14 Eternal Lessons on Ego and Leadership from Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) earmarked his place in history as “The Sun King,” and certainly stands unique in the endless succession of world leaders. Few other kings or queens have enjoyed such a long reign (he became king at age 4 and sat on the throne for 72 years), and even fewer have left such an indelible mark on history.
Let's be frank: Louis was a notoriously egotistical asshole, and we have many examples of his often cruel indifference to back that up. But regardless of his personality, all of us can learn something from his 72 year reign — you don’t need to like the guy to learn from his achievements and mistakes.
Without further ado, let’s strip down the legend and look objectively at this remarkable king’s legacy.
1. People will try to keep you stupid — never let them
After his father’s death, Louis ruled in minority. He was 4 years old, after all . This left the rule of France to his mother, Anne of Austria. Cardinal Mazarin became the royal court’s main advisor, and he intrigued from the beginning to keep the boy-king stupid.
Louis’ chamber valet, a Monsieur Laporte, read the boy stories of great courtly deeds of his predecessors, inspiring him and telling him he could be as great as the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne one day. Louis responded well, walking taller and gaining more confidence in himself.
When he found out about these evening book-readings, Cardinal Mazarin dismissed Laporte with the snide comment:
“I presume the governor of the king must put on his shoes and stockings, as I perceive his valet de chambre is teaching him history.”
Whether you’re a king or any kind of leader, there’s a good chance that your colleagues want to keep you stupid, and therefore more malleable. Cardinal Mazarin successfully kept Louis away from serious pursuits like books and schooling to keep him distracted on frivolous pursuits like women, royal parties, and gambling. Even by Louis’ adulthood, he was scarcely able to read — and therefore less able to govern his realm with reason.
Avoid this fate at all costs. Invest heavily in your education, and trust your own judgements. Don’t let yourself be bullied by the Mazarins of this world.
2. Unshakeable self-belief and a regal bearing will gain you power, but try to keep some perspective
By the time Louis reached his majority, the kingdom of France was a weakly joined patchwork of dukes and lords each with their own lands, which they jealously guarded. By confidently embarking on a series of insinuations and bold military moves, he was able to bring these loose states inside his kingdom and grow his power.
Louis was not much of a thinker, and often reacted emotionally in his younger years to any kind of slight on his ego. Understand: this held him back more often than it helped him, but he governed his realm without the slightest amount of fear, and that’s a lesson we can all extract for our daily lives.
The obvious problem with ego is that it leads you astray, distorts your perspective, and makes you do stupid things to the people around you. Louis foolishly threw his military forces into unnecessary wars based on nothing more than his vainglorious narcissism. Louis may have increased France’s size and power, but by his death he’d alienated his entire court and every other kingdom in Europe.
3. Meeting enemies with excessive force will bite you back harder in the end
During Louis’ reign, Protestant Christianity was spreading throughout Europe. England and the states now composing Germany had embraced Protestantism as their main religions. These countries had finally come to reject the overt power plays of the Vatican and opt for the simple self-sufficiency that this new movement represented.
To his credit, Louis was a devout Catholic right through to his death, taking daily mass and encouraging his family and royal court to show humble devotion to God. But he could neither understand nor countenance the growing number of French Protestants — known as Huguenots. The Huguenots had spread to 2 million French by the 16th century.
Louis, guided by his blunt stupidity, brutally put down the Huguenots. He tried to force them to convert to Roman Catholicism or be sent to the galleys. At his complete surprise, many Catholics refused and were subjected either to virtual slavery in the French navy or a series of bloody executions as their Protestant bibles burned.
This ‘strategy’ completely backfired. The Huguenots who survived fled to England and Germany, both of which gladly accepted this influx of devout Protestants, eager to swear allegiance to their new masters. Remaining French Catholics were horrified at the brutality, too, which destroyed any sentiment they still had towards their monarchy and arguably lay the foundation for the French revolution.
Louis had either banished or wasted the lives of two million of his own people. How much wiser would it have been to have accepted their differing beliefs and let them work profitably for his realm? Don’t be as blunt with people as Louis was — not only is accepting a diversity of beliefs the right thing to do, but you can continue to use their efforts for your own cause.
Openly he expressed his anguish in view of the profligacy of his youth, and wept bitterly in the retrospect of those excesses. We know not what compunctions of conscience visited him as he reflected upon the misery he had caused by the persecution of the Protestants. But he had been urged to this by his highest ecclesiastics, and even by the holy father himself. — John S. Cabot on Louis’ dying regrets
4. You’ll always regret time spent on frivolous pleasures
Since Cardinal Mazarin and his courtiers had successfully kept Louis’ attention distracted away from education or serious pursuits, the majority of the king’s time was spent with the young girls of his court or in planning the largesse of his next royal party.
