Machiavellianism is a trait that is characterized by amorality, distrust, and manipulation. It can also be very goal-oriented and ambitious due to desire for control. Being high in Machiavellianism may make for a person who wants to lead, but does it make for a good leader? A study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology suggests that Machiavellianism is only effective when coupled with strong political skills.
Machiavellianism is linked to trying to control others, manipulate, and gain power. For this reason, people high on Machiavellianism are likely to try to get into positions of power, including various leadership roles, political and otherwise. Previous research has been contradictory on whether or not people high in Machiavellianism make for effective leaders. It has been linked to undesirable outcomes, as well as increased legislative success, hinting that there are interactions with other factors that may affect leadership success.
“A lot of powerful people in our world are Machiavellians who think that they should use all means if they really want to achieve something no matter how much other people suffer,” said Gerhard Blickle, a professor at the University of Bonn and the corresponding author of the new study.
Blickle and his colleagues utilized a data set with 600 low to mid-level managers, who were then asked to identify their superior and two subordinates to also participate. Their sample comprised of 317 leaders, 211 superiors, and 389 subordinates. Participants completed measures of Machiavellianism, political skill level, transformational leadership, leader effectiveness, and other control variables.
Results showed that leaders who were high in Machiavellianism were seen as being effective leaders when they displayed strong political skills. Those leaders were skilled at being strategic with their social behaviors and exercising impulse control, something most Machiavellians are not strong in. For both low and medium levels of political skill, people high in Machiavellianism were not seen as effective leaders.
“Successful Machiavellians create a positive image in order to become well-integrated into the social context. So they appear innocuous but are fundamentally evil,” Blickle told PsyPost.
This study took steps to address the complex relationship between Machiavellianism and leadership skills. Despite its successes, it also contains limitations. Firstly, the cross-sectional nature of this study does not allow for any causal inferences to be made. Additionally, other leader traits and behaviors are important and would have been useful to measure, such as charisma.
The study, “Machiavellian Leader Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Political Skill“, was authored by Hanna A. Genau, Gerhard Blickle, Nora Schütte, and James A. Meurs.