Have you ever been told to be a fox and a lion? Fraud comes in many forms. Scammers are seemingly everywhere. Many people will take advantage of the weak, and leaders cannot afford to be the target. So, what can be done to protect yourself? Machiavelli may have the answer.
In section 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli uses a powerful metaphor to describe personal responsibility and broken contracts. He paints the picture that the world is filled with wolves and that a leader should be well aware of this fact. I feel that the message was a warning about the nature of some people and how they will break promises, and use scams, fraud, and random acts of violence for personal gain. He alludes to the idea that these types of people are outlaws and that while it would be nice to operate within the confines of the law to address such issues, leaders should know that only the law-abiding will follow the law. On the other hand, the wolves are wild and do not care about you or the law.
A Prince should know how to use the beast’s nature wisely, he ought of beasts to choose both the lion and the fox; for the lion cannot guard himself from the toils, nor the fox from wolves. He must therefore be a fox to discern toils, and a lion to drive off wolves.Section XVIII, para. 7
This metaphor (and the chapter itself) could be taken in many ways. However, Machiavelli suggests that leaders must be both the fox and the lion. To truly understand this metaphor, we must examine the nature of the beasts being portrayed. For example, the lion is known for strength and courage and fiercely defending its pride and territory. On the other hand, a fox patiently stalks its prey, is highly curious and cautious, and pays close attention to potential dangers to avoid being trapped in dangerous situations. In other words, if a leader is going to be both, that leader needs to pay close attention to potential dangers, be patient, be courageous, and fight aggressively when necessary.
In many ways, this metaphor demonstrates a leader’s need to master strength and resourcefulness in every situation. Every leader will have opposition, and opponents might seek to ensnare, intimidate, or even eliminate you. Being both the fox and the lion reduces the chances of being taken advantage of or finding yourself in a dangerous situation. The threats to well-being, power, and life come in many forms. Therefore, it is essential for a leader to recognize the nature of the wolves and navigate accordingly.
However, life and leadership are not always so extreme. Sure, sometimes taking this approach could result in a fight, but sometimes it simply means knowing how to avoid pitfalls and protecting yourself from those that attempt to take advantage of you. In the spirit of this, Machiavelli champions kept promises but warned of the necessity to break some. He is saying that leaders are sometimes called to do bad things for good reasons.
And you are to understand that a Prince, and most of all a new Prince, cannot observe all those rules of conduct in respect whereof men are accounted good, being often forced, in order to preserve his Princedom, to act in opposition to good faith, charity, humanity, and religion. He must therefore keep his mind ready to shift as the winds and tides of Fortune turn, and, as I have already said, he ought not to quit good courses if he can help it, but should know how to follow evil courses if he must.Section XVIII, para. 3
That is a powerful statement. It reminds me of something said in the movie “The Patriot.” When the reverend was asked why he, a man of God, was taking up arms against the British, he said, “A shepherd must tend to his flock and, at times, fight off the wolves (Emmerich et al., 2000).” To me, Machiavelli’s suggestion echoes Bennis’s idea that a leader must sometimes avoid doing something the right way when it is more prudent to do the right thing (Bennis & Nanus, 2007).
A simple example of this might be in the lethal protection of your loved ones from an intruder. The fox would lock the door and arm the security system. However, when the intruder finds his way in any way, the lion violently defends the pride. While killing another person is generally frowned upon, such measures are likely justified when someone aims to harm your pride.
Or perhaps another less intense example might be addressing a doctor asking for money for a botched surgery. Machiavelli might suggest that, in this situation, the lion would not pay for the work. But the lion would not stop there. In addition, the lion would likely sue, leave horrible reviews, and spread the bad word to everyone that might listen. Of course, and in the spirit of being the fox, Machiavelli might suggest that you research that doctor’s performance before walking into the clinic in the first place.
Want to read more about Machiavelli? Check out my article titled “Machiavelli – The Prince: Was It a Warning?“
Bennis, W. G., & Nanus, B. (2012). Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge.
Emmerich, R., Gibson, M., Richardson, J., Isaacs, J., Ledger, H., & Rodat, R. (2000). The patriot. London: Columbia Tristar Home Video.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince, translated by N.H. Thomson. Vol.XXXVI, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son,1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/36/1/.