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Machiavelli to Macbeth

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“When taking a state, a conqueror must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once,” writes 16th century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, “but benefits should be granted little by little so that they may be better enjoyed by the people.” The psychology of the average American investor looks a lot like the psychology of the average citizen of Renaissance Italy: Simply put, it is easier to endure terrible and perhaps even cruel losses in your portfolio all at once, even with some pain and drama, and then return to the stability of modest and gradual gain than it is to endure the consistent and unremitting poor performance of your investments. Your world literature class in college may not have counted toward your business degree, but after years of practice, you may be inclined to revisit what great literature was trying to tell you about persuasion, leadership and human behavior.

Four hundred action-packed years have passed since Machiavelli’s uncanny observations about the ways of power, and the world feels, smells and looks very different in 2007 than it did in 1607 — but human nature and the fundamentals of human behavior follow the same familiar patterns. Everywhere you look in any medium you choose you will find someone with expert advice on how to grow your business or develop winning investment strategies for your clients. Consider an additional resource: Great literature is great because it observes human nature and human culture in timeless ways that simply ring true for us. For the same reason, we can re-read our favorite classic novel or play and customize the application of its life lessons to our business philosophy and practice management.

For example, Nigerian poet and novelist Chinua Achebe writes in his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), that “it is because men have learned to shoot so well that birds have learned how not to perch.” And so a 21st-century marketing lesson can be found in an African proverb. Retiring baby boomers are savvy consumers of investment advice, and even if your methods for cultivating new client relationships are systematic, either your message or your branding needs to be fresh if you are going to stand out from the crowd. A clever proverb originating out of Ghana can counsel you to be emotionally prepared for missteps in your marketing efforts: “He who fetches the water most often is most likely to break the pot.” When our marketing risks and investments fail to produce the hoped-for results and we feel discouraged and disappointed, we can still feel good that we were out there trying something new.

Just in case something new isn’t working for you, you might try something not so new. Remember Shakespeare’s great political play, Julius Caesar (1599), about the ultimate hostile takeover? Mark Antony speaks before the angry Roman funeral crowd with the famous beginning: “Friends, Romans, countrymen. Lend me your ears.” In a speech usually regarded as a masterpiece of persuasive oratory, Antony demonstrates how public modesty and plain speaking is really fancy footwork:

I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts, /I am no orator, as Brutus is,/But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man…For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,/Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech/To stir men’s blood; I only speak right on. (3.2,217-24)

If all marketing is in reality a form of theater the aim of which is to communicate and persuade the audience to take action, you can take a lesson from Mark Antony when you are trying to connect with and win the business of a prospective client by speaking plainly and frankly rather than attempting to outsmart them with a stunning and overly crafted self-presentation or image. Mature investors can feel your authenticity (or lack thereof) and this is what forms the basis of trust. As British empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) observed, the purpose of “Rhetoric, or the art of eloquence … is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.” Clients will respond to your eloquent articulation of your investment philosophy because your knowledge of how to help them meet their investment goals — combined with the imagination you demonstrate in the way you treat them — forms a solid and reasonable basis upon which to build a new advisory relationship.

The advisor-client relationship might also be viewed the way the famous little Prince in Antoine de Saint Exupery’s novel of the same name, The Little Prince (1943), came to view a small fox he meets on his inter-galactic journey of self-discovery:

‘I cannot play with you,’ the fox said, ‘I am not tamed.’ ‘What does that mean — ‘tame’? ‘It is an act too often neglected,’ said the fox. It means to establish ties.’ ‘To establish ties?’ asked the Little Prince. ‘I have no need of you,’ said the fox, ‘and you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.’”

Experienced and fulfilled advisors will tell you over and over again that building relationships is the key to business success. You are paid by your clients not only through commissions and fees but by the thankfulness they express when you help them focus financially on their future.

On the other hand, modern literature is full of examples of characters whose major flaw is the failure to cultivate a way to balance their maverick tendencies and gifts with the pragmatic necessity of corporate compliance. You might remember the irrepressible Randle Patrick McMurphy of Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). McMurphy brings his iconoclastic energies into an Oregon mental institution and, for a time, he succeeds in altering its stifling culture, emotionally liberating the other men incarcerated therein. Inflated with an infectious entrepreneurial spirit, McMurphy refuses to accept the reality of management: Big Nurse Ratched represents the institution, and she has all the power. Lobotomy is McMurphy’s consequence for avoiding the realities of compliance.

The Bard as Business CoachIf Shakespeare were your performance coach and you’re a female FA taking your practice to the next level, possibly thinking of going independent, you have a unique set of tools in your bag of tricks. When a woman wants to accomplish something in a domain traditionally dominated by men, she can always consider the Shakespearean solution: Disguise yourself as a man — metaphorically, of course. Viola did it in Twelfth Night, and in The Merchant of Venice Portia appropriates the costume of a male attorney so that she can approach the bar where she freely and successfully articulates her legal argument. Without actually cross-dressing, in order to compete in the advisory marketplace many dynamic women have adopted numerous aspects of the professional persona of their successful male colleagues. If men can mimic other men, modeling their businesses and creating distinctive branding identities, women can do the same, as Rosalind in As You Like It wisely observes:

Were it not better,/Because that I am more than common tall/That I did suit me all points like a man?/A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,/A boar-spear in my hand, and — in my heart/Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will–/We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,/As many other mannish cowards have/That do outface it with their semblances. (1.3.114-122)

If like Rosalind you are “more than common tall,” that is to say, inclined toward a profession not traditionally held by women — electrical engineer, architect, chess master, financial advisor — don’t hesitate to let your masculine side govern your professional comportment even if it means setting aside or leaving at home some of your feminine characteristics.

Another approach can be found in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Cleopatra habitually exploits her sex appeal and feminine beauty to achieve leadership goals. Her personal power is unapologetically feminine.

And then there’s the power couple. Many successful FA partnerships and independent shops are centered on marital teams; there is something exciting about a couple with power and it can also be a fantastic business asset under the right conditions. Taking our literary lessons to heart, it is probably not necessary to note that, under the wrong conditions, like those in the Macbeth family, the results could be tragic.

R. Gina Renee is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.


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