Book Review: The Princessa by Harriet Rubin

leadership for womenI’ve read many books on leadership for women. However, none have stuck in my mind as strongly as Harriet Rubin’s The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.

I found this book when looking for a book on leadership. I wanted something that I could use to boost my skills and recommend to my clients.

Having studied Philosophy at University, I was intrigued by the fact that Machiavelli’s strategies could be made feminine, as the book suggests.

In the opening paragraph, Rubin starts by declaring that:

“This book is about war…it’s about the wars of intimacy, where the enemy is close enough to hurt you, betray you, oppose you, whether it be a spouse, boss, client, parent, child. It’s about war as a route to power…”

Who is a Princessa?

Rubin defines a Princessa as a “…woman among women, a canny fighter, a steely sovereign.”

Unfortunately, Princessas find themselves struggling to succeed in a male-controlled world. It’s a situation a lot of women in leadership and management encounter as they move up the corporate ladder.

Instead of fighting for control like a man would, the Princessa is urged to act like a woman and fight like a woman. She embraces her unique feminine power and uses it to win.

Rubin gives examples of real life Princessas throughout the book and explores their unique characteristics, strategies and tactics.

3 key lessons I got from The Princessa

1. Women thrive in times of chaos 

Rubin explores the fact that women rise above societal rules when they’re “…freed from the burden of playing by the rules.”

This is best seen in times of war when women take up roles that put them in direct danger. They act as spies, feed the opposition, and spread information right under the noses of the oppressors.

2. Knowing yourself is the first step to winning

To win as a Princessa, you must know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s not enough to learn how to fight and win. What’s more important is to know how the enemy can use both your weaknesses and your strengths to defeat you.

One of the examples given in the book illustrates how easy it is for a woman to lose when she uses emotion instead of strategy. Rubin outlines what she calls the Five Why’s which help the Princessa to “…pry open the lock on who the enemy is and what his secret strategy is…”

I’ve used the Five Why’s strategy effectively since I first read the book…with amazing results!

3. A Princessa who gets drunk on her own power eventually loses

Taking on the Princessa mantle is not an easy job. It means actively taking charge of your life and refusing to settle for less than you’re worth.

However, when you allow your success to go to your head, then it’s easy to fall into Machiavellian tactics when you use force to eliminate your competition and enemies.

That is the beginning of the end as has happened to many leaders in the past.

“A princessa cannot afford to think of herself only as her ideas or her talent or her CV or a wallet for that one great suit. A princessa is a story. She is a story whether she wants to be or not.” – Harriet Rubin

Examples of Kenyan Princessas

Here are some Kenyan women who have shown unique leadership characteristics by embracing their femininity.

  • Margaret Kenyatta (our First Lady).
  • The late Prof. Wangari Maathai (Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner).
  • Njoki Ndung’u (Lawyer and Supreme Court judge).
  • Amina Mohammed (Foreign Affairs CS).
  • Gina Din Kariuki (Entrepreneur and philanthropist).
  • Tabitha Karanja (CEO, Keroche Industries).
  • Carole Mandi (True Love magazine).
  • Sue Muraya (Real estate developer)
  • Julie Gichuru (Media personality).
  • Martha Karua (Lawyer and politician).
  • Caroline Mutoko (Media personality).

These women stand out in different ways. Some are bold and brash. Others are subtle. And others simply live their lives in a way that makes them powerful. They’ve all been through fire and have fought back and risen.

Is The Princessa a good read for everyone?

I’ve recommended this book to women in management and business. However, I do acknowledge that it’s not an easy read and it does get fuzzy in some areas.

Rubin starts on a high note, but something changes her tone as you get deeper into the book. Also, some of the tactics she recommends are outrageous. For example, her advice to use tears and breasts as weapons when dealing with men is manipulative and demeaning to modern women.

Some reviewers of the book have pointed out contradictions, historical inaccuracies and distortions. It’s also worth noting that while the title talks of Machiavelli, the content focuses more on Sun Tzu.

It’s not surprising then that 33% of the people who reviewed this book on gave it one star – the worst score a reviewer can give.

Would I still recommend The Princessa?

I do recommend this book as part of your collection of books on leadership for women. It has useful information, especially in the first half of the book. The last part of the book also has great advice on how to be at peace despite your circumstances.

This is a book you’ll keep coming back to from time to time. It has powerful tactics and strategies to help you improve your leadership and negotiation skills. Also, it’s a great ‘pick-me-up’ when you’ve failed or need something to boost your confidence.

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Disclosure: This review is based on my personal experience of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women. Your experience could be different. Please note that some of the links on this page are affiliate links. As such, I will receive a commission from the vendors when you buy the book using these links. However, I only recommend books and programs that I believe in and that have had a positive effect in my life or business.


