Machiavelli for Modern Times:

An Interpretation of Machiavelli's "The Prince" for the College President and the Public Relations Officer


For more than four centuries, the adjective "Machiavellian" has been synonymous with something diabolical, treacherous, villainous, cruel, and vicious. Also, the term's originator, Niccolo Machiavelli, is a symbol for the scheming, crafty, hypocritical, immoral, unprincipled, unscrupulous politician whose whole philosophy is that the end justifies the means.

Yet the book on which his reputation rests, The Prince, contains lessons for all times. The Prince was Machiavelli's conception of the kind of leader Italy required in the early 1500s, and a detailed blueprint of the path that leader must follow to gain success.

The essential argument of The Prince is that the welfare of the state justifies everything and there are different standards of morals in public life and private life for leaders. In this way, Machiavelli separated ethics from politics. In more modern terms, we might talk about situational ethics for professionals in all disciplines. (Halberstam, 1993)

Today The Prince may be viewed as a guidebook for leaders -- and for their staff. It provides instructions in how to gain and maintain power. Power is not simply for the sake of the leader, but for the good of the organization, to provide stable management that is secure in turbulent times.

The guidelines that Machiavelli gives are for new leaders and those who have risen through the ranks. These guidelines may also be viewed as rules for staffers. These guidelines are applicable to the governance of any organization, country, or -- as in this case in point -- higher education institution. In the realm of higher education presidents and colleges (a.k.a., schools and universities) suffice for princes and principalities. There are also directors and officers who support the president, such as, the public relations officer/director which will also be discussed. Through this discussion, staff may come to understand the operations of the administration in some institutions and how they may function better within these types of organizations.

Organizations and Leadership

Machiavelli outlined four types of organizations and leadership patterns in The Prince: hereditary, mixed, new, and ecclesiastical. Three of these directly parallel leadership structures in higher education institutions: hereditary, mixed, and new.

Hereditary leadership occurs when a leader rises through the ranks to assume the position of president or director. In hereditary leadership, the president may be viewed as loyal by staff and administration because of the years of service that the leader has invested in the college. Following traditions -- which the leader has been a part of for many years -- while introducing new ideas in a conservative manner, the college may be changed with what appears to be little disruption by the college community.

Mixed leadership occurs when a leader -- for discussion, a director -- is required to assume leadership over additional offices or departments. Machiavelli warned that people are basically self-centered and short-sighted. They may initially revolt against the change in leadership, simply because people are uncomfortable with changes to their routines. But he also suggested that people change their leaders willingly, hoping for a better working environment. If the new director does not meet the employees' expectations and things become worse for them than before, the staff may be more willing to conspire against the new management or will leave the institution in search of a better situation. Also, the new director can not afford to make too many changes immediately, lest he alienate and disrupt the current successful operation of the staff of either his old charges and his new ones. But if the director's goal is to institute a new working order at any cost, then changes should be initiated immediately and swiftly. Knowing that some staff may object, plans must be at the ready to deal with detractors and new replacement staff. As college's follow the corporate model and continue to downsize the hierarchical structure of the president's cabinet, mixed organizational structures will continue to be popular.

Machiavelli suggested five ways to maintain order among the old and additional offices while blending the groups and developing new strategic plans for meeting organizational goals.

