Solid Advice for New Chiefs from Machiavelli

That’s right…helpful tips from Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance philosopher, author and diplomat. Writing from Florence in the 1500s, Machiavelli is one of the founders of modern political science. The poor guy…he has such a bad reputation and it is all based on a statement he never made. He did not say, “The end justifies the means.” And what he did say doesn’t mean that. Instead, what he really said should be taken to heart by everyone in a leadership position


The facts are that Machiavelli has extremely relevant advice for new chiefs. Why? The average tenure of a new chief is three years. You worked your entire career, took all those college courses, attended all those seminars to get to the top job, and left it in just three years. Maybe you took another chief’s job. Often not. The whole message

Machiavelli has very different advice for the new chief depending entirely on which of two different paths led you to the chief’s job. First, did you inherit the kingdom? Second, did you conquer the kingdom? Exactly how you got to the position of chief (or sheriff) will dictate what you need to do to keep that job.

Given the Kingdom

Inherit? That is when you rise from deputy chief to chief, or chief deputy to sheriff, as the obvious, virtually uncontested choice. You are the clear and understandable successor – the oldest son becomes the king when the king dies. Simple as that. There was really never any question about it. You are the ultimate insider. You may have had to interview with other candidates or run in a

With this path to the top job, you can be successful, i.e., keep your job, as long as you just don’t mess things up. In this case, according to Machiavelli, it is easy to rule. Avoid doing dumb things. Don’t break old customs or traditions. Don’t institute any radically new changes or significant policy decisions. It doesn’t take any extraordinary skills or abilities on your part. You already have a sense of unchallenged legitimacy on your side. Just don’t screw it up.

Status quo? Yes! Exactly! That is precisely what you want. In a relatively good, relatively well-run, relatively scandal-free department, you want to keep that status quo. Sure, you want to make your mark. Sure, as you see it, you want to improve operations. Just be careful. Be slow and measured in making your changes. When you got the top job, the department was pretty good overall. Keep that in mind. You could do a lot worse than just keep it that way.

Don’t worry that you won’t have anything to do. Things change all the time. You will have your hands full just keeping things running fairly smoothly in the face of changes from outside influences. It will be hard enough to keep a pretty good department pretty good. Be careful and cautious about adding your internal changes to that mix. Examples abound of a new chief fixing all sorts of things that were not broken.

On the other hand, as long as you are not outright incompetent, you will probably make it OK. You know that getting this far has been a long, hard, personal struggle. Don’t be insulted when Machiavelli tells you to take things relatively easy and enjoy your own incredible luck. No, it wasn’t luck, it was hard work…but compared to the other career path, it will seem like incredibly good luck.

Conquered the Kingdom

If you had to battle for the job, if you have fought cut-and-thrust, Machiavelli has entirely different advice for the new chief. You fought tooth-and-nail against three other deputy chiefs for the job. You won a divisive, hotly contested, back-stabbing election against three other deputies to become the new sheriff. As the lower ranking officer in the department, you have risen beyond your station, passing over higher ranking officers to be appointed chief.
How about the ultimate outsider? You accept a job in an entirely new department – new geographic location; different departmental culture; totally new everything. Like a move from the heavily urban East Coast to Midwestern America. From the Midwest to the West Coast? North to South? High crime to low crime? Low crime to high crime? Urban versus suburban versus rural? Big department to small? A step up from small to big or medium to big?

And you don’t necessarily even need to be at the front of the battle. How about a bitterly fought mayoral election and then the new mayor picks you from apparently nowhere, i.e., patrol sergeant to be the new chief? (Hey, this happens!)

However you got to the top job, you are not the logical and obvious successor; you are not the unchallenged successor. You have had to conquer to get there or you are the new guy or gal with absolutely no sense of legitimacy at all. You must start from scratch.

Grab the First Opportunity

First, Machiavelli has some advice on taking the very first opportunity for the chief’s job. Good rulers (the successful ones) are the ones where their basic management style and character just so happen to match the needs of the land at the time. Be truthful with yourself. Are you a good fit for the new position in this particular department at this particular time? Even if the selection committee or populace would be willing to put you in the top job, is it a good fit for your style?

