Political Advisors: Classic Advice on Choosing & Managing Them

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you choose advisors who will stay loyal to you? How much power should you give them?

In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli advises that princes should surround themselves with reliable advisors. He gives recommendations on where to find advisors and what the relationship with them should be like.

Read more about Machiavelli’s discussion of political advisors below.

Choosing & Managing Political Advisors

Advisors can be chosen from among powerful or wealthy families, the army, or the general populace. In contrast to a traditional nobility, where positions are inherited through families who have a historical claim to their position, the power of political advisors should be conditional and come solely from their relationship with the prince. As long as their resources and authority are conferred by the prince, rather than being something they have a natural right to, they won’t risk betraying him. In addition, whatever they accomplish will be linked to the prince in the eyes of the people.

Machiavelli advises new princes to allow political advisors to feel like their role is important but to moderate how much power they actually have and how freely they can speak their minds. If a prince is willing to ask for advice and even criticism, that shows that they reward good judgment, but a prince who permits advisors to criticize them in public or with particular harshness might look weak. Allowing too much dissent can undermine a prince’s authority. 

To avoid this, advisors should feel confident in telling the truth, but should only do so when asked. Advisors who exist to flatter the prince serve no purpose, but even those who offer genuine and realistic advice should never offer unprompted criticism or express doubt in the prince’s decisions. For their part, a prince should treat their advisors with respect, but it must be understood by all that the prince makes the final decisions.

(Shortform note: Throughout history, political advisors who had too much influence posed a significant threat to the prince’s image and credibility. An advisor who appeared to aspire to power or to already be the true “power behind the throne” could undermine the authority of the entire government. One famous example of this was the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin of Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II but widely believed to be a con artist. Rasputin was eventually murdered by resentful nobles, and the tsar was overthrown in a popular revolution a few years later. The evil or manipulative advisor has even become a trope in fiction, from Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello to Gríma Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings.)

Political Advisors: Classic Advice on Choosing & Managing Them

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  • Niccolò Machiavelli's description of how authoritarian leaders should rule
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  • Analyses of how Machiavelli's lessons survive in modern-day politics

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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