First, the director must become part of the new offices, leading discussions and identifying grievance points. The new director may implement regular meetings with the large staff group for discussion of operations, offering a time to brainstorm and problem-solve office practices. Or the director may choose a more personal approach and meet with each office independently to get to know their needs and practices. Second, the director may set up a group of liaison employees who will serve as links between the director and the offices -- assistants or associates who can lead projects and meet with the leader about results and problems. This group might define themselves naturally through the hierarchy of assistant directors or team leaders. But the director should also consider cultivating "line" staff members who might have better insights into the daily operations of the offices. Third, the director may empower the less powerful employees to gain their allegiance. Through the large group meetings addressed above, the director may give the employees a voice directly to him/her in this public forum. While this may seem like patronizing, it may be the stroke of self-esteem that some employees need to feel they are appreciated. Fourth, the leader may reduce the power of the dominant employees by enforcing office policies. In every office or division there are those who manipulate the rules and dominate other employees. By enforcing simple rules concerning adherence to lunch hour times and scheduling time off, for example, a leader can standardize the behavior of the dominant and the less powerful employees, bringing them in line with the rest of the staff. Finally, the leader must watch for outside influences that might come between the director and their employees, such as gossip and rumors from other departments concerning leadership styles or track record in past positions. Hopefully, the liaison group will keep the director apprised of any type of innuendo that might influence the power structure under development.

Machiavelli was quick to point out that when the dominant employees give up power or prestige by conforming to office standards, they will never return to that position of peer power. For example, those dominant employees who must submit to the new director by leaving and returning to and from lunch on time will not return to the same status within the organization, and will not be permitted to gain that type of control over the system again. These employees will have to find a position outside of the organization to regain that type of peer power and standing that they lost in the merged departments.

New leadership occurs when a leader assumes the position of president from outside of the college -- like a national search. Thus the president is new to the college and often new to the community and sometimes even new to the industry. To insure loyalty among the staff of the previous president, the new leader may release staff and administration of the old administration and hire his/her own colleagues to ensure loyalty. Support staff, such as clerical and labor positions, may remain in place, since these employees are typically more loyal to the institution as a secure employer and less loyal to the supervisory staff that dictates their work. Machiavelli also advised that a new president be visible among his staff members, creating a camaraderie while introducing new rules and changes to the existing structure to foster some security between the remaining staff and the new administration. The staff will be more accepting of the changes if the president appears to be living under the same rules as they. He noted that employees are eager and yet suspicious of change and that which is new to them. A new president who makes a point of being visible to all by getting out on the campus, taking lunch in the college cafeteria or faculty dining room, attending individual department meetings as available, attending Rotary and other community group functions will be seen as more of a member of the community than a leader who regulates his/her schedule from the confines of the president's office.

This leads to the distinction between two types of staff. Machiavelli described the noble class and the people as two types of citizens in a principality of Italy. In higher education employees are divided into two groups as well: administrators and staff. Administrators are similar to the noble class. They hold high rank and are eager to move up the institutional ladder to the post of director, dean, or president. The support staff is the equivalent of the people. They are working individuals with little delusion of grandeur. They are loyal to the institution for financing their personal lives: the fringe benefits (i.e., health care and vacation), the pension and benefits that are anticipated upon retirement.

Machiavelli instructed that for an institution to operate smoothly a president must rely on the allegiance of his support staff or the allegiance of these administrators. It is easier to maintain a successful organization through the satisfaction of the support staff than the administrators, noted Machiavelli. The administrators will always be looking for ways to increase their own power within the organization because it is their goal to be promoted to the next higher office in the institution. To do that the administrators may rock the boat, looking for ways to get attention on themselves for advancement. In contrast, the support staff just want to be appreciated and secure in their employment. The president who has a loyal and productive support staff across the campus will weather lean times as well as good times, because the staff realize the benefits of investing time in the institution.

To be a good president in any organizational model, a president (or director) must consider the history of the position, or others like it, within higher education. Using the successes and failures of others at similar institutions may provide some of the best research for problem solving or strategic planning. Those who find themselves as leaders of a hereditary line have the tradition of the institution to support them and to live up to. They have participated in the development of decisions in the past and now must continue to follow these decisions. Those who become presidents by their own merits from outside of the college must work harder to convince the employees of their continued worth. Once a president's new innovations, plans, and policies, are tested and proven laudable, his power base may grow. But it may take time for the outcomes of these new programs to be realized. The president's power and potential is based on his own ability and not that of his colleagues or past accomplishments. If he rests on his past reputation he may sadly mistake his current institutional needs and shortcomings, leaving him defeated before he gets started. To this end, a new president -- by any means of succession -- will be best served by getting to know the institution anew. The leader who repeatedly remarks about the ways things were done at their previous employer or in their previous office may be unhappily surprised when new staff can not relate these experiences to their current situations.