Don’t simply and naively take the first chief’s job that comes along. Do a bit of self-assessment. You know you – or at least, you should. Do you have the skills and temperament for that department as you and the department are now? Are you really good at sorting out messes? Is your motto ‘Nver let a good crisis go to waste’? Or are you better at slowly and steadily moving a department from mostly good to really good?

To be successful, you need to be the right kind of chief in the right department at the right time. If not, Machiavelli would have told you to pass. Either that or be extremely good at adapting. And few are.

The Fox and the Lion

Speaking of personalities, natural abilities and the ability to adapt, Machiavelli has some advice here, too. The fox is thoughtful and clever. The lion is strong and tough. The fox cannot defend itself from the wolf. The lion cannot defend itself from the traps. To be successful, you cannot be either an insightful fox or a forceful lion. You need to be able to move between both, to know when to do it and to be able to strike the right balance.

Machiavelli is telling you to be able to adapt – because your department will change over time, or will change upon your arrival. Sometimes, you must be cautious. Sometimes, you must be bold. Even if you are neither by nature. The best rulers are the ones that can adapt. Can you? Are you ready to? Are you – the real you – a good fit as chief for this particular department? Or should you patiently wait for a better fit?

First Task for New King

By the very definition, as the conquering chief, you are changing the rules of the game. It is now a totally new department. What is your first task as the foreign ruler? Machiavelli echoes Sun Tzu: build alliances. If you want to survive the next mayoral election, the next town board election, the next sheriff’s election – and you are not from around here – you need to make alliances.

The truth is there will always be people who think they are better off in the new regime. Yes, these are the disgruntled among the police staff. They will be obvious. They will immediately seek to influence you. Make alliances with these people to initially gain power and legitimacy. Of course, also begin to make alliances with your city or county government peers, inside law enforcement and out. But you don’t need Machiavelli to tell you that.

Importantly, realize the alliances you make with the disgruntled barons will not last. These people have unrealistic expectations. And you will not be able to make all of the changes they want, and perhaps won’t be able to make any of the changes. Those disgruntled staffers will once again become disgruntled, but you will have used them for your own purposes. Machiavelli would be so proud. At least now, you have a toe hold. At least now, you are ready to make the really big move. From what you may have been told of Machiavelli, you are not going to believe this next advice.

Rank & File

The second step, right after making those initial allegiances, is to develop the support of the rank and file officers. Machiavelli discusses your command staff later. Right now, the priority is to gain the confidence and legitimacy from the worker bees. The farmers and merchants are less fickle and less demanding than the disgruntled barons among your staff.

Your mid-level managers have agendas, ambitions, aims and goals that may be different from yours. On the other hand, your patrol officers and detectives have a job to do, and they mostly just want to get on with doing their job. For the most secure rule, get your new rank and file on your side and

So, how do you do that? The first step is access. Especially with the more recent generations of officers, but as timeless as the Renaissance, people want to know they have access to the new chief or sheriff. Yes, this is the much lip-service, seldom-practiced, better known as the exception than the rule, “open door policy.” Except Machiavelli actually meant it. Actually be receptive to the rank and file. They may not have had meaningful access to the former chief. Remember all that “active listening” stuff? Use it.

If you are a true outsider – you know, that unwelcome usurper – and many chiefs are, this is an excellent way to get a realistic glimpse of the new culture. If you are the conquering successor – that illegal claimant to the throne without securing the consent of the governed – this is a valuable first step.

You may be able to make some early and easy changes that immediately gain you everlasting favor. The patrol division is on 10-hour shifts and they hate it. The vast majority – confirm this first, of course – want to go back to eight-hour shifts. So do it. Patrol is on eight-hour shifts and have pleaded to deaf ears to go to 10-hour shifts. So do it. You are now a hero.

Barons, Nobles and Magnates

Overall, Machiavelli was cautious of the conquered farmers, merchants, yeoman and peasants. He was no fool. Far from it – he was a political pragmatist. On the other hand, he is not so tolerant of the higher ranks. Machiavelli wrote that the ruler is judged by his senior staff. He was very selective and very demanding of the senior admin – your direct reports.

