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Atia: My congratulations, you're good as king now.
Octavian: Not king, merely First Citizen.
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This is a variation of The Emperor. Maybe he's a dictator who controls half the universe with an iron fist, whom no one dares to oppose. Maybe he can order a planet destroyed and no one will so much as try to object. You will probably expect his title to be three pages of Badass Boast, probably ending with something pompous like "The Magnificent."

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Or maybe he is a Reasonable Authority Figure who recognizes that blatant displays of power, even just by holding the title "Emperor", may cause unnecessary complications in the affairs of state.

Either way, his title is short, simple, and unpretentious, quite possibly little more than a job descriptor. His authority doesn't come from his title; it comes from himself.

Also, it's a perfect way to escape responsibility. You don't rule anything, after all; you're, "just a citizen." It can demonstrate how well you've stayed attuned to the common people and their needs, or shameless propaganda to present such an image. It may also be necessary to not violate tradition, the constitution or both. Say your country has a century old aversion to having a king. Well, if you are just the "hereditary first citizen" you are not a king, are you? Or your country's constitution has term limits on the presidency. Surely there Ain't No Rule against being "head of the national guard" forever?

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The pretense that he is just a Permanent Elected Official is common. May preside over a Hereditary Republic.

This is Truth in Television, Older Than Feudalism, and much more common in Real Life than in fiction.

See also Modest Royalty and Reasonable Authority Figure. Contrast The Magnificent, I Have Many Names and Authority in Name Only.

Often found ruling a People's Republic of Tyranny.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • In Über, Maria Katyusha takes over Russia after killing Josef Stalin and dissolving the Soviet Union. Given that she is a super soldier with reality warping powers who could very well declare herself any grand title she wants in a god-like power trip, instead she adopts the title of "protector" since she plans to replace communism with anarchy.

     Fan Fiction 
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    Film 
  • A variant occurs in Downfall. After Eva Braun marries Hitler an officer briefly stumbles over what to call her, since they never bothered to come up with a title for the wife of a Fuhrer. She tells him to just call her Frau Hitler.

