Machiavelli and the Start-Up: Is It Better to Be Feared or To Be Loved?

In his famous realpolitik masterwork, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli stated that it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved. But does that mean that, to get ahead in a competitive start-up environment, one needs to be feared to succeed?

Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group and TechStars, doesn’t think that it’s necessary for a CEO to be a jerk to succeed. “Some of the sweetest people in the world are super successful CEOs,” he said. Yet, the CEO and senior executives set the tone of a start-up workplace, and it is key to their success to create a motivation-rich environment in which team members feel they can succeed. “The idea that a CEO can motivate people is a fallacy,” Feld said. “All you can do is create an environment where people are motivated or not.”  Bad hires that do not mesh well with the rest of the team, metrics-heavy performance reviews and poor team time management can all contribute to a lack of motivation, noted Feld.

Yet, there are notable exceptions to that rule. While online gaming giant Zynga has drawn fire due to the work style of its hard-charging CEO, Mark Pincus and Zynga’s hard take on performance metrics as compensation drivers, it has also reaped enormous benefits for its employees from its IPO, even if that IPO fell short of analysts’ initial expectations.  The same can be said of Steve Jobs at the helm of Apple, where he was notoriously work-driven and exacting in his management approach. Apple’s success has been attributed in significant part due to his unfailingly perfectionist attitude.

Is there a good model? According to Feld, to be successful, a company needs a collaborative, culturally coherent team in which team members communicate openly, build the “language of the company” and tie the team’s definition of success to the company’s/product’s success. As long as there is cultural coherence, perhaps there is room for different management styles.

This post was authored by Caitlin Vaughn.

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