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Wishing won’t make it so

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

The year was 1504 and Pisa remained independent from the powerful city-state of Florence. The Pisans gave no hint of wanting to return, even after Florence captured a fortress there. Emboldened, the Florentines planned to assault the city until some Pisans taken prisoner warned that a fighting force of nearly 3,000 waited for them.

Florence turned to an ingenious new plan. The city council voted to start a massive engineering project designed by artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci. His plan would divert the Arno River and leave Pisa parched. The scheme also would make the Arno more navigable and curb floods.

Da Vinci made an elaborate study, calculating how much labor it would take to dig a canal 12 miles long and 30 feet deep. He figured out how many days it would take to move 1 million tons of earth using digging machines he invented. The city hired an engineer to carry out da Vinci’s plan while he (no kidding) went off to paint the “Mona Lisa.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, who was handling the administrative side, quickly bogged down in design flaws and the wildly optimistic timetable. Within a month, he began criticizing the foreman’s leadership abilities and engineering skills. Machiavelli worried whether the design would work—the canal seemed to sit too high—and, in fact, the river wasn’t running into the canal except at high tide, and then sloshing back into the Arno.

At first, the engineer offered excuses. Next, he despaired. Workers’ morale plummeted.

A week or two later, a storm collapsed the canal walls, prompting the Florentines to flee and the victorious Pisans to come out and fill in the ditch. Florence’s escapade had cost 80 workers’ lives and a boatload of money.

“How great a distance there is,” observed the historian Francesco Guicciardini, “between planning things and putting them in operation.”

So many lessons here, but the bottom line is this: Base your decisions on facts, not hubris.

—Adapted from Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, Ross King, Atlas Books.

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