One of the legacies of Machiavelli, as detailed in the last post, is the maligning of strategy itself as some kind of underhanded, deceitful enterprise. This need not be so. Speaking for myself, it is absolutely not how I choose to do business.

I believe that the core of benevolent strategy is seeking to deliver value to your stakeholders. If you are speaking of personal branding rather than corporate branding, your stakeholders are the people with a stake in what you are doing. For me, these are my customers/ clients, my readers, my family, my community, my society, and those who shall come after my time.

How do I seek to deliver such value? This, too, is a matter of strategy.

1. Honesty with myself; honesty with others. By being honest with myself, constantly updating my expectations based on new information, I gird myself for failures and setbacks without sabotaging myself. By honestly appraising opportunities for success and learning from both my mistakes and those of others, I adapt to circumstances and maximize my potential for success.

By being honest with others, I encourage them to trust me; for I have shown that I trust them by telling them the truth as I know it to be. I do not need to tell all of it – some truths are rude and unwelcome, or may be mistaken as a matter of mistaken opinion and therefore end up being both rude and useless – but I do wish to be known as someone who speaks honestly and in line with my true beliefs. I avoid all lying, and strenuously dismantle those deceptions spoken and written by others, as what is of value to me, and my stakeholders, is the truth.

2. Promise the possible, and deliver on it. When I charge someone for a service, I have confidence I can deliver. When I have doubts about my ability to accomplish something, I say so. When I experiment and determine that something that I was not certain of in times past is now possible, I tell people honestly and firmly that I am able to deliver under the expected circumstances.

Unfortunate situations can happen to everyone, but a reputation for honest dealing and reliability is deeply important to building trust. It is also important in establishing skill and quality. After all, if I am merely incompetent, and in ignorance of my incompetence, I am not lying to another when I say I can deliver on a service that I cannot; I am simply wrong. I do not allow myself to make such presumptions. I either know for certain I can deliver on something, or I ensure, in a method that costs others nothing, that it can be done. When I am satisfied in my own mind, I say so.

And most importantly, when I can deliver on something, and I say I will, I do.

3. Always keep the benefit to the other party in mind. It is said: the only good business deal is one in which both sides benefit. Clearly, the strategist cannot be all things to all people; however, when he is on the clock and working for a particular client or party, that stakeholder takes priority. In such a circumstance, the benefit to me is secondary; the benefit to the person or persons I am working for comes foremost.

If I have a judgment call to make, I make the judgment that maximizes benefit and minimizes harm. The real world provides many opportunities to do invisible damage to a client. Corners cut affect outcomes later. Sometimes, it is something seemingly small.

I recall a translator who once expressed amazement that a client wanted a full refund from him for a translation of a patent application. Japanese patent numbers are in kanji, not numerals; the translator had mistranslated the patent application number. The end customer completely rejected the result and berated the translator’s client, a translation agency, and refused to do any further business with it, taking its business elsewhere.

To the translator, the error had involved a few symbols, a number and quantity thereof representing not even one dollar of what he was paid for. To the end customer, this error invalidated the benefit of the entire remainder of the document. To the direct client, this error represented lost current and future business. The translator offered a 10% discount, which was refused, and, in line with what he was told (but did not at first believe), he lost business from this agency for several years. He simply did not appreciate that what was, to him, a minor error, was catastrophic to his client, not because of its size, but because of its location. The client’s needs were placed last; the result, which apparently did not bother this translator much, was quite predictable. I still shake my head in disbelief when I think of reading this story.

4. Separate what is important from what is not, and practice triage. Like a doctor, the most urgent business must be taken care of first, if at all possible; for what is not possible must be pushed aside regardless. However, what is useful and what is useless can only be truly understood when one understands the way of the world. This can only be achieved by knowledge acquired from the way the world really works, not the way we wish that it did.

By focusing on the critical, we can do the most good and the least evil to others while accomplishing our goals and theirs.

5. Always be generous. To be generous does not mean being soft; rather, it means being willing to invest a little trouble for a greater benefit later. For does not the strategist focus not only on the visible, but on the invisible? All see the tactics, but none see the strategy by which success is possible, to loosely paraphrase a Sun Tzu passage. Strategy is ultimately a plan implemented through investing time and effort for the greater good. Generosity is the entire nature of strategy.

Without generosity, others rightly feel that they are being cheated of your time and effort. Generosity makes others invested in your work. Because you are generous, they are generous to you, providing knowledge in the form of tips and tricks. Sometimes, nothing more than being a good listener is required; others, speaking to people who enjoy being spoken to. Enough people respond well to generosity with a fundamental sense of fairness and reciprocity that such time is not wasted; it is invested.

6. Courtesy. To be courteous is not a matter of formalities; it is a matter of consideration. In the end, nothing more is required. The courteous person finds the proper level of formality, treats the other party with respect, and never asks for anything in return for courtesy, for it is not what we expect of others; it is what we demand of ourselves.

7. Always seek improvement of the self. For how can we provide value to others if we are prisoners of our own limitations? Many times, a strategy fails not for want of logic, but for the faults of the person attempting to execute the strategy. Our ability to change others is far more limited than our ability to improve and expand our own capabilities. By training and expanding the self, more things become possible, not only for us, but for those who rely on us.

Conclusion. Some settle for faking sincerity. I find the entire concept to be far too much work. I prefer to actually be a benevolent and sincere person. That way, I can concentrate on helping people by providing value to them. It’s more efficient that way. And more satisfying.

In the end, one can only be true to others by being true to the self. That is a strategy for living.