Having now read this book three times I sort of wonder how Machiavelli's name came to represent a sort of politics that involved deceit, manipulation, and backstabbing, because for those who claim that this is what the Prince is about have probably read the wrong book, or probably not read the book at all. Somebody even suggested that The Prince was satire because they could not imagine that anybody would suggest such actions to anybody, especially if that person was seeking to live a virtuous life. To the person who claims that The Prince is satire my response is that Machiavelli is deadly serious. He was not laughing when he wrote this book, and his audience were not laughing when they were reading it. As for the person who claims that the book is about scheming and manipulation, I respond by asking them to show me where it says that because after the third time I struggle to actually find anything of the sort. Further, in response to them, I will also suggest that if you are a ruler then you ignore Machiavelli's advice at your own peril.
Before I go further to expound upon what Machiavelli is advising in this book we must first look at the context in which it was written. I say this because if we apply Machiavelli's principles to the modern day you will probably find yourself in The Hague being charged with war crimes. To be blunt, we simply cannot apply Machiavelli's advice as written to the modern world, in the same way that we cannot act in the way Joshua (of the Bible fame) acted when the Israelites invaded the promised land.
Now, Machiavelli was writing to a Florentine Prince in 14th Century Italy (which puts us right in the middle of the Renaissance). Now, today we live in a world with instantaneous communication where there are a handful of powers that dominate world affairs, and is governed by a basic parliamentary style institution (which we call the United Nations). However, that did not exist in Machiavelli's time. These days there are effectively four superpowers (Russia, China, Europe, and the United States) and practically every other country will throw their allegiance behind one of them (usually for protection against the others). Any alliances that exist between the superpowers are tenuous at best (though Europe and the United States do have a reasonably strong relationship, though it does not mean that Europe will always vote in accordance with the US's wishes).
However Renaissance Italy was much different. While the church still had power, it was in decline. Gone were the days of Pope Innocent III where kings would fear excommunication for even thinking in opposition to the Pope, and gone were the days when the Pope sat securely on his throne in Rome, however the church still held sway over Western Europe. Still, it did not come down to the church having control, but which noble family had control over the church (one could easily swing the church over to your side by installing your man in as pope, as the Medici's, among others, had managed to do on occasion). There were some large kingdoms, such as France and Spain, that could influence control, but in many cases these kingdoms were not exactly powerful, and one could protect oneself by playing them off against each other. There was also Venice, which was a very powerful maritime power, but when it came to domination over the land, it was quite weak. Venice's navy was powerless against landlocked principalities such as Florence and Milan. Northern Italy (as well as Germany) were not unified nation-states, but a collection of city states and principalities that would forever be at each other's throat, and while there was a titular 'Holy Roman Empire' he was effectively powerless. In fact he did not even have his own army, but had to rely upon the generosity of his allies to attempt to exert control, and as Phillip of Spain discovered when he was elected emperor: ruling Spain and ruling the Holy Roman Empire involved a completely different skill set.
Now that we have an idea of the political situation of the time, let us now consider what Machiavelli is actually saying. The theme that runs through the book is how to be an effective prince and how to survive: to do that you need to be respected (loved and feared) and not hated. Machiavelli is very clear on this point because if you are hated then you are not long for this world. Remember, Renaissance Italy is like 'The Game of Thrones' on steroids, and as it is said in The Game of Thrones, 'when you play the game of thrones you either win or you die'. That, my friend, is 14th century Italy.
Now, it is clear from the first couple of pages of this essay (because that is what it is) that Machiavelli means what he says. First he says that there are two forms of government, the principality, which is the rule by a human, and there is the republic, which is the rule by a constitution. He points to another book he has written, The Discourses, which deals with the republic, so he skips over that system of government and focuses on the idea of rule by a human. The main difference is that where the state is ruled by a human, the human can effectively do what they want. The only restraint on their power is the potential that they are removed from their position, usually by force. They cannot forfeit their role simply by breaking the law because they are the law. One of the things that he warns against is living in excess, namely because that generates hatred among the subjects, and when that happens all they need to do is to either rebel and thus overthrow you, or petition one of your enemies to come and remove you.
Machiavelli also makes extensive use of examples of other princes, both modern (in his time that is) and ancient. Now, all of the ancient sources that Machiavelli had we also have so we can easily check his references, however with a number of the modern examples we only have him to rely upon. However you can be assured that his readers would have been well aware of the political situation at the time. Simply put, he could not make them up. In any case it is very clear that he is not writing to an idiot, but to an intelligent person that would be quite well aware of what he is talking about. Further, he also appeals to common sense, but uses examples to prove why that course of action is wise. For example, he talks about using auxiliary troops (that is borrowing an army from another prince) and why such a course of action is foolish. The reason being is that if you lose you are going to have another prince that is somewhat upset with you because you have weakened his position. However, if you win, then you have a neighbouring territory that is occupied by a foreign army that is more than likely not going to leave. As such this situation is a lose lose situation.
Now, can we apply his principles to today and my response is that we can. One of the managers at my former work would give new team leaders a copy of The Art of War explaining that the principles that Sun Tzu uses to fight wars can also be used to manage a team, or even a department. I would suggest that the same applies to 'Il Principe'. Yet we simply cannot take the book as is and apply it literally simply because, as mentioned above, we will get into trouble (and we simply cannot invade and conquer our neighbour's team). However the principles of respect and hatred apply. As a manager we need to inspire respect within those we are managing, we cannot demand respect because that garners hatred, and by garnering hatred, we undermine our position. However we need to garner respect, and if that means making an example of a disruptive and rebellious team member, then so be it. In fact, that is expected, because once again if we don't make an example of a rebellious team member we end up undermining our own position.
In my time I have seen team leaders as leaders who have earned the respect of their team, and advanced. I have also seen team leaders act as bosses which results in them being removed or demoted. I have also seen team leaders play their team members up against each other, and while they survived for a time, their position was eventually undermined. Indeed Machiavelli does say that there are times when playing factions off against each other will strengthen your position, however it will not work all the time. In fact, while it may strengthen your position when you are at peace, it undermines your position when you are at war. Then there is fairness and justice (another theme that runs through this book) because by doing so may result in a perception of injustice, and indeed a team that fights amongst itself and stabs each other for their own personal gain (and to garner favouritism with the leader) may work in the short term but will ultimately fail. A team where each of the members respects and supports each other is an effective team (and I have seen that happen where a team goes from being at the bottom to being at the top) while a team that is at each other's throats will eventually find themselves collapsing in on their own disunity.