At some point in his career, a president may find it necessary to do something that seems despicable in every day life for the sake of the success of the institution -- like laying off workers or reducing benefits or salaries to balance a budget in tough times. Machiavelli distinguished between actions taken for private interest and actions taken in the best interest of the institution. The act can be called virtuous only when it serves the institution and the security of the employees. But cruelty used for private interest cannot be virtuous.

It is important to note that Machiavelli did not unconditionally praise and recommend cruelty, as he has been sometimes accused. Instead, he allowed it when it is in the best interest of the institution, which must be the ultimate goal of any president.

Employee Relations

Machiavelli instructed that a college president needs good policies and good employees. Policies that are fair and evenly administered will be appreciated by all levels of employees. Machiavelli divided employees into four different types: mercenary, auxiliary, native, and mixed. In higher education circles these types of employees may be defined as consultants, temporary staff, permanent staff, and mixed staff.

Consultants are the most dangerous, according to Machiavelli, because they lack loyalty to the institution. These employees are hired for their expertise and are faithful only to their own reputations. Their loyalties are swayed by wages, and they can easily be bought and sold between institutions. While consultants have in-depth knowledge about their particular discipline, i.e., computer networks or marketing, they freely share information and secrets between clients. In times of crisis, they may feign loyalty and abandon the institution for a better paying client with less problems.

Temporary staff members are also dangerous. They can be good at accomplishing a defined task in a specific time frame, but are harmful to an organization, if that organization relies upon them for loyalty in a crisis time. While their contracts may be indefinite, they are motivated by money. Their loyalties are to the agency that has assigned them at the institution and lack investment in the institution as a community.

Permanent staff members, those who have been hired by the institution in regular (part-time and full-time) positions, are the best and the only employees who can be trusted and can ensure the continued success of the institution. They are typically loyal to the college, since they have already invested part of their career with the college and are dependent on the success of the president for their livelihood.

Mixed staffing includes the employment of all these types of employees to complete a planned task. This combination is superior to consultants or temporary employees alone, but never surpasses the loyalty and pride of permanent employees.

In discussing "troops" and preparation for war, Machiavelli advised that a wise leader never desists from the pursuit of war and, in time of peace, he attends to it even more than in time of conflict. While presidents and directors are not in the business of warfare, they can take this advice and apply it to human resource development as a constant process. Properly trained employees who are on the cutting-edge of their specialty provide the best service to the institution. Also, the best equipment should be considered as a means for improving productivity.

Leadership Qualities

Machiavelli addressed the personal qualities of a successful prince, president, or director. In brief, Machiavelli requires that a leader be severe and gracious, magnanimous and generous, determined and diplomatic, and capable of protecting himself from enemies, of winning friends, of conquering either by force or by fraud, and of being loved and feared at the same time.

Machiavelli warned leaders that vices can be virtues. Striving to be the most liked leader can backfire when times call for tough measures. Every action of a president must be based on the best interests of the institution.

A president should be miserly rather than generous with institutional finances, so as not to burden his organization with budget constraints and cut backs.

It is more beneficial that a president or director be feared than loved. A leader should not care about the reputation of being difficult when (s)he has a large number of employees to direct. It is the fear of retribution that keeps workers in line, Machiavelli advises. This fear is a positive reinforcement -- a fear of punishment that makes employees respect the policies and their duties in carrying out the policies, but should never be misinterpreted as hatred.

A president should consider breaking promises when it is in the best interest of the college. When power is used for the welfare of the organization and its employees, the fact that it was acquired through fraud and shrewdness is justifiable and even admirable. Any atrocities that might be committed for the sake of the institution must be committed swiftly. The benefits of the atrocity should outweigh the negative act and will overshadow these deeds in time. While it may seem ruthless to layoff a large group of employees, the measure may save the institution from closing down -- a measure that would surely hurt all employees and the community instead of just one group of people.

