not only finding success in the corporate world but also maintaining any semblance of integrity. Moreover, given the demand for dynamic group cooperation and teamwork within the contemporary corporate world, it would seem shortsighted to treat individuals as tools like Machiavelli suggests. Most importantly, I could not subscribe to a value system that is so fluid and inconsistent; Collins’ resolve to consistently uphold a moral standard resonates with me and gives me confidence that behaving pragmatically and ethically will produce success in the corporate world.


Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. New York, NY: Harper Business.

Machiavelli, N., & Marriott, W. K. (2011). The prince. Shelbyville, KY: Simon & Brown.