    Literature 
  • The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov has a series of powerful offices and personages, all distinct from one another, that match the trope exactly.
    • The Mule styles himself only "First Citizen of the Union" despite complete domination of 1/10 of the entire Galaxy and impressive mental powers. Part of this stemmed from his innate inferiority complex, as he was aware that no matter how impressively he titled himself he could never change the fact that he was physically misshapen and almost comically deformed. At least two others claimed the title after the Mule's death, but they had neither the personal or imperial power that the Mule possessed.
    • In later books, the highest title, which commanded the most respect and ruled over more territory and people than the Mule ever did, was simply "Mayor of Terminus". It remained from the times when the Foundation was but a single city on an undeveloped world and persisted at least into the times of the Foundation ruling a third of the Milky Way.
    • The head of the Second Foundation is "First Speaker", which is a literal job-description: He gets to talk first at meetings.
    • The Commdor of Korell claims that Commdor simply means "the first citizen of our Republic".
  • The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld series, whose title simply means "member of a political family".
    • It does seem to be a real elected office, though: in Night Watch it's mentioned that the guilds elect him, and the Patrician has an official residence.
    • One man, one vote... he's the man, so he gets the vote.
    • The Archchancellor of Unseen University likes to describe his position as being "first among equals". Though he puts more emphasis on the "first."
    • Ponder Stibbons, who wields more-or-less absolute power over the University by virtue of being the only one who ever does any work, doesn't actually have a title at all - at least not one that explains his power. His power ultimately stems from holding seventeen staff positions simultaneously, each of which has an unimportant title associated with it. This went completely unnoticed until he called attention to it himself to stop a wizard civil war from igniting in an emotionally charged moment, and afterwards the wizards decided something needed to be done to reduce his power... so they asked Ponder to deal with it.
    • Goes further than most with Granny Weatherwax, who doesn't even have a title. Witches don't have leaders, and while there are many idiosyncratic reasons for that one of the big ones is that Granny wouldn't approve of such a thing. She's also referred to as one of the most respected leaders they don't have.
  • The Lord of the Rings:
    • Though the Stewards of Gondor aren't kings, they control the nation with the same authority the now-defunct line of kings had. Aragorn would have a harder time claiming the long-vacant kingship if not for the suicide of Denethor, the last Ruling Steward, the death in battle of his first son and near-death of the second.
    • The Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien controls everything that happens and can read the minds of intruders into her realm, keeps her people safe from Sauron, and is one of the oldest beings in the world, but is simply called the Lady or the White Lady.
    • Elrond, while "mighty among Elves and Men" and fairly powerful, is simply called "Master Elrond". Elves barely have any concept of "rank"; while they attach prestige to lineage, an individual's actual power mostly derives solely from other elves being willing to follow him (though if a given leader doesn't make many mistakes, other Elves will tend to prefer status quo to revolution). Their political model is basically, in anthropological terms, a pre-chiefdom tribal one, like that of the Sioux or Apache. Mind you, the Elves do have more traditional sophisticated monarchies, and in ages past there were many Elf kingdoms,note  but in the Third Age the only proper kingdom of Elves remaining in Middle-Earth is that of Thranduil at the northern end of Mirkwood (Legolas' people); the other remaining Elven kingdoms are in Valinor.
  • The Black Company's first (arguable) Big Bad. Sorceress-queen with near-Physical God powers. Ruler of an entire continent, and conquering more. Known simply as The Lady.
  • In Stephen King's The Stand, Randall Flagg refers to himself as "Leader of the People and First Citizen" when issuing proclamations.
  • Likewise, in King's The Dark Tower series, John Farson is a warlord who accumulates a significant enough force to bring down Gilead, one of In-World's few remaining stable states. Farson is referred to in-universe by the title "The Good Man."
  • Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court styles himself The Boss.
  • In Tik-Tok of Oz, the eighth Oz book, there is a land where everyone is a king or queen except that the guy with the position of ruling over all these kings and queens is "the Private Citizen". Even he gets a fancy title, namely "the Great Jinjin," but his subordinates still get to have the regal titles that the Private Citizen doesn't.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, the top U.S. governmental position is "Head of State," and its occupant is always referred to simply as "Mr. Thompson"; unimpressive titles both. It's a matter of speculation exactly why the United States no longer has a president in this Alternate History (have they formally abolished the US Constitution?); though Rand said that she wanted characters like Mr. Thompson to seem like mediocrities, and calling him "the President" would have given him a dignity he wasn't supposed to have.
