The Just Prince and the Dark Triad

By Greg Nathan posted July 14, 2022

It has been said that leaders are readers. Reading books certainly has shaped my thinking in positive ways, and it’s a habit I continue to practice. While my wife would prefer my bedside table to be clear like hers, I have always cultivated a stack of reading materials that I regularly dip into before sleep. These include Phantom comics, and books on business, psychology and philosophy.

One book I have particularly enjoyed rereading is The Just Prince, a thought-provoking tome I stumbled across while visiting South East Asia several years ago. This amazing book is a kind of combination of the Arabian One Thousand and One Nights, and Sun Tsu’s Art of War, and is based on an 800-year-old handbook on leadership called the Sulwan al-Muta’ Fi’ Udwan al-Atba, written by a Sicilian Islamic scholar, Ibn Zafar. It is a fascinating mixture of fables featuring all types of animals, stories within stories within stories, and deep philosophical advice.

In the Sulwan, Zafar recommends that people in positions of significant power should pay attention to five core values, which he argues are fundamental to just leadership and a stable social order. These are:

Faith and accountability to a higher power, which includes a commitment to justice, and an attitude of gratitude and humility for the gift of life.

Fortitude and courage to endure suffering and hardships, determination to keep going in the face of adversity, and not give in to despondency.

Patience to know when to act and when to wait, to listen to good advice, make friends with time, and not make hasty decisions driven by emotion.

Contentment with one’s possessions and accomplishments, and to not be seduced by unbridled ambition and the desire for more power and wealth beyond what is reasonable.

Self-discipline, and being prepared to let go of wealth and power when it’s time to move onto a more reflective stage of life.

The Just Prince is in stark contrast to a book of a similar title, The Prince, written by Italian political adviser, Machiavelli, 350 years later in the 16th century. This is, in my opinion, a horrible book that advises political leaders to divorce themselves from ethics and use manipulation, fear and coercion to gain and hold onto power. Unfortunately, I suspect it is still used as a guide by many political leaders today, which may explain why our political landscape is in such despair.

The Dark Triad of Leadership

You may have heard of a psychological disorder called Machiavellianism (named after Machiavelli) which describes a person who is unscrupulous, deceitful, cynical and power-hungry. This question from a Machiavellian personality scale gives you a sense of what we’re measuring here. “The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is criminals are stupid enough to get caught.”

Machiavellianism is part of what psychologists call The Dark Triad of Leadership, which also includes narcissism and psychopathy, characterised by excessive arrogance, self-centredness, callousness and a lack of empathy. Leaders who demonstrate these traits in business or politics often start on a high by taking in others with their charm and false promises. But their reign soon descends into conflict and chaos, with them eventually being ousted, usually under unpleasant and dramatic circumstances. (One doesn't need to look very hard to see this is playing out in various parts of the world.)

While this is unfortunately too often the case in the world of politics, we can hopefully do better in how we lead our businesses.

Speaking of becoming a better business leader, I’ll leave you with some insights from another book I’ve been dipping into, simply called Principles by Ray Dalio, who founded Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund. This book is beautifully laid out and filled with the principles that Dalio has tried, tested and honed. I love the way he describes his book: “It’s about how to deal with not knowing anything and how to find out what’s true and what to do about it”, he says.

One of Dalio’s most heartfelt principles is that pain plus reflection leads to progress, and that one of the most important values in life is perseverance and determination. I think if Ibn Zafar were alive today, he would agree with that.

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