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Can advice make you wise?

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It's easy to persuade people that things are getting better or worse, but our belief isn't conceptual – it's tangible, writes Peter Ellen.

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April 1, 2013 11:43 by



Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a very misunderstood man. He was an adviser to many highly placed Italian princes at a time when Italy was a divided country; ruled by bellicose leaders, all of whom wanted to keep what they had and have a share of their neighbours’ valuables.

He left us with a wealth of good advice that has come to be thought of as underhand or manipulative – hence the terms “Machiavellian” and “Old Nick” (as a reference to the devil). Some of this arises from his assertion that “men are wretched creatures, so you do not need to keep your word to them… A prince should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but should know how to do evil, if that is necessary. He should be a fox in order to avoid traps and a lion in order to frighten off wolves. Those who simply act like a lion are stupid.”

I don’t think his advice as underhanded, and would commend him to you as someone who has provided some very senior leaders (today’s CEOs) with some very sound guidance that has stood the test of time and can help you when thinking about your own life and business strategy.

I think his most famous book is The Prince, and there are several quotations that spring to mind, but I am going to focus on just two.

“A prince who is not himself wise cannot be well-advised. Good advice, whomever it comes from, depends on the shrewdness of the prince who seeks it, and not the shrewdness of the prince on good advice…. When trouble is sensed well in advance it can be easily be remedied; if you wait for it to show itself, any medicine will be too late because the disease will have become incurable… political disorders can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance (and only a prudent ruler has such foresight). When for lack of a diagnosis they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.”

What Machiavelli is saying is that you can’t make a foolish person wise by the provision of good advice. It’s only a shrewd person who can see the value in any advice. Not only that, but that a leader must be able to foresee problems before they arise – any fool can see them once they have arisen. By which time, of course, they may not be solved so easily.

This is not just relevant to our leaders – we, too, have to accept its common sense. Every magazine and newspaper, every TV channel, every financial website and e-newsletter seems to contain financial advice – we are bombarded by financial information, with experts making predictions about the likely direction of this and that.

If we pay attention to all this ‘advice’ we will certainly lose money – it would be like backing all the horses in one race – you can guarantee to back the winner, but also the losers. We have to make up our own mind about what is sensible and then take advice about the details. Don’t let other people decide your direction.

“The populace is by nature fickle – it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to confirm them in that persuasion. Therefore one must urgently arrange matters so that when they no longer believe they can be made to believe.”

We see this ourselves – confidence is contagious and so is pessimism. It’s easy to persuade us that things are getting better or worse, but our belief is not conceptual – it’s tangible. To be sustainable, belief has to be supported by personal and direct experience. In the final reckoning, we believe what’s in our wallet; how our share portfolio has performed; whether we have been made redundant; how difficult it is for us to buy a property at a reasonable price.

Machiavelli’s book is full of good advice, and I recommend you read it. We all need advice, especially in areas that are important to us, but in which we lack sufficient expertise to make sound decisions – however, we cannot delegate the primary responsibilities of our life to someone else – we have to be accountable for these decisions and fill in the details with advice.

There cannot be anything more important to us than our own lives and those of our families; they depend on our effectiveness, our success and our ability to earn. Safeguarding our families against the immediate risks of illness and death and the longer-term risks of an insufficiently funded retirement require personal wisdom and technical advice – speak to a financial adviser to ensure your future is as secure as it possibly can be.

 

Peter Ellen is Operations Director at Nexus Insurance Brokers www.nexusadvice.com and has extensive experience in the area of sales management and leadership, sales and sales management development and operations management. He has worked in the industry for 28 years in senior management positions and as a consultant, working with regulators, product providers and distributors. To contact Peter for any insurance and investment advice please email him at [email protected]



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