Putting Your Power to Work: 500 Years of Advice for Today's Woman

There is no shortage of advice for professional women in the today's consumer and business media. Whether we are being told to "lean in," pick up seven new habits or even imitate male power plays, we are living in a time when there is much written about the analysis of power, and how to attain it, but very little has been said about what to do with power once secured. Some of the most adroit and timeless thinking on power was captured by Niccolò Machiavelli, a well-known 16th century diplomat and philosopher, who hung out with the Medici family and wrote The Prince which is widely considered to be the cornerstone book on how to effectively use power. Many of us have seen Machiavelli's principles used "effectively" in various political environments and even in some businesses. But can these principles provide any guidance to assist women leaders in retaining, projecting and enhancing their leadership roles?

The term "Machiavellian" conjures up thoughts of scheming, cunning, duplicity, narcissism, self-aggrandizement and tyranny -- not necessarily what women, or anyone for that matter, want to be known for in the workplace. Machiavelli is often misquoted as advocating the principle that the "ends justify the means." But by routinely dismissing his tenets, are we missing opportunities and not playing the same game that others employ? There is so much in his writings and perhaps they can provide guidance for women in the current business world.

Machiavelli's writing has been subject to substantial scholarly debate and was even banned by the Catholic Church for many years. Still, many of his ideas hold currency today. So I offer some quotes from this 16th century Italian philosopher that may help women in their leadership roles and some thoughts on how to apply these ideas without risking being labeled as "Machiavellian":

  1. "The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him." Even though Machiavelli is referencing men, we all know that part of our success as a woman leader will depend upon who we have on our team. Here, I believe, is the perfect opportunity for women leaders to get the needed assistance from those most qualified -- who may indeed be other women. So if we surround ourselves with competence and people who are working constructively towards the goals we delineate, we will go a long way to retaining our leadership power and increasing the likelihood that we will be able to increase our position.

  • "When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both if these opinions generate hatred." Here is one place where women intuitively have an advantage over men in leadership positions. We live by the empowerment of others and we can effectively use our consensus making skills to engage those around us in a constructive manner to achieve our common goals. We can even take this one step further: If we stand for and insist upon the success of other women, we empower them and increase our sphere of influence. This influential sphere of influence increases our power leadership opportunities.
  • "It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both." Women have a lot to learn here. We generally want to be liked by all and, as leaders, it is important that we recognize that leadership requires us to make the tough calls and sometimes act in manner that is not necessarily consistent with our generally compassionate view. However, making tough decisions projects power and if done correctly, it can and will solidify our power.
  • "Never was anything great achieved without danger." In general, women are not intuitive risk takers. We don't play games the same way as men. But we need to take more risks and be change agents. We will not succeed if we always play it safe as a leader. If we make a mistake, we must remember not to use that mistake as a way of not taking additional risks. All leaders who take risks fail at times. The successful leader learns from her mistakes and does not let prior failures cloud her decisions with respect to subsequent actions. At the same time, taking risks means asking for what we want and not being afraid to be told "no." Women are not generally self advocates, partly because we are afraid of the feelings associated with a negative response.
  • "He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command." How can we effectively command when we, as women, are not generally comfortable with our position and using power? First, we must embrace what we have achieved and recognize that it is hard fought and earned and not happening by chance. We cannot be our own worst critic. Then, we must use our position to clearly convey the goals to be achieved. This does not need to be calculated or threatening. Through our consensus building acumen, we can command in an effective way. No dirty tactics and no "goddess" mentality - we can and should command using the high road. Don't be afraid to exercise your leadership skills. Act powerful and act in command.
  • "Before all else, be armed." Be armed with knowledge and facts, be armed with a view of your strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, be armed with a belief or goal in mind that resonates. Recognize that there are many critics and naysayers who will thwart your actions. But, if you are "armed" with the right tools and the right methods, you can succeed.
  • "Whoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times." All leaders must adapt and change, but we all know that we, as women, must be aggressive change agents. We must constantly have a three dimensional view of the world surrounding us and we must continually assess and reassess our role and status. To the extent this world changes, we must be flexible and not be tied to the past. Technology and innovation should be our constant allies.
  • "Politics have no relation to morals." It is not wrong for us to be politically aware and politically motivated. Politics are important. We should be aware of all situations and use our skills to enhance our goals and our position. An effective view of the political landscape can be a huge advantage. Create political allies and friends. If we gain, all women will benefit and we should not be shy in how we approach others and how we use the political landscape to our advantage. Often, this is not easy. But sometimes (when we don't agree or believe that a course of action is wrong) we have to keep our mouths shut and recognize that our power or position can be used later for better effect.
  • These principles can help women who have attained a leadership role in their organization maintain their position and increase their power and leadership potential. I assert that men, whether knowingly or not, have benefited from these ideas for centuries. While we may be coming late to the game, our skills and qualities can prove to be assets in the business world in which we live. We just have to embrace all that we are and all that we can be and maybe follow a few tips from the Italian Renaissance.