(Note: This is an extended version of a section we cut from an early draft of this week's cover story on Southeast Louisiana Hospital.)
I found the choice of a quote from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince a little strange given the context. Dr. Frank Opelka, head of the LSU Health Care Services Division, was presenting a plan to cut $152 million from seven LSU hospitals to the LSU Board of Supervisors. This is a setting that, one would think, demands extreme trust and sensitivity.
And yet, he decided to include in his accompanying PowerPoint a quote from The Prince.
Here's Opelka's quote:
"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things"
(More after the jump)
And here is the full quote:
Those who by valorous ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease. The difficulties they have in acquiring it arise in part from the new rules and methods which they are forced to introduce to establish their government and its security. And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.
This quote comes from chapter VI, “Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired By One's Own Arms And Ability.”
Opelka is clearly the "Prince," the innovator in this scenario.
Applied to the board, it’s either an insult — board members as "lukewarm defenders" who believe that by siding with Opelka they stand to gain — or flattery so transparent it's insulting — the board as "Princes" themselves.
Applied to Opelka’s critics ("Men"), well, they should be smart enough to recognize their betters, especially when their betters have already won and don't even need their acquiescence anyway. Because here's the next paragraph:
It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.
Then again, Opelka's quote minus the context is quite popular, especially in executive PowerPoints — an official Forbes.com “Thoughts on the Business of Life” thought — so it’s probably not particularly useful to read too much into it.