YOLO- You Only Lead Once

I’m going to give you a task:

In your head, think of the person who has influenced your life the greatest. This person could be someone you personally know, a historical figure, someone fictional– the person can be anyone. Now, think of 8 adjectives you would use to describe that person.

Next task:

Choosing between Group A and Group B, which group best describes that person:

            Group A                                            Group B

            Charismatic                                      Manipulative

            Intelligent                                        Cunning

            Warm                                               Controlling

            Affable                                             Narcissistic

            Generous                                          Distrustful

            Democratic                                       Two-faced

            Altruistic                                           Psychopathic

            Loved                                                Feared

I don’t think it would be a long shot to assume that most of you (if not all of you) chose Group A. Heck, reading Group B probably made you think of your worst enemies, not your greatest role model!

In Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince, he emphasized the traits a good prince should embody. Machiavelli argues that to be a good prince, a Machiavellian leader, it is “Better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Machiavelli glorifies the use of force, coercion, and duplicity; if you want to be successful, you have to resort to cruelty at times. To put it simply—“the end justifies the means.”

Machiavellian Logic

Now, let’s see a Machiavellian leader in real life context:

In 1971, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted one of the most famous experiments in psychology’s history. Zimbardo set out to see how social roles can influence behaviors. Zimbardo and his team of researchers set up a mock prison at Stanford University and selected 24 undergraduate students to play the role of either a prisoner or a guard. These participants had no major medical conditions, criminal record, or psychological problems. The only rule given to the guards was that no physical punishment was allowed; all else was fair game. Through the use of hidden cameras and microphones, the researchers observed the participants. The results?

Well let’s just say, the 14 day experiment had to be stopped after only day 6. The guards were becoming highly abusive to the prisoners, and the prisoners suffered a wide range of punishments and degradations. The prisoners were displaying high signs of anxiety and depression due to the sadistic acts of the guards. As a scientific experiment, it was a complete and utter failure. But, in terms of psychology and societal behaviors and roles, it was a complete success.

Years later, students at Western Kentucky Unversity revisited the Stanford Prison Experiment. They wanted to see if students who selectively volunteered for a study of prison life possessed certain dispositional factors associated with cruelty, which may have led to the results of the experiment. Participants were recruited for a psychological study of prison life, using an identical newspaper ad as used in the original experiment. The ad read as follows:

A photo taken during the Stanford Prison Experiment 1971

Male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life. $70 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning May 17th. For further information and applications, e-mail: [e-mail address].

Both the control group and the experimental group were given the same ad. The only difference? The words “of prison life” were omitted with the control group. What they found was that volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of narcissism, authoritarianism, and Machiavellianism.

I think you’re catching on. Maybe being a Machiavellian leader may not be all that great? Well, hold that thought…

In 2013, Time Magazine compiled a list of The 100 Most Significant Figures in History. Using various sets of measurements of reputation, the list was assembled. These were the top 10 rankings:

1 Jesus

Leadership is like a ladder

2 Napoleon

3 Muhammad

4 William Shakespeare

5 Abraham Lincoln

6 George Washington

7 Adolf Hitler

8 Aristotle

9 Alexander the Great

10 Thomas Jefferson

Yeah, don’t worry. I was just as surprised to see Napoleon and Adolf Hitler on the list (you can double check Time if you think my copy and paste button is working incorrectly). Ready to once again be mind-boggled? For Time’s Person of the Century, who was one of the contenders?– Adolf Hitler. Although it was debated whether or not Hitler should have been included, the criterion was solely based on having the greatest impact on the 20th century, for better or for worse. I am an observant Jew who went to an orthodox Jewish high school and did a gap year in Israel; and not even I can deny Hitler’s influence.

In an attempt to argue for both sides, I presented to you the double-edged sword of Machiavellianism. Basing it strictly in leadership terms, I believe that a good leader and a Machiavellian leader can be synonymous. A leader is defined as “ a person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country;” therefore, a good leader does not necessarily have to be benevolent.

Now it’s up to you decide– is a Machiavellian leader a good one? The goal of every leader is to leave a mark on the world, but is leaving a scar a success or a failure?


2 thoughts on “YOLO- You Only Lead Once

  1. Nice blog! I really enjoyed reading about the connection you made between Machiavelli and the study behind “The Lucifer Effect.” You made some solid points regarding the qualities of a Machiavellian ruler as well as pointed out that some of the world’s greatest role models were actually men of peace and honor. However, I must contend that your interpretation of the Stanford Prison Experiment was lacking depth. In my opinion, the psychological impact a position of authority has on an individual has less to do with Machiavellian characteristics, and more to do with psychological development. I think this confusion is a result of my misunderstanding of the Western Kentucky Experiment. If I remember correctly, Zimbardo randomly selected those who would become either a guard or prisoner. Thus, I have a hard time believing that volunteers of the Western Kentucky experiment would measure higher in such Machiavellian characteristics without knowing which role they’d play. Also, how does one measure someone’s characteristics, such as narcissism? Zimbardo primarily tested the effects of elevating a person into a role of authority. Many post-experiment interviews of the prison guards revealed the guards to be genuinely embarrassed of their actions, as well as confused. Throughout their entire lives, they never showed any signs or character quirks relating to violence. Thus, I think power in general can corrupt the mind because of the profound impact self-esteem and other deeply rooted psychological problems has on an individual. Anyways, I really enjoyed your blog and am glad that I had a chance to read it! Well done!


  2. There are many ways to classify a leader and today’s idea of a leader is much different than the days of Machiavelli. A think a Machiavellian leader is a good one but not in every situation entirely. A leader must have qualities in addition to those mentioned by Machiavelli.


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