8 Characteristics of a Machiavellian Leader


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 couple 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 suck 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. Duplicity

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. Cunning

This leader is crafty. They’re an artist and their finished masterpiece is the result of the crafty use of wiliness and trickery.

3. Narcissism

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. The ends justify the means.


5. It’s all part of the game.

The workplace, their career, 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. 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.

7. They’d love to be loved, but not at the expense of not being feared…er…”respected.”

You’ve seen The Godfather, right?

8. They 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?



  1. Thad says:

    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.

  2. Greg Marcus says:

    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.

  3. Alex says:

    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).

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