I’ve recently released my latest book, In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History. It is partly a collective biography, partly an anatomy of hereditary imperial monarchy as a political system, and partly a study of leadership. If emperors made no difference to history then individuals truly count for little. But actually many emperors did make a big difference in ways that resonate down to this day. One example must suffice: without the Indian emperor Ashoka, who lived in the third century BCE, Buddhism would probably have died out or remained confined to a small sect in northern India, instead of becoming one of the world’s greatest religions.
Not all kings are created equal
The most famous book on royal leadership is Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Of course I make use of it but not as much as you might expect. The princes whom Macchiavelli was advising were the parvenu Italian local despots of his day. Many of his examples were drawn from the history of the Roman emperors. In both these cases rulers enjoyed little dynastic or religious legitimacy when compared to most of the great imperial regimes which I study. As Macchiavelli himself stated, the legitimate hereditary monarchs of long-established dynasties were in a different category to the men about whom he wrote.
One fascinating aspect of hereditary rulership is that it squarely poses the question of whether leadership is innate or can be taught. Educating a future autocrat is a daunting task. Above all, the boy has to absorb a sense of responsibility, self-discipline and self-limitation. As ruler he would have access to every luxury and vice. No one would have the right to criticise him. If grandiosity, self-importance and megalomania are the downfall of many CEOs, they were even likelier attributes of a monarch who from his earliest consciousness knew that he was a man apart. The most fatal flaw for any emperor was to believe his regime’s propaganda that depicted him as all-wise and all-powerful. Though emperors needed to present an inspiring public persona, the greatest of them preserved an inner balance, realism and even humility. Facing all the pressures and temptations of power, they had a powerful sense of responsibility to something greater than themselves – heaven, dynasty and community.
Lessons for today from 2000 years of emperors
My book covers emperors from the third millennium BCE down to the twentieth century CE, and across the entire globe. Of course there were vast differences in the political, religious and dynastic cultures in which emperors operated and in the challenges they faced. Nevertheless there were vital common threads running through their stories. One such thread might be called aging-emperor-syndrome. Among its symptoms were exhaustion, growing isolation, increasing unwillingness to listen to advice and unawareness of new challenges and currents. Crisis management is another common theme in my book. Probably the most interesting contemporary historian of imperial China writes that at times of crisis, when swift and resolute decision-making was required, many emperors proved completely inadequate, fluctuating between competing court factions, acting erratically and hastening their dynasty’s demise. This is an accurate description of Louis XVI’s behaviour when faced with the French Revolution. Emperors with military experience were often the best crisis-managers – in battle one takes rapid decisions on the basis of inadequate information amidst great stress and danger.
Often the most revealing sources on the art of leadership are the deeply secret and personal instructions emperors drew up for their heirs. The memoranda of the seventh-century Chinese emperor Tang Taizong, Louis XIV of France (r 1643-1715) and Empress Maria Theresia of Austria (r 1740-80) are the pick of the bunch. The most frequent and heartfelt advice these rulers gave to their heirs was the need to know, criticise and discipline oneself. Next came the call to act responsibly as the trustee of a sacred office and a dynastic heirloom. The hardest of all knowledge and the most crucial for a monarch was to understand humans. The monarch’s success depended on the ministers he chose. Further advice was to flee flattery, reward those who tell you what you don’t want to hear, and never let anyone monopolise your ear or block the channels of information and patronage on which effective rulership depends. In council always speak last or you will never hear contrary opinions. Resolution, toughness and stamina were essential but must be combined with the benevolence and justice which marked the legitimate monarch off from the tyrant. Defining priorities, matching ends to means, listening more than one spoke and guarding one’s tongue were also essential for success. An emperor might be God’s anointed rather than a mere CEO, but there is much that is timeless when it comes to managing humans in order to achieve a leader’s goals.
About the Author
Dominic Lieven is the author of In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History, published by Viking. He is an Honorary Fellow and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and an Honorary
Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He previously taught Russian Studies at the London School of Economics for thirty-three years. His book Russia Against Napoleon won the Wolfson Prize for History (UK) and the Prix Napoleon (France).