According to Machiavelli, the ideal prince should be ruthless and willing to eschew conventional morality to maintain his power. In fact, they should not allow themselves to be govern according to any principle other than the willingness to do what is necessary to deal with whatever issues that fortune throws in his path. He should be willing to be dishonest, telling people what they want to hear, but it is equally important that he be shrewd enough to make people believe that he is honest:
It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities [of leadership], but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practises them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful.
Similarly, he should be frugal while appearing to be generous, and even though he should be ruthless, he should also appear to be just. Indeed, in Machiavelli's politics, appearances are everything, as is flexibility. The prince's virtue lay not in his obedience to some abstract moral code, but rather in his willingness to do whatever the situation called for. Machiavelli's hard-headed realism is summarized by the following quote:
[I]t seems to me better to follow the real truth of things than an imaginary view of them. For many Republics and Princedoms have been imagined that were never seen or known to exist in reality.
A leader, he claimed, must be like the lion and the fox, in other words, both mighty and forceful, but also sly and duplicitous when the need arose.