8 Characteristics of a Machiavellian Leader

machiavellian leadership

You might work for one. You might be one yourself. You might not typically operate this way, but every once in a while you find yourself slipping into what almost feels to you like an alter-ego.

When things are going well, it’s all photo-op smiles, hearty handshakes,

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Machiavellianism is “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or general conduct,” it of course getting its derivation from the Italian diplomat, writer and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. In modern psychological parlance, it refers to a duplicitous interpersonal style coupled with a pragmatic and narcissistic moral framework.

Some have incorrectly assumed that given their ability to manipulate the crap out of just about anybody, Machiavellian leaders have a relatively high level of intelligence. In fact, many Machiavellian leaders themselves believe this. Not only does research show this isn’t the case at all in regards to IQ, it also shows that folks with more Machiavellian tendencies seem to have lower levels of EQ (emotional intelligence) as well.

Short version of the above: These guys aren’t as smart as they think they are, and probably aren’t as smart as you think they are. Also, they may (read: probably do) stink at certain people skills.

Sounds like some managers or executives we all know and see every day, right? Maybe even in the mirror? Here are some of the tell-tale signs, in no particular order, that a leader might have a little more Machiavelli in him or her than he or she would like…

1. Machiavellian leaders are duplicitous. 

We can go straight Webster’s here. Duplicity is a contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action; especially, the belying of one’s true intentions by deceptive words or action. Sound familiar?

2. Machiavellian leaders are cunning.

These leaders are crafty. They’re artists and their finished masterpiece is the result of the crafty use of wiliness and trickery.

3. Machiavellian leaders are narcissistic.

They have excessive and exaggerated feelings of self-importance, though these feelings often masquerade as something more noble. Don’t be fooled. Self-interest is the most often and valid impetus of most conscious action for the narcissist.

4. Machiavellian leaders believe the ends justify the means.


5. Machiavellian leaders believe everything’s part of one big game they’re playing.

The workplace, their careers, all the way down to every interaction, is all part of the game for Machiavellian leaders. It’s all part of the master plan to either gain or maintain power or influence.

6. Machiavellian leaders excel in control and manipulation.

They know just the buttons to push and have no problems pushing them. You’re not doing what they want? Don’t worry. You will be soon, and you won’t even know how it happened. Or you will, and you’ll feel like a little bit of your soul died on the inside. Before long, you realize that your skills, abilities, and so on are really just there for…well…them.

[bctt tweet=”Control and manipulation are two tactics of Machiavellian #leadership. “]

7. Machiavellian leaders would love to be loved, but not at the expense of not being feared…er…”respected.”

You’ve seen The Godfather, right?

8. Machiavellian leaders don’t usually reveal the entire and/or real reason they’re doing something unless it’s somehow advantageous to them.

You always feel like you’re missing part of the picture. And you usually are.

Did I miss any? What would you add to the list? How many of those behaviors do you catch yourself doing?


19 thoughts on “8 Characteristics of a Machiavellian Leader

  • Love this post Matt. Let me ask you a question I think about a bit… do you think Machiavellian leaders are self aware enough to know they’re Machiavellian. BTW, Adam Grant’s Book, “Give and Take” touches on this topic in an interesting way. Great read.

  • Matt – great list. I am fascinated by personality characteristics. I think some people use Machiavellian tactics from time to time to help them get what they want.

    It is the people who do this all the time, for fun or because they lack EQ, who are really scary.

    In my book I call them Foxes, after the fox in the fable of the fox and the crow.

  • Excellent list of things to watch out for, Matt. I think a lot of times, these types of leaders think they’re simply being “strategic” without realizing how their actions negatively impact those around them (and in turn, their business).

  • the “dark triad” [pdf] of personality traits identified by psychologists as: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. “These traits are well-known for the bad behaviour that they can cause when dominant in people’s personalities,” explained the article. “At milder levels, however, they can actually foster skills that can help people rise through the ranks.”
    Of course, there’s a very fine line between demonstrating these skills for the purpose of career progression and becoming that covert workplace bully. And the latter is a serious problem. Recent research from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) released in Feb 2014 [PDF], shows 27% of all adult Americans have directly experienced “repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or work abuse.”
    Dr. Namie, Director of WBI and widely regarded as North America’s foremost authority on workplace bullying, tells us that bullies also usually exhibit this dark triad. In fact, he demonstrates that the sort of qualities that facilitate career progression are indelibly linked to workplace bullying. “Look at that package,” Dr. Namie tells us: “these are the people who are willing to meddle with others. They fill their days with political gamesmanship. And the other people, the targets, come to work to do their job.”

  • That is a great list. I believe the one characteristic left off is something I would call pitting. Makaveli type leaders off and put two people in charge of the same project or task, pitting them against one another leaving all the power in their own hands, and at the same time making sure failure is passed on to others but credit for success stays in their hands.

  • Definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder from Psychology Today.
    Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. Related Personality Disorders: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic. Narcissism is a less extreme version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissism involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, power motives, and vanity-a love of mirrors. Related personality traits include: Psychopathy, Machiavellianism.

    • I’m sure we’ve seen this in the workplace often! Bosses take the credit, get accolades, bonuses and raises at the expenses of those who made it happen. It’s utterly disgusting and abusive fostering animosity and low moral along the rank and file which undermines trust and respect!

      What’s worse is when a new, less knowledgeable employee is hired and prompted due to either the Peter or Dilbert Principles​!

  • Unpredictable by their design. They never want you to feel like you have them figured out or can anticipate what they will do next. The minute you feel comfortable they feel like they’ve lost control of you.

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