Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke after last month’s state dinner hosted in his honor by President and Mrs. Obama at the White House, Abe confessed that he liked to watch the American television drama, “House of Cards.” While the plot is exaggerated, “House of Cards” is an exciting dramatization of an age-old problem — leadership and power.

Leadership involves the use of power and, as British Lord Acton famously warned in the 19th century, power corrupts. And yet, without power, leaders cannot lead.

Harvard psychologist David C. McClelland once distinguished three motivational groups of people: those who care most about doing something better have a “need for achievement”; those who think most about friendly relations with others have a “need for affiliation”; and those who care most about having an impact on others show a “need for power.” The third group turned out to be the most effective leaders, but that brings us back to Lord Acton’s warning.

Power is not good or bad, per se. Like calories in a diet, too little means emaciation, but too much produces obesity. Ethics and institutions are essential in getting the balance right, and ethics are in short supply in “House of Cards.”

The 15th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli also addressed the importance of ethics for leaders, but primarily in terms of the impression that apparent virtue made upon followers. The appearance of virtue is an important source of a leader’s soft power — the ability to get what one wants by attraction rather than coercion or payment. Of the virtues that a prince should have, Machiavelli wrote that, “it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, while the appearance of having them is useful.” Machiavelli also stressed the importance of the hard power of coercion and payment when a leader faces a trade-off with soft power, “since being loved depends upon his subjects, while his being feared depends upon himself.” Machiavelli believed that when one has to choose, it is better to be feared than to be loved, but he also understood that fear and love are not opposites. The opposite of love is hatred, and that is particularly dangerous for leaders.

The anarchic world of Italian Renaissance city-states was more violent and dangerous than 21st century democracies like the U.S. or Japan. Nonetheless, elements of Machiavelli’s advice remain relevant to modern democratic leaders. In addition to the courage of the lion, Machiavelli recommended the strategic deceptiveness of the fox. Idealism without realism rarely reshapes the world, but as we judge our modern democratic leaders we should keep both Machiavelli and Lord Acton in mind. That is the timeless drama in “House of Cards.”

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of “The Powers to Lead” any many other books on leadership.


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