Meditations on Machivellianism

I've always been fascinated by unattributed epigraph in Herman Melville's book "The Bell Tower". It reads:  

"Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity."

The question that springs to my mind most readily is, "What is the larger liberty we seek, each one of us, individually? Of course, for everyone there will be a different answer. We can judge by the largesse of certain fame and fortunes that for some--grandiose is not enough, and for others, humility, and more of it, satiates something deeply spiritual, most likely an urgent need to do and be "good." No matter where you locate yourself in this complex human algorithm, Melville's epilogue rings awfully true; we do wish to be bigger than we are, all of us, in one way or another. 

There is a theory of evolution that says the brain is a giant nose--and that our olfactory gland is what got us up from the savannah floor to the base of the tree, to the branch and finally to gaze upon the horizon. With that in mind, I will submit to the reader that ambition is a very natural inclination. Humans are curious enough to want see what's out there and get some of it. That is very human, and can hardly be avoided, no matter how pious our intentions. Even Mother Teresa wanted to be a Saint at some very deep, spiritual level of ambition.

Don't kid yourself, she did not become Mother Teresa by accident. Whomever said everything is better in moderation was either resigned to mediocrity or not paying attention to human behavior. For better or worse--we all aspire, sometimes to greater magnitude than others. Moreover, according to a recent HBR study, those who aspire with more cunning tend to win.

We call them Machivellians, based on a 16th-century political treatise by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli.

This holiday season, I found an old article penned by Arthur Jr. Schlesinger's about JFK in a dog-eared copy of a Cigar Aficionado from 1998 and got to thinking about the dichotmous nature of his personality in light of Machivellianism-a misunderstood topic that has come up often as of late with many of my colleagues and friends. 

Every myth has a counter-mythology. This could not be truer for our most mythological, famous and mourned President, John. F. Kennedy. In recent years, with the exception of Chris Matthew's glowing biopic "Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero", Kennedy has often been represented as a charming but superficial cad.His Presidency, though one of the briefest in history, is considered by some to have been a triumph of style over substance.

In the end, we are left to consider a politician whom some say was more concerned with image than results, who talked big but accomplished little. In the even darker side of this countermyth, Kennedy is an incorrigible philanderer, who was near reckless in both private and public life. Even less common, he is seen as a bellicose and accused of ordering the assassination of foreign leaders, plunging the nation into the Vietnam morass, and almost provoking a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He is most notoriously rumored to have used the Whitehouse for affairs with Marilyn Monroe. As if this were truly scandalous. In France and Italy it's a requirement for taking the oath of the office. 

My reading of Kennedy leads me not to question many of these assessments. I would reframe his portrait to that of a benign Machiavellianism. I believe Kennedy would have responded negatively to the notion that one ought to get ahead by being more concerned with inefficiency than injustice. I believe he was democracy's last champion to that end. He was reported by Schlesinger and others to be more emotionally affected by social norms and social pressures than other politicians of his day, notably Johnson and Nixon. Last, he was certainly astute at identifying optimal strategies for getting what he wanted, and rational and in many ways practical. Kennedy was a good man, and that is more than enough. 

As to the sexual promosciuity, "It is now accepted history," Ben Bradlee, then head of the Newsweek bureau in Washington, in later years the brilliant editor of The Washington Post, writes in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, "that Kennedy jumped casually from bed to bed with a broad range of women". Schlesinger's impression, shared by others from the Kennedy White House, is that JFK, for all his adventures, always regarded the First Lady with genuine affection. Schlesinger counters Bradlee's assertio and writes,  "Their marriage never seemed more solid than in the later months of 1963." Schlesinger was with the President as a special assistant during the day and in the evenings as a friend. 

My point is not to defend my fellow New Englander. Instead, I direct the reader towards the reality of business life and that much of what we know about Kennedy matches up with our own dichotomous behavior, or in the least, with that of people we know well.  According to demographics associated with HBR's research on Machiavellianism, if you are successful, you can relate, or it is most likely that you work for someone like this.

Are these keen Machivellian characterizations of political savvy and opportunism an unsavory skill in professional life or an asset? 

Let's say you do regard your own sensitivity to social norms and pressures as an asset in doing business with people. Does that mean you cannot be financially successful? Not at all. However, it would make you part of a small percentage of super-successful that do not agree that Machiavellianism is essential to success. Of course, you might be lying, affirming the fact that you are in fact, a Machiavellian!

Whenever you meet people who seem to display these Machiavellian beliefs and behaviors, they are not always 100% indicative of the person's overall personality. The next time you are ready to negotiate a deal or sign a business agreement- keep this in mind. Thinking that the best will come out of a deal based on good intentions puts you in the minority when dealing with the wealthy and powerful.  That is an unfortunate but actual fact. 