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Caroline Gikonyo is a Life and Business coach who works with high-achieving professional and business women who are stuck, overwhelmed, overworked, unhappy and unfulfilled. She helps her clients become leaders in their professions and business industries once they get unstuck and eliminate time wastage. You can contact Caroline to request for a Strategy Session and find out how she can help you achieve better personal, professional, or business results.

5 qualities that will make you an awesome leader


“Leadership is not a title. Leadership is not a position. Leadership is not authority. Leadership is influencing or inspiring the life of another.”

Adam H. White (Leadership Expert and Success Coach)


There are common characteristics of leaders such as courage, having a vision, being authoritative (taking charge), and getting things done.

Being a leader in today’s world means stepping beyond managing people and achieving the goals of your community, business or organization.

In the September 2000 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones wrote a widely acclaimed article titled “Why should anyone be led by you?”

This is a great question to ask yourself if you’re in a leadership position or want to be a leader.

5 Uncommon Qualities of an Awesome Leader

Awesome leaders have uncommon characteristics that make them stand out among their peers.

They are more respected and able to create significant positive change. They can achieve big goals and also motivate people to follow them.

These are important factors in today’s world and today’s article looks at 5 qualities that make these leaders unique.

#1: They selectively reveal a few of their weaknesses

Being a great leader means being able to influence people. One of the easiest ways to do this is to show them that you’re human. Knowing and publicly admitting a weakness creates trust and makes you more approachable.

Take care though not to reveal your flaws as this will be counterproductive. Also keep your revelations to a minimal so that you don’t come across as being incapable of leading.

A good way to get the best mileage from your weaknesses is to turn them into strengths. Your followers will empathize with such weaknesses and relate to you better.

For example, having poor money management skills is a flaw that will work against you when revealed. So will revealing that you can’t sleep without the help of alcohol. In contrast, nervousness when speaking in public is authentic and more positive.

#2: They share what they know

Rising to the level of a leader is a process that is rich with experiences.

Great leaders are not mean with knowledge. They share their wisdom with their peers and the people they lead. They do this through writing, telling stories about their journey, teaching and mentoring.

It’s worth noting that all good leaders take time to mentor upcoming leaders and those with potential for leadership. In this way, they create more leaders for the future.

#3: They are unique and different

One thing you’ll notice about these leaders is that they stand out even when they’re in a crowd of other leaders.

While they do interact closely with their followers, they still manage to maintain some level of distance. Followers are allowed in to a certain level and no more.

Another aspect of their uniqueness is that they have amazing self-discipline and the ability to pursue their own personal development. They set a high bar for themselves and have clear personal and professional values that they live up to each day.

Finally, while they do mingle with their followers, it’s not easy for the followers to really get to know them. They have strong boundaries and very few people are allowed into their inner circle. This creates an element of mystery around them that intrigues and attracts followers.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, or to become more than you are a Leader.” John Quincy Adams

#4: They are highly intuitive

While they may not openly admit it, great leaders rely a lot on their intuition. They have an inner sense of identifying what’s going on, and are able to follow this sense when making decisions.

Care should however be taken not to misinterpret information based on your personal experiences and biases. It takes time to hone your intuition to an art.

If you’re starting out as a leader, back your intuition with data or references so that you make objective decisions. You can also get a second opinion from a trusted member of your team, your mentor, or an advisor.

Awesome leaders achieve big goals and also motivate people to follow them. Click To Tweet

#5: They care…but in a tough way

True leaders really care about their followers. But, they’re able to temper their caring with toughness when need be.

They’re also able to pull away from their followers and allow the followers to work on their own. The leader guides, but they don’t pull people up or force them to perform.

This may sometimes seem harsh, but it’s the only way that everyone in the team can take responsibility for their own role.

On the other hand, a great leader doesn’t take personal credit for success. They take responsibility for all team failures, but share credit for success with the team.

Final Words

Being a true leader goes beyond having a strong vision, being confident, and having the courage to go for what you want. It includes being able to have people want to follow you or work with you willingly.

This form of leadership is not easy to achieve.  It takes time, practice, and commitment to become an awesome leader, but the results are more fulfilling because you end up doing what you do best – lead your team or group to success.

These 5 qualities are not limited to leaders. You can start implementing them in your life, business or profession today if you aspire to move into a leadership role.

With time, you’ll find yourself thinking and acting like a leader. And it won’t be long before you’ll be noticed and moved into a leadership position.

Change starts in you, become an awesome leader today!

Over to you now…

What do you think of these 5 qualities of awesome leaders?

Is there a particular quality that you could easily incorporate this week?

Drop a Comment below and let us know what you’ll be changing.

(Image credit sumetho at FreeDigitalPhotos)


Caroline Gikonyo is a Life and Business Coach at New Dawn Solutions. She helps brilliant professional and business women become more successful while working less. Her clients are able to reduce stress, overwhelm, and burnout and achieve goals they had given up on. You can contact Caroline to request for a complimentary Strategy Session and find out how she can help you achieve better personal, professional, or business results .