This was all paid for with cruel taxes that forced the majority of his subjects into miserable poverty. But the sheer luxury of his lifestyle and the many epicurean tastes he encouraged in his own court left the king distracted from the real problems affecting his realm. The historian John S. Cabot wrote that on Louis’ deathbed, he bitterly regretted the time and vast sums of money he spent on such empty pursuits.
Loudly, however, he deplored the madness of his ambition which had involved Europe in such desolating wars. Bitterly he expressed his regret that he left France in a state of such exhaustion, impoverished, burdened with taxation, and hopelessly crushed by debt. The condition of the realm was indeed deplorable. A boy of five years of age was to inherit the throne. A man so profligate that he was infamous even in a court which rivalled Sodom in its corruption was to be invested with the regency of the kingdom — a man who was accused, by the general voice of the nation, of having poisoned those who stood between him and the throne. That man’s sister, an unblushing wanton, who had poisoned her own husband, presided over the festivities of the palace. The nobles, abandoned to sensual indulgence, were diligent and ingenious only in their endeavours to wrench money from the poor. The masses of the people were wretched beyond description, and almost beyond imagination in our land of liberty and competence. The execrations of the starving millions were rising in a long wail around the throne.
Spend your time doing good work, educating yourself, and focusing on your life’s task. It might be tempting to spend all your time playing video games or watching TV, but if you don’t actually do anything real with your life, it’ll become a bitter regret when your time comes.
5. Spend time with your kids
Only parents can really know this, but there’s nothing like spending time with your kids. When we bring children into the world, our perspective changes, and suddenly everything we do is for their happiness.
Louis may have treated his people and his courtiers with cruel indifference, but he dearly loved his children. While he had legitimate heirs with his two wives, he had many illegitimate children with his numerous royal mistresses, and issued royal proclamations making them princes of equal status.
The historian John S. Cabot recounted another heartrending scene from Louis XIV’s deathbed, where he imparted the following advice to his heir and great-grandson:
“My child, you are about to become a great king. Do not imitate me either in my taste for building or in my love of war. Live in peace with the nations. Render to God all that you owe him. Teach your subjects to honour His name. Strive to relieve the burdens of your people, in which I have been so unfortunate as to fail. Never forget the gratitude you owe to the Duchess de Ventadour.” “Madame,” said the king, addressing Madame de Ventadour, “permit me to embrace the prince.” The dauphin was placed upon the bed. The king encircled him in his arms, pressed him fondly to his breast, and said, in a voice broken by emotion, “I bless you, my dear child, with all my heart.” He then raised his eyes to heaven, and uttered a short prayer for God’s blessing upon the boy.
6. Symbolic actions will earn you more widespread affection than hot air
Louis saw himself as the reincarnation of great rulers like Charlemagne and Alexander the Great, and took his glory seriously when it came to his own royal rule and military conquests.
He would join his armies wherever they were fighting at great personal risk, and on the move he would gladly march at the head of his troops. Upon Louis’ royal coronation which fell during the civil war (known as the “Fronde”), he immediately left Rheims for the ancient city of Stenay, where he joined his troops literally in the trenches. It might be hard to believe in the face of his later egotism, but this king gladly rode on horseback to be with his army, sharing a dinner table with the Marquis de Fabert, his general in command.
Such actions were symbolic and Louis did not engage in any active fighting. But seeing their king taking such personal risks and dining with them had a great effect on his soldiers, increasing their loyalty and bolstering their resolve. It may seem like a small gesture, but showing your own team that you would risk yourself for them will do more than any motivational quotes, and certainly more than any shaming company-wide memos.
7. Live in luxury at others’ expense and they’ll resent you — and probably rebel
The exorbitant luxury in which the king and his court lived were funded by the cruel taxes levied by his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. Most of the French lived in miserable poverty. Once again we benefit from John S. Cabot’s excellent account of contemporary events:
Thomas Jefferson, subsequently President of the United States, who, not many years after this, was the American embassador [sic] at Paris, wrote, in 1785, to Mrs. Trist, of Philadelphia, “Of twenty millions of people supposed to be in France, I am of the opinion that there are nineteen millions more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States.” Even the Duke of Orleans, the appointed regent, said, “If I were a subject I would certainly revolt. The people are good-natured fools to suffer so long.”
Louis saw and treated his subjects with contempt throughout his life. He saw it as their duty to fund his royal lifestyle, and little evidence exists of any sympathy Louis might have had for their poverty. The only thing keeping them from imminent revolt during his rule was fear — Louis had not shrank from brutally putting down any kind of opposition.