A president should not be despised from within the organization or by people outside of the organization. Conspiracies will fail if the president is feared but not hated. The loyalty of the employees will prevail. If the president has the popular support of his employees, even though some of his actions are stern, he will be surrounded by loyal employees who will come to his aid in good and bad times. The same must be true of his relationships with community leaders and other colleagues from outside his campus or college. These relationships will shield him from negative incidents and scandals.

A president or director must "arm" his employees with information and the tools to do their work effectively, and encourage devotion to improving their skills in their individual specialties. He must keep his friends close and his enemies closer, cultivating friendships where there was once animosity. Employees should be the first to know all news and innovations of the college or institution. This builds security, loyalty and understanding and gives them a sense of worth. This includes good and bad news. They should not hear it from community scuttle-butt. This will only lead to dissension. He should encourage discussion and clarity of the college's message to dissolve dissenting information from outside or conspiratory sources.

A president or director should gain esteem by displaying strengths in the field of relationship building with the external community and internal audiences. He must develop a relationship with the local community and support its needs consistently. He needs to take a stand and declare himself and his institution as a friend or foe in the community. In the internal arena, he may choose to reward positive actions or punish negative behavior as evidence of the importance of adhering to policies.

Lastly, it is imperative that presidents select capable and loyal counselors or personal staff members. The president should identify only a few prudent advisors who are known and tested as trustworthy. Often presidents are judged by the reputation of their staff. The personality, efficiency, and attitude of immediate staff members is an extension of the acumen of the leader. For a president that includes deans and directors. For directors that includes assistants and secretaries. Dissension among these ranks shows weak leadership and may provide the president or director with poor information from which to base decisions. The president must rely on these attaches for sound and accurate advice.

Fortune and Virtue in Higher Education

Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli discussed how much influence fortune and virtue exert on human affairs. Virtue means courage, efficacy, talent, strength, ability, and intelligence. Machiavelli described fortune as the unknown and as the arbiter of one half of human actions, the other half is directed by the will and work of the individual. Thus, virtue should organize defense against fortune because fortune asserts power when there is nothing to restrain it.

Although Machiavelli did not underestimate the importance of fortune, he emphasized the value of ability, which here is the special talent for taking advantage of the opportunities offered by fortune. In modern terms, this might be equated to Murphy's Law and being prepared for the best and the worst scenarios so one is never doomed to failure.

Machiavelli prescribed that leaders should construct defenses against the unknown. Controlling as many variables as possible in any given interaction, as well as developing crisis management plans and contingency plans, virtue can overwhelm fortune.

Machiavelli warned that it is not wise to let chance dictate the strategic planning and inevitable success or failure of an organization. That is one of the prime objectives of strong leadership and the characteristics of a successful leader.

All This In Reverse: The Public Relations Officer

While Machiavelli prescribed for the success of a president, he also provided sound recommendations for support staff and administrators. This prescription is a matter of virtue. The supporting staff and administrators must take advantage of opportunities at the right moment that are supplied by these guidelines describe above. In this way, The Prince remains a guidebook for power.

Consider the position of the public relations officer as an example of a few of the guidelines developed by Machiavelli.

The president will need reliable advisors/counselors. Thus, to be successful the public relations director must position herself as a trustworthy advisor to the president. She must convince the president that her objective is to protect him/her from negative attention and provide sound advice for advancing the image of the college and his/her administration. This is a constant battle in the field of public relations. Public relations practitioners are always struggling to be accepted in the ranks of key management and administration. They are often relegated to the line function of publicity, instead of advising the president and his cabinet on strategic planning issues to avoid negative public opinion and media attention.