The senior staff needs to be loyal to the ruler – they need to be on, and stay on, your side, period. Absolute loyalty. They also need to tell you the truth, even if it is not what you want to hear. Toward that end, they need to know that the more freely they speak, the more you like it.

Finally, the new chiefs and sheriffs need to listen to their opinions. Not necessarily act on any or all of the advice, but seek it and pay attention while it is being offered. There is that active listening thing again. While it certainly sounds like Shakespeare, it was Machiavelli who told the new ruler to be a frequent questioner and a careful listener.

Use Cruelty Well Now we are talking about the real Machiavelli. Not so fast! He said it alright, but the phrase actually means, ‘Use ruthlessness wisely.’ The modern equivalent? Be willing to make the tough, hard or harsh decisions.
It is not enough to have good ideas, and not enough to be an elegant speaker. Be willing to be tough when it is called for. Be able to be ruthless. Some chiefs and sheriffs simply cannot make the tough calls, the tough decisions, even when they desperately and obviously need to be made.

To the point, as a new chief, you are going to make an assessment, person by person, of your top staff. If you need to make changes to your top staff, don’t do it piecemeal. Don’t drag it out. Make a one-time, sweeping change. Get it over quickly. Stabilize the situation as soon as possible. Do it as soon as possible; do it once, get the bloodbath over, and move on. The corporate world does this as a matter of practice.

When Sorrows Come

Problems will come. Troubles will arise. Machiavelli’s advice? Be on the scene before it happens. Remember all that active listening stuff? You need to be able to see trouble coming and to immediately deal with it. Small problems are hard to diagnose but easy to cure. Big problems are easy to diagnose but hard to cure.

Early detection works equally well in both medicine and politics. When you detect these small problems, follow the advice of that legendary lawman, Barney Fife: Nip it, nip it, nip it in the bud. This early warning and action advice dates back to Renaissance England…and probably before.

When you are on the ground, at the scene, with the troops, you are going to have grass roots vision, you are going to have unfiltered and local intel. (Sounds like the Community Oriented Policing style, eh?) If he were alive today, Machiavelli would call this management style Cop Oriented Policing. Know your rank and file.

The End Justifies What?

Machiavelli did not say, ‘The end justifies the means.’ This has become one of the world’s most famous quotes that was never said. Sophocles (450 BC) wrote, ‘The end excuses any evil.’ Ovid (15 AD) wrote, ‘The result justifies the deed.’ Either one of these quotes could easily be, ‘The end justifies the means: All actions are justifiable by their result; any action is acceptable to get a good end; anything goes, it is just the results that matters.’

Instead, Machiavelli wrote almost the opposite. His Italian text is best translated, ‘One must consider the final result.’ Think it all out, and then make your action count toward the goal. The means and the end are related. Think out the means in light of the end. Think out the end in light of the means.

Debate the means, and carefully pick the best one. You can’t use just any method, any means. Ask your senior staff, listen to their brutally honest opinions, think of the ramifications, then make a careful but firm judgment call.

We already know the end will be evaluated in light of the means. Machiavelli knew it, too. For example, in some cases, a zero-tolerance, clamp-down is the right solution to restore law and order. In some cases, it is the wrong solution. Is the action you are planning going to help or hurt progress toward the ultimate, long-term goal? Keep both the short-term and long-term goals in mind, keep the ramifications of the means in mind, then make the hard decision.

One of my former commanders used to say, ‘What problem is your solution going to cause?’ That is pure Machiavelli. One must consider the final result.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2012

Rating : 8.3

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Chief of Police Ret, Bellevue, WA

Posted on : Apr 21 at 5:51 PM By D.P. Van Blaricom

Ed Sanows article should be required reading for ALL new Chiefs and Sheriffs - he is EXACTLY right!

Chief Deputy

Posted on : Apr 19 at 11:00 AM By Jerry Sheridan

I have been reading Law and Order magazine since I was a kid when my father, a lieutenant with NYPD, brought them home in the late 60s and throughout my 34 year career with the Sheriffs Office in Phoenix AZ. I hope this next comment does not go to Ed Sanows head but of the thousands of articles read his is by far, hands down the best on leadership. Nothing further on the subject needs to written.

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