However, history has shown us that ruling through fear is rarely a long-term solution, and France was no exception. Napoleon was a great instigator of the later French Revolution, and at St Helena he said the following:
“Our Revolution was a national convulsion as irresistible in its effects as an eruption of Vesuvius. When the mysterious fusion which takes place in the entrails of the earth is at such a crisis that an explosion follows, the eruption bursts forth. The unperceived workings of the discontent of the people follow exactly the same course. In France, the sufferings of the people, the moral combinations which produce a revolution, had arrived at maturity, and the explosion took place.”
If you rule with an iron fist, you may bring your people into line for the time being, but all you’ve really done is spark a burning resentment. While those people might seem to play along, they’re plotting your downfall. It is a much wiser course of action to win your team’s hearts and minds first — you’ll best silence any grumblers by showing them that you respect their opinions and feedback.
8. Forge your own destiny
Kings of France before Louis XIV had resided in the palace of the Louvre, in Paris. This grand building has survived multiple revolutions since and still stands to this day.
Louis was a notoriously vain and insecure man, and he couldn’t countenance his ministers and subjects living in greater luxury and glory than himself. In a famous turn of events recounted in Robert Greene’s book The 48 Laws of Power, the king’s finance minister Nicolas Fouqet inadvertently triggered Louis’ insecurity by throwing a grand party that showed his exorbitant wealth and status.
Louis, far from impressed, put the man to death on tenuous charges of treason and built his own palace at Versailles, then in the middle of nowhere. He used the same architect who had built Fouqet’s magnificent residence, spending what would now amount to tens of millions of dollars, making it the grandest palace in all of Europe.
While this example speaks volumes about the king’s ego, Louis was determined to forge his own destiny and define his own kind of rule. Louis may not be the best character, but he stands out among dozens of past French kings. You don’t have to like the guy to learn a lesson from that.
Upon the death of his lifelong oppressor, the Cardinal Mazarin, there was no longer a chief minister to govern France on Louis’ behalf. An assembly of ministers inquired of the king “to whom he must hereafter address himself on questions of public business.” The emphatic and laconic response was, “To myself.”
9. Don’t be so blunt —flattery, generosity, and hospitality will get you further
Louis XIV may have used heavy-handed methods in war and on his own populace, but just as often he showed great deftness in dealing with the people in his court.
When he wanted something from one of his courtiers, nobles, or ministers, he wouldn’t simply approach the man and bluntly command him. But why not? Wasn’t he the absolute monarch of France? Well yes, but if Louis had pulled rank on the man, then although the man would obey his king, he would walk away feeling resentful. It’s the natural reaction to a bullying boss.
Bluntly making demands of your own team has the same effect — you’ll only foment negative mental states in the people you need to work with. You feel powerful for a few minutes, but in the long run it’s not productive.
Here’s how Louis would approach the situation. Over the course of several months, this courtier would find that his son had been promoted to a well-paying post, or the king would gift him a rare painting that he had coveted. Only then would Louis ask the man for his favour, who would gladly accept to offer his help.
Don’t be so blunt and overt in your dealings with people. Telling people the raw, unfiltered truth will just make them instinctively put up a barrier against you. All you’ll do is piss people off and show your cards. Instead, soften the soil — give to get. If you want something from someone, you’ll do much better by first charming them with sweet words and thoughtful gifts.
10. Respect people’s time and acknowledge their loyalty
The French king’s court often suffered terribly at his easily distracted whims. Louis did not pay any attention whatsoever to the sufferings of his court, and took the loyalty his royal mistresses completely for granted.
Louis’ most notable lovers, Louise de la Vallière and Madame de Montespan, began as favourites, enjoying his undivided attentions and bearing a dozen of his children, but as time passed inevitably their status as court favourite waned in favour of some new, younger mistress. Driven to despair by the king’s thoughtless contempt, Louise repeatedly entered a convent, spending the final decades of her life alone in a dark cell, forcibly estranged from her own children.
Though Louis was an absolute king and could do as he wished, this was not a good way to treat people, least of all the women who had bore the children he had loved. He refused to officially acknowledge his marriage to his second wife Madame de Maintenon, in spite of her loyal devotion and all the wise counsel she had provided him in his later life.
11. Take pain on the chin and don’t whine
Louis XIV famously suffered from an anal fistula in his late forties. According to contemporary accounts, the king did not utter a noise during the painful procedure, even without modern anaesthetic:
Premature old age was fast advancing upon the king, though he had as yet attained only his forty-ninth year. He was tortured by the gout. He was also attacked by a very painful and dangerous internal malady. His sufferings were dreadful. It became necessary for him to submit to a perilous surgical operation. The king met the crisis with much heroism. Four persons only, including Madame de Maintenon, were present during the operation. Indeed, the greatest precautions had been adopted to keep the fact that an operation was to be performed a profound secret. During the operation the king uttered not a groan. It was successful. In gratitude he conferred upon the skilful operator who had relieved him from anguish and saved his life an estate valued at more than fifty thousand crowns.
