Level 5 and Machiavellian Leadership: Which Wins Employee Engagement Race?

A widely-accepted assumption is employee engagement is influenced by how the leaders of the organization behave.  Another way to say this is, the work environment is influenced by leaders and that work environment influences employee engagement.  Both Level 5 Leadership and Machiavellian Leadership can create outstanding results but how does Level 5 Leadership behavior stack up against Machiavellian behavior regarding engagement?

The purpose here is to make the case for higher employee engagement.  There are two big distinctions between Level 5 Leadership and Machiavellian Leadership that provide key insights for action.

First, we need agree on clear definitions.  I prefer using the Conference Board’s definition of Employee engagement. I paraphrase, “Employee Engagement is a strong emotional connection an employee feels with their organization and team such that they are willing to give extra effort without being asked bribed or threatened.” (Gibbons, 2007)

Level 5 Leadership is the term describing leaders who were uncovered by Jim Collins, and his researchers, while writing Good to Great. (Collins, 2001)  Level 5 Leaders are both modest and willful.  They are humble in behaviors and fearless in their pursuit of results.  They avoid letting their ego interfere with their ambition to achieve a great result for their organizations.

Machiavellian Leaders are also willful.  They believe people are self-interested creatures and will put their self-interest ahead of other considerations.  This is a key characteristic they share.  In part because of this belief, they also believe it is better to be feared than to be loved.  Machiavellian leaders hold efficacy and foresight as important characteristics. Humility is not needed to achieve results.   Humility is not needed to achieve power and achieving power is a high priority for these leaders.

There are two key insights which can help us decide which leadership approach is best to build engagement.  The first is trust vs. fear.  The second is autonomy vs. dependency.

Trust trumps fear

Trust is much more effective than fear for achieving engagement.  If we choose to accept the engagement definition above the presence of fear proves there is little or no engagement.  Engagement is an emotional connection where employees are willing to put in extra effort without threats.  Threats create fear.

If employees are willing to put in extra effort they must feel safe to do so. Safety suggests a lack of fear.  Innovation and risk taking requires reduced fear, not more.  If Machiavelli prefers fear to love from followers, it suggests engagement would be reduced with a Machiavellian leader.

Autonomy trumps Dependency

There are two laws attributed to Machiavelli which might cause concern for those who value engagement. The first one is:

“Learn to keep people dependent upon you: To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted.  The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have.  Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear.  Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.” (Greene, 2000)

To be fully engaged, people need autonomy.  They need freedom to make decisions to innovate and to feel fulfilled.  If the Machiavellian leader purposely creates dependency, it follows that engagement will naturally be reduced.

The second is:

“Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability: Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions.  Your predictability gives them a sense of control.  Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable.” (Greene, 2000)

Unpredictability creates uncertainty and fear.  It can lead to a lack of trust.  It can prevent people from taking risk and/or acting at all.

Al Dunlap of Scott Paper fame exemplifies the Machiavellian Leader and is profiled by Jim Collins in Good to Great.  Dunlap cut expenses at Scott Paper, mostly by cutting jobs and lay-offs, sold the company, and pocketed millions for himself, all in less than two years.  He then wrote a book about himself drawing a parallel to Rambo.  He demonstrated unpredictability and a dependence on him for success.  His changes could not have been sustainable and it is probably why the company was sold (besides the desired outcome for Dunlap to hoard millions for himself).

In contrast is Arnold Palmer. One of his quotes on his website is, “Always make a total effort, even when the odds are against you.”  This could easily be attributed to a Level 5 Leader, a fearless pursuit of results while demonstrating warmth and humility.  He had thousands, if not millions, following him in Arnie’s Army.  He touched thousands of lives, made his sport much more popular, and positively changed the world in numerous ways.

In summary, Machiavellian Leadership is great for beating down competitors. Beating competitors can certainly lead to success.  Level 5 Leadership is great for employee engagement and generating positive results with minimum unintended consequences and enormous leverage.  There is value in both but the place to use each is very different.  I personally would recommend you stay away from Machiavellian techniques if you find engagement an important outcome.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great . New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Gibbons, J. (2007). https://www.conference-board.org/publications/publicationdetail.cfm?publicationid=1324&centerId=1. Retrieved from https://www.conference-board.org: https://www.conference-board.org/publications/publicationdetail.cfm?publicationid=1324&centerId=1

Greene, R. (2000). The 48 Laws of Power. New York NY: Penquin Books.

Level 5 and Machiavellian Leadership Video


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