On a more realistic note-based on research, most "normal people" seem to behave as if they are going to get the raw end of a deal. Those who tend to get the better of us, have the same belief. In actuality, they have trained themselves in cut-throat business culture to believe that those of natural trusting temperament are trying to screw them, and will bias the deal as such.  The commonality of distrust is what Machievelli urges the reader to be on guard for.

This of course sounds brutish-but you needn't search very far for examples of humanity's tremendous penchant for awful, expoitative behavior. You might recall the awful scene in Twelve Years a Slave when the most coveted slave on the plantation goes to find soap at another owner's home, her master cannot bring himself to believe that she had gone to another farm out of an innocent desire to be clean. I cannot recall a better example of how nasty human nature can be. It is a scene that has burned itself in my memory. One more note about this movie and scene--the plantation owner quotes biblical scripture in the midst of it. 

Narcissism and Machiavellianism occur with regularity in the population and unlike clinical personality traits, can be present and active amidst "normal functioning". Narcissism was linked to higher salary while Machiavellianism is related to leadership level and career satisfaction. The presence of these traits does not mean that guarantee a person will have problems, either at work or in t their personal life. Despite the antisocial implications of these traits, they happen also to have a broad range of career-related benefits. Some individuals by nature are more dishonest, egocentric, reckless, and cruel than the population average, yes, but Machiavellianism is more related to superficial charm, social manipulation, deceit, ruthlessness, and impulsivity. We might (naively) consider people who display these traist as morally reprehensible. I say naively, because the research unfortunately bears out clearly that most successful business people endorse the idea that “the end justifies the means” or agree that “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there." 

It does not take a genius to see that bad guys do win, and all the time, but that is not the whole story, as demonstrated by Kennedy's example. There is clearly a bright side to these "darker traits". There is an overlap between positive and negative personality characteristics like extraversion, openness to new experience, curiosity, and self-esteem. Machiavellian types tend to enhance competitiveness, if only by inhibiting cooperation and altruistic behaviors at work.

Machiavellian behavior is problematic when individual gains come at the expense of the group, particularly in political or organizational leadership. The more contaminated the environment – in a political sense – the more likely these parasitic personalities will thrive. I think this aptly describes our own legal and professional political system. There is clearly an adaptive element which explains why bad guys often win – but their success comes at a price, and that price is paid by the organization, or in the case of political scenarios, the system as a whole. There is no better example of this than Vladimir Putin.

If the primary goal is to ensure that a group or organization outperforms its rivals and ensures collective success; it will be advantageous to minimize Machiavellian behavior, though useful at the individual rather than group level. They lead to problems in the long term, especially if one is not aware of them and represents the toxic part of personality structure. In the end, the group will lose the more you win.

Not so oddly enough, our use of Kennedy as a model demonstrates that intermediate – rather than low – level of Machiavellianism predicts the highest level to organizational citizenship. Machiavellian individuals are politically savvy and good at networking and managing upwards in political and military leadership. Successful leaders display the "bright-side" features of narcissism but inhibit the "dark side" ones. Leaders like this score high in egotism and self-esteem but low in manipulativeness and impression management.

At the professional level, the difference between wealthy, educated people who make extraordinary incomes and the rest of us is that the ultra-successful elite is exquisite at looking out for their self-interests. An enormous disparity between elites and ordinary people come down the level of unscrupulous,"Machiavellian" behavior used to achieve their goals. We can be assured that a person who has had outrageous success is not just the recipient of favor from the Gods, but someone who is in all probability very comfortable exploiting the weaknesses of others. 

Lewis Schiff tells us that 80 percent of the millionaires believe that that "coming out on top in business dealings is paramount." What does this mean, exactly? It means that those who are successful in business, especially those who have a net worth higher than $10 million, have no problem with confrontation in business. Schiff's research unsurprisingly says that nearly 98% of the ultra-wealthy see the battle as a given part of an enterprise. These individuals play to win, exploit other's weak spots when they find them and defend their interests even if it requires confrontation.

"Most super-successful people think so. Almost 78 percent admit that "being Machiavellian is essential to becoming wealthy." The middle-class, though, prefer to think the business world is a kinder, gentler place. Fewer than 17 percent say that Machiavellianism is essential to becoming wealthy. "

Too lazy to read The Prince, Machiavelli's 16th-century treatise on power? Want to know how Machiavellian you are?  Social psychologists Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis devised a test to measure Machiavellianism as a distinctive personality trait years ago. You can take it by clicking on this link.


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Louis D. Lo PraesteComment