To avoid losing position when a new president takes control of the college, the public relations director should take every opportunity to get to know the new president's policy platforms and submit loyalty to them. The public relations director may also take this opportunity to advise the new president on ways to be "seen" in the community and on the college campus, so that the new president can immediately begin blending in to the community. Identifying and offering to facilitate meetings, may put the old public relations director in good standing with the new president and ward off a firing due to the "clean house of old administration" syndrome. In reverse, the public relations director may consider the change in presidents as the appropriate opportunity for searching out new employment before the new administration takes seat and flushes out the old guard or remnants of the last presidency.

To extend the scenario once more, a public relations director who applies for a vacancy in an administration position above her current position (hierarchial line promotion) and is not selected for that vacancy should consider finding employment elsewhere, post haste. Such a determination must be viewed as a sign that the current leadership is not interested in advancing her career and that might infringe on her future duties and assignments.

The public relations director who finds her department annexed to another department due to a shift in leadership, such as merging public relations with admissions, may find that she is one of the dominant employees who will soon be flattened in the power shift. Through Machiavelli's advice, she knows that by giving up power she will never realize the power level she gave up unless she finds employment with another institution. Also, becoming part of another department further diminishes the public relations director's contact with the president, thus thwarting any efforts to advise the leadership.

Since it is the public relations director's job to develop positive relationships within campus sectors and between the campus and the community, the public relations director can identify those administrators who appear to be "on the move" within the college hierarchy. Keeping positive relationships with these upwardly mobile administrators could lead to advancement for the public relations director, too, if a hierarchical line move is in store for the administrator. This strategy also pays off if the administrator leaves the college for a promotion at another institution. As a new leader in a new college, the administrator may be in the position to hire his/her own new cabinet or staff. The public relations director may find better employment opportunities in such an invited position.

Just as a president needs to know the history of his/her institution and the trends and current innovations that might be happening in the industry as a whole, so too must the public relations director keep abreast of changes in the field of academia and higher education promotion. Understanding the concerns of the president will make the public relations director a better advisor to the president. Understanding current trends in public relations will allow the public relations director to keep on top of the changes in image promotion.

Just as a new president from outside of the community must create a presence in the community so must the new public relations director from outside of the community also create a presence in the college and local community. Using similar strategies as the new president, the new public relations director may develop a "first 30 days plan" in which she plans meetings with local media and community leaders along with campus leaders -- students, faculty and administration.

Understanding that the ruthless behavior of the president or director may be in the best interest of the institution may help the public relations director to better respond to requests for services or to predict what services may be needed before the president or director requests these services. Knowing that the president is considering a large scale layoff, the public relations director may research the effects of such a layoff on the college with the local community and develop a communication plan to keep the president and the college out of the limelight with the local news media. The public relations director may offer to serve as the public spokesperson in such a crisis, thus showing loyalty to the institution and the president.

Above all, the public relations director should not take the actions of the president personally, understanding that a Machiavellian president may be taking the steps necessary to keep all staff and administration in line by providing strict, regimented leadership. Appreciating the president's position and responsibilities will allow the public relations director the opportunity to provide strategic advice in tough times. The attacks of a leader under pressure may seem irrational. The public relations professional must perform tasks well, implement plans as requested, and leave all personal elements at the door.

From these brief examples it is apparent that Machiavelli's guidelines can be used both by the leader and the staff members. The key is to be cognizant of the operations at hand, identify the appropriate application of the guidelines, and not take the actions of the president personally.

Overall, the support staff members can take solace in the fact that change will occur whether they like or not and that the institution will survive, because that is the objective of leadership. How they survive in the course of new leadership depends on how well they read the signs and the guidelines of The Prince.


CUPRAP (1994). 1994-95 Directory, State College: CUPRAP.
Halberstam, Joshua. (1993). Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Real-Life Dilemmas, New York: Viking/Penguin Books Inc.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. (1952). The Prince. Chicago: The Great Books of the Western World Series, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Copyright, 1997, Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D., ABC.

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