Nobody likes a whiner, and though Louis kept his operation a secret out of vanity, his demeanour during such painful surgery is worthy of respect.
12. Assume a calm dignity in contentious situations
Louis had a famously laconic wit, delivering enigmatic remarks that shut people up and put them in their place. The historian John S. Cabot recounted one such example:
The Duke de Mazarin, a relative and rich heir of the deceased cardinal, and who assumed an austere and cynical character, ventured on one occasion, when displeased with some act of the king, to approach him in the presence of several persons and say, “Sire, Saint Genéviève appeared to me last night. She is much offended by the conduct of your majesty, and has foretold to me that if you do not reform your morals the greatest misfortunes will fall upon your kingdom.” The whole circle stood aghast at his effrontery. But the king, without exhibiting the slightest emotion, in slow and measured accents, replied, “And I, Monsieur de Mazarin, have recently had several visions, by which I have been warned that the late cardinal, your uncle, plundered my people, and that it is time to make his heirs disgorge the booty. Remember this, and be persuaded that the very next time you permit yourself to offer me unsolicited advice, I shall act upon the mysterious information I have received.” The duke attempted no reply. Such developments of character effectually warded off all approaches of familiarity.
When tensions are high, you gain nothing from an emotional outburst — they may feel good at the time, but they invariably hurt you in the long run. If people make you emotional, then they have power over you. Deny them that power, and take control of yourself.
13. A ruthless streak will keep you alive, but it may cost you in the long run
Louis had a ruthless streak that showed itself at many points in his rule. He subjected his own people to poverty to fund his lavish and idle lifestyle, he literally destroyed the Palatinate purely out of spite, and killed or banished 2 million French Protestants. An account from Histoire de l’Edit de Nantes of Louis’ dragoon forces illustrates this:
“The cavalry attached crosses to the muzzles of their muskets to force the Protestants to kiss them. When any one resisted, they thrust these crosses against the face and breasts of the unfortunate people. They spared children no more than persons advanced in years. Without compassion for their age, they fell upon them with blows, and beat them with the flat side of their swords and the butt of their muskets. They did this so cruelly that some were crippled for life.”
Such egregious indifference allowed Louis to commit great acts of cruelty which, throughout his reign, kept people at bay and made them think twice about crossing him.
Showing people that you’re not to be trifled with can work for itself — your reputation will precede you, after all. When dealing with a bullying manager, for example, it is good to not be overwhelmed by their blustering outward behaviour, and instead to address them as if you had no fear of them whatsoever. Remember that all outward behaviour masks its internal opposite — your blustering bully of a manager is really a coward, and addressing them fearlessly yet politely with stern, unflinching eye contact will send a message that crossing you isn’t worth the hassle.
Be careful with how you play this. Louis’ arrogant and contemptuous treatment of others had the ultimate effect of alienating virtually everyone he knew and lay the foundation for the French Revolution. It is much better to be indirect in your behaviour than to lose perspective and let your ego get the better of you.
14. Remind yourself of death and mortality — take action today and leave no room for regrets
Throughout his 72-year reign, basically everyone Louis knew died, including his grandchildren. His heir, Louis XV, was his great-grandson and a mere toddler. It is speculated that one of his court mistresses eliminated most of Louis’ direct family with poison — indeed, Louis saw his mother, his first wife, his brother, and nearly all of his children die, most of them in agony and before old age.
Surrounded by death, Louis became more and more desperate to avoid thoughts of his own mortality as time progressed. He avoided funerals wherever possible, and even dodged the deathbeds of his closest friends. In his final years, even in his most diminished physical state, he would cake his face in makeup and stand up as straight as he could. As the historian John S. Cabot later put it, “Death was, to this monarch, truly the king of terrors.”
When it came to his death, Louis wept terribly, crying as he listed his countless regrets — he hated how much time he had wasted on parties, drinking, and luxury, how he had sunk France into debt in pointless foreign wars, and how badly he had neglected his education. Though he managed to imbue his heir with the lessons he wished he’d followed, his great-grandson would turn out to be even worse, a complete waste of space who swelled the national debts and only further aggravated the poor French people.
Avoid Louis XIV’s sad fate by meditating on death rather than avoiding it. We all must die, so why not just accept it and do the things we need to do? Too many people on their deathbeds feel like they’ve wasted their limited time away on inconsequential things. Marcus Aurelius said the following quote in the movie Gladiator (though no record exists), “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
You’re going to die.
Your time is limited.
Find your life’s task, and follow it.
Louis XIV of France may have been one of history’s biggest jerks, and his legacy left a dubious path towards the abolition of monarchy and the rise of democracies. But history is there to be learned from; you don’t have to like Louis as a person to learn a lesson or two from him on life and leading a team.
Posted on: 10th September, 2018
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