5 Machiavellian lessons for King-of-the-World

The self-serving leader. Low in morals, toxic, taking all down with them as they go. Well, Silvio Berlusconi is warming new fires today. That downward journey is a one person show.

💭😈 Such a wicked thought: naughty me. It brought Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to mind (written in 1532 CE). This blog is aimed at more fitting, self declared, “King-of-the-World” archetypes: Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Both now finding rule of law not to their taste. As to other judgement: a just world is but one belief. I believe that around five hundred years ago , Machiavelli had both of them pegged. [Perhaps he pegged we Europeans one and all. 1532 CE is also the year Henry VIII defied Rome. And the year Francisco Pizarro killed a living God and stole all of Inca’s gold]. Here are five Machiavellian lessons that circle back around.

#1 invite the conflict that reveals the better way

This Machiavellian reading begins with a tell-tale sign that the wrong people are in the tallest chairs. Namely, those that surround themselves with the less threatening and agreeable.

“There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

#2 live with dissonance

This is a futile bind that must eventually invite conflict

On the one hand, inviting that free opinion. And in doing so making friendly those that count

“It is necessary for a prince to have the people friendly”

But on the other hand retaining the steadfastness of leadership

“He ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions”

What is revealed by this conflict and dissonance is a constant weighing up. But weighing up based on the best of information, not the easiest. This is firstly, prudence of judgement

“Prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”

Such choices are not always picked from more fruitful, but the less sour. This is therefore secondly, the capability to making better choices as a result. Even if that choice is harder but more coherent to the bigger goal.

“He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt”

This balancing then leads to the more diligent Machiavellian Prince retaining more difficult felt angst. This remains that same notion of dissonance, but one that is held not passed on (as the defensive decision-maker would do). But with clarity, not deceit (to oneself)

This leads to a second double-edged impossible reality (#3 and #4).

#3 Tyranny

Firstly, when to dictate

“pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions”

… or liberty?

or when to give way, but not too far

“And there is nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even whilst you exercise it you lose the power to do so”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

#4 tomorrow

Secondly, making room for what is important (not urgent). This is the impossible planning toward a vision but having access to means to adapt constantly. Covid-19 proved neither were in place. Nor would they be today.

… or today

Quentin Skinner offers access to other Machiavellian writing. This next citation originates from private letters – where an indignant dignitary (Pandolfo) is defending how he conducted his affairs of state – a remark that applies well to the need to situationally adapt

“wishing to make as few mistakes as possibile…I conduct my government day by day, and arrange my affairs hour by hour; because the times are more powerful than our brains”

Machiavelli (Legation L912)

If Pandolfo is right (that situational response is all), this begs the question who then is planning for the long-term? Perhaps we only think long-term when the short-term is not demanding our time:

. . . never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity.”

Which is to bring us back to a final lesson that returns us about – back to surrounding ourselves with those capable of offering that more difficult truth. Or making the executive decisions in our stead. In the long-term the capability to build is building the capability to be replaced. Nonetheless, if we are capable enough then surely that is what we invite – if we are capable.

#5 Nurture capability

Related to the first therefore- i.e., #1 invite the conflict that reveals the better way – note the capability of those being rewarded. In other words the servant steward is a capable person; capable enough to both admire and enable capability in others. Honouring peers with peerage as a service to debt, does not count…

“A prince ought also to show himself a patron of ability, and to honour the proficient in every art”

Machiavelli (The Prince)

There is much to learn from the King-of-the-World dilettante – i.e., those with a care for the prize but not the serving in the role. Machiavelli saw plenty like that, and rated very few. We now see them, too. We know what they crave, and see how they behave. All too well, we know how they fail when real crisis demands leadership. Even the better Machiavellian fights to keep the better peace. The capable leader has power enough to empower more. Machiavelli, “The Prince”, the more principled diplomat.


That was a little fun, written in a moment between my research write-ups and reading. My PhD relates conflict to governance, and both to wider notions of shared intentions (collaboration, cooperation, competition). Machiavelli “The Prince” formed part of reading that did not make it to my philosophical worldview (i.e., the support to my methodology). Quentin Skinner introduces Niccolò Machiavelli exceptionally well. Both are well worth a read.

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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