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Blessed Are the Barracudas

Let presidential candidates prate about turning the other cheek. Author Stanley Bing says success in the real world is better pursued by way of a Machiavellian approach.

March 09, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We all face ethical dilemmas every day.

Should we close the elevator door in someone's face? Should we cut someone off in traffic? Should we, at the drop of a hat, stab a co-worker in the back to advance our own career?

For answers, some might ask themselves "WWJD?" The letters stand for "What Would Jesus Do?" The Christian slogan has been invoked lately by everyone from presidential hopefuls George W. Bush and Al Gore to the pop group 'N Sync. Believers are certain his actions would be guided by peace, love and understanding.

Cynical elements, however, contend that Jesus' moral take on matters may be fine for the afterlife but won't get you very far in this one. And if Christianity's Prince of Peace himself couldn't make it in today's corporate world, what chance do the rest of us stand?

Into the moral marketplace comes a new book by Stanley Bing called "What Would Machiavelli Do?" (HarperBusiness, $21). Bing's mantra for success is to follow the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance political philosopher and author of "The Prince." In his famous book, Machiavelli champions ruthlessness and cunning and advocates placing political goals ahead of moral principles.

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Bing was particularly taken with Machiavelli's call for ruthlessness. After all, the subtitle of his book is "The Ends Justify the Meanness."

"I started out in business as a relatively decent person," said Bing, a pseudonym for Gil Schwartz, 48, who is a senior vice president with CBS when he isn't writing. "As I get more successful, I'm becoming increasingly bizarre and unmanageable. If I work another 10 years, I'm certain I'll be insufferable."

No doubt some readers of the book may feel he's achieved that vaunted status already. Those unprepared to laugh at the excesses of corporate ladder climbers may be disappointed.

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But Bing has been satirizing the world of Wall Street since 1984, when he started writing a business humor column for Esquire magazine. In 1995, he moved to Fortune magazine. The pseudonym allows him to "observe and criticize the executive class while at the same time aspiring to its lifestyle," as a news release put it.

His book comprises 40 short chapters, which hold up the likes of Martha Stewart, Bill Gates, Michael Eisner and Donald Trump as Machiavellian role models. One chapter is titled, "He Would Be, for the Most Part, a Paranoid Freak." Another is titled, "He Would Kick [expletive] and Take Names."

Bing's hope is to free lowly workers from the chains of decency and thoughtfulness and replace those bonds with the wings of insensitivity and hardheartedness.

"Most people aren't naturally horrendous, we just aren't born that gifted," Bing said. "But with work we can improve."

Other pointers, observations and thoughts for success include sections on:

* Narcissism: "Until you learn to view other people solely as a function of your needs, you will be a short hitter. You have enormous selfishness within you. Let it out. Let it flower."

* Trusting others: "Sure, they've been your friends and supporters so far. That doesn't

mean you don't need to watch them very, very carefully."

* Rage: "You've got to stave off the nitwits who are determined to bring you down. You won't let them. You'll crush them, hear their bones break, their windpipes snap."

* Resentments: "Carry a grudge until the extinction of the cockroach."

* Unpredictability: "The key is being excessive on both ends. Very nice. Very mean. Big, big swings. Gigantic pleasure. Towering rage. Like being a kid again, isn't it?"

* Breakfast: "The most important meal for hurting other people. Bacon is your most effective tool. Get the other person to eat a lot of it. It's fatty and salty and delicious, and they will get slow and childish as they eat it, and start feeling self-indulgent and happy. You can find out a lot about them in this state."

* "WWMD" detractors: "Get over it, you sniveling tree hugger. That's the way things are. If you haven't got the stomach for true success, that's all right. Go be a folk singer or a graphic designer or a social worker. . . . The world has a need for people like you as well."

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Bing adds one important postscript, however. A true Machiavellian, while a loathsome personage, is nevertheless not a jerk. Meanness must be employed judiciously.

"It is possible to out-Machiavelli Machiavelli himself," Bing said. "While nice guys usually finish in the middle, ineffective mean [jerks] finish last."

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Martin Miller can be reached at martin.miller@latimes.com.

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