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Just what is Machiavellian Intelligence?

Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

It is generally accepted that good leaders need a high degree of Emotional Intelligence (EI). We can be as talented and hard-working as we like, but we are unlikely to be successful leaders if our decisions and behaviours are not guided by a high degree of emotional intelligence. Contributors consultants and entrepreneurs Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford authors of –  Machiavellian Intelligence

We now need to add another kind of ‘intelligence’ to the list of what is needed to get to the very top of our chosen careers: Machiavellian Intelligence (MI).

Let’s paint a picture. You have two colleagues. Both are well-established in senior management positions. Both are intelligent, hard-working and ‘emotionally intelligent’. Their teams think highly of them and their departments run smoothly and effectively. They both have ambitions for the top job. One of these two colleagues, however, seems more likely to succeed. The more-hopeful candidate seems to manage to position themselves as a kind of ‘leader-in-waiting’; they carry out their current duties impeccably, but manage to convey the impression that they have a lot more to offer. They imply that their exceptional talents will be wasted if they are left in their current position for too long and they seem to be on enviably good terms with the most senior people in the organisation. They join the right committees and get involved in the right taskforces.

At set piece events, such as conference or major internal presentations, they are entrusted with keynote speeches and always perform brilliantly. They have a knack of forming alliances with people whose star is in ascendance and with the people whose opinions matter. They also have a knack of being in the right place at the right time: both of these colleagues have delivered good results throughout their career, but the results of the CEO-in-waiting have always seemed to be more critical to the organisation’s success. What the CEO-in-waiting has, that their colleague may lack, is a high level of Machiavellian Intelligence.

Political behaviours
The term ‘Machiavellian Intelligence’ was first used to describe what was then seen as the surprising behaviour of some monkeys and apes, which were observed to be using complex behaviours to achieve positions of social dominance in order to increase their chance of reproductive success. This essentially ‘political’ primate behaviour reminded the scientists of the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, the great political theorist of Renaissance Italy, who described the devious and sometimes deadly political behaviours of the rulers of the country’s constantly warring city-states in his book, The Prince.

In Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation, the authors of this article suggest that the same kinds of behaviours can be seen in the power struggles between the senior members of any large corporation, albeit rather more civilised.

We work hard to make our modern organisations meritocratic and fair, but people are political animals and the rewards of significant corporate power are very great. It was only very recently that the boardrooms of large corporations were the scene of overtly Machiavellian behaviour, and the financial press would be full of reports of senior executives being ‘ambushed’, ‘stabbed in the back’, ‘knifed’, ‘axed’ or ‘exiled’ in very visible power struggles. We may have adjusted our behaviours and toned down our language, but it would be naïve to assume that we have removed Machiavellian behaviours from the boardroom altogether.

People will always compete for positions of power and influence – and some people are far more naturally adept at working with the existing power structure and using it to their advantage. They have very high social and political skills. They have very high ‘emotional intelligence’, but they are using this to a political end, which is the furtherance of their careers. This kind of emotional intelligence (EI), when applied for political ends, is what the authors mean by ‘Machiavellian Intelligence’ (MI).

To revisit the earlier example, CEOs-in-waiting don’t sit back and wait for things to happen, they seek out opportunities to make their abilities and potential clear to people who are in a position to help further their careers. They help to make their own bosses look good, and are rewarded by being pulled up the ranks in the wake of these bosses. They are not above circumventing a particular boss who does not seem sufficiently appreciative of their talents, by forging a strong relationship with people more senior than their immediate boss.

The boards of large organisations are a lot like the governments of nation states, with one leader and many ministers. We are never surprised when we see Machiavellian behaviour in power-hungry politicians, and we should not be surprised when we see it displayed by senior executives of large corporations.

Some of us have naturally higher levels of MI than others. Many people with high emotional intelligence are too ‘nice’ to readily deploy more Machiavellian behaviours. Their natural talents will take them a long way, but the fight for the very top jobs is likely to go to the people who apply their emotional intelligence for political ends and develop a high level of Machiavellian Intelligence.

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