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Published: October 16, 2002

 
 

Best Business Books 2002: Management's Renaissance Man

But trust also required the careful allocation of responsibilities “…so that we shall all understand each other, and each man shall have his own task; and one man shall not say, ‘The other has done this to me,’ and the other cry, ‘He lies!’ For I shall keep so close to these matters, that I shall at last see the truth.” The secret to trust, Datini implies, is delegation with carefully defined responsibilities, together with the instinct to know when to dive into the details, because trust can seldom be absolute, or indefinite. His partnership arrangements, for instance, usually lasted for only two or three years, after which they needed to be renegotiated.

Where trust was given, however, loyalty was required in return. When Datini took on the son of his friend Ser Lapo Mazzei as a young recruit, he wrote to him, “Do your duty well, and you will acquire honor and profit, and you can count on me as if I were your own father. But if you do not, then do not count on me; it will be as if I had never known you.” And high standards were expected. Datini wrote: “In May it will be two years since I slept at ease for more than four hours a night. Take this example. And if you wish to reply, ‘You are old and cannot sleep, and we are young and could sleep even on bare boards,’ I will say that I, too, would take pleasure in lying warm abed.”

These are things that in a modern organization we might say in a conversation. Written in letters in a time when letters were rare, they may have had more impact. Then again, since there was no easy way of sending copies around the organization, every letter had to be a personal one. That breeds trust, even when the letter contains a rebuke.

A businessman, Datini believed, needed money, experience, and sense if he was to be successful. By money, he meant that it was preferable to do business with one’s own capital: “For what is done with other men’s money comes to cost too dear to produce profitable trade.” Experience meant the detailed knowledge of the products one was dealing in, so that no one could deceive you, and by sense he meant the ability to distinguish between what is important and what is ultimately trivial, as well as a constant awareness of the downside of events and relationships, or, indeed, of trusting some people too much. “The greater part of mankind,” he reminded one of his managers, “is evilly disposed; the earth and sea are full of robbers.”

Sometimes it is hard to see how today’s management textbooks can improve on the hard-earned wisdom of this 14th-century millionaire.

A Mirror of Our Times
Francesco Datini was a workaholic like many modern managers, obsessed by the desire to grow his business and to accumulate wealth, even when he clearly had more than enough. His ledgers were headed “In the name of God and profit,” but until the very end of his life it was profit more than God that occupied his mind. He had a long-suffering wife whom he sadly neglected. One of her letters sounds horribly contemporary: “I think it is not necessary,” she writes, “to send me a message every Wednesday to say that you will be here on Sunday, for it seems to me that on every Friday you change your mind.”

But he was fortunate — he had a best friend and mentor who was also his lawyer and who did his best to keep him focused on what really mattered in life: “In God’s name,” writes Ser Lapo Mazzei, “and for the sake of both body and soul, control yourself a little and go with the world as it goes. Do not kill yourself because the wheel turns sometimes this way and sometimes that, as it always has and always will.”

 
 
 
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