    • Supporting the "Constitution was abolished" theory is the fact that one character is introduced as "Majority Leader of the National Legislature." The US Congress has two chambers, so no single person could ever be the majority leader. And for that matter, in the House of Representatives, the majority leader is actually only the second-ranking position, after the Speaker of the House. Furthermore, the US doesn't actually have a national government, it has a federal government. It is possible that, since Rand's philosophy was pretty clearly meant to be a precise inversion of Soviet Communism, she chose to represent the US as being controlled by a similar governmental system.
  • In Codex Alera, Alera is ruled over by the First Lord, who is presented as the "first among equals" with the rest of the Realm being ruled by High Lords who preside over each major city, and the First Lord officially being the ruler of Alera Imperia, the chairman of the Senate, and the executive commander of the combined Legions in times of war. Unofficially, the First Lord rules over all of Alera and the High Lords bow to him. This causes trouble when the Succession Crisis erupts.
  • Honor Harrington: Robert S. Pierre of the People's Republic of Haven uses the title Chairman of The Committee of Public Safety, or simply Citizen Chairman in direct address.
  • In the last book of the Mistborn: The Original Trilogy, a minor villain named Quellion has taken over the city of Urteau and turned it into a Dystopia where former nobles are gathered up, locked in a building, then burned alive, while the common people are subject to increasingly strict regulation according to Quellion's ideas of how people should live. Despite being effectively a king, due to his "anti-noble" stance claiming a noble title would be counterproductive, so Quellion instead calls himself "the Citizen".
  • In James Blish's Mission To The Heart Stars, the Hegemon of Malis objects to even being addressed as "your excellency". Hegemon is sufficient.
  • In Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, Earth is ruled by the Good Men.
  • Subverted in The Wheel of Time. In his role as leader of the Asha'man, Mazrim Taim takes the title M'Hael, which literally just means "leader" in the Old Tongue, something that doesn't seem that impressive. However, taken without specifications, it carries the implication that he leads everyone and everything, making it a rather grandiose title after all. After Taim gets promoted to the Forsaken in the last book, he actually changes his name to M'Hael.
    • Played straight with the leader of the Aes Sedai, disputably the most powerful monarch in the land and analogous to medieval and renaissance popes, whose title of Amyrlin Seat is literally just the name of the chair she sits in. Even "Aes Sedai" itself means "Servant(s) of All".
  • In Andre Norton's Catseye, the Blue Blood customers of Kyger's have many titles; one is merely Citizen Dragur, though.
  • Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday has an especially nasty one: "(T)he father of the present First Citizen climbed to the throne over uncounted dead bodies and his son stays on that throne by being even more ruthless than his father"” He later gets assassinated, ending the danger for Friday to become one of those dead bodies.
  • Not his official title, but in Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series, Jake Featherston prefers to be called "Sarge" even after becoming President of the CSA.
  • Revanche Cycle: Veruca Barrett insists she's merely the "mayor" of Winter's Reach, when she's actually an iron-fisted dictator with an elite force of killers under her command. She gives a speech about how she's really just an average citizen and the people of the Reach are all equal; the crowds eat it up, even though it's patently untrue.
  • For Want of a Nail has both of the dictators of the United States of Mexico doing this:
    • Benito Hermion spends most of his reign after seizing power referring to himself by the simple title of "Chief of State", only shifting it to "Emperor of Mexico" near the end. And interestingly enough, it's only when he does that that Kramer Associates decide he's gone too far and engineer a coup to bring him down.
    • Vincent Mercator later does this several different ways — first, after the Military Coup he engineers following the chaos of the Global War, he has his nominal superior Field Marshal Garcia rule as a Puppet King. Then, after a few years, he takes direct power but doesn't promote himself past his normal rank of Colonel. And finally, when he eventually sets up a facade of democracy, he doesn't get himself elected President, but rather settles for the position of Secretary of War (while the newly elected President is another Puppet King).
  • In the second book of Erebus Sequence, the de facto new queen disdains the title which would normally come with her role. This reflects a dislike of the traditional power structures of the kingdom rather than either humility or public relations.
  • In Stark's War, the protagonist would rather still be referred to as plain "Sergeant" than get a new title after leading his rebellion, though his fellow sergeants do manage to persuade him to differentiate himself with "Commander" ("General" being right out, even though that's the job he's now doing).
  • 1632: Mike Stearns goes through a handful of official titles, but they are mostly (at least to the ears of his 17th century contemporaries) relatively negligible. Prime Minister of the United States of Europe (before he - intentionally - loses reelection), a mere general among many in the army of Gustav Adolph of Sweden - the people however only refer to him as "the Prince of Germany" - a funny title for an erstwhile Union organizer from Appalachia. Prince also directly derives from the Latin Word princeps, the title the Trope Namer Augusts wanted to be referred to; it's no accident that the German word for it, Fürst, sounds like "first".
  • In the first two books of The Starchild Trilogy, the Planner is officially just the man in charge of making sure that the dictates of the great Planning Machine, which is in charge of protecting and preserving mankind, are carried out properly. In practice, of course, he has great latitude in interpreting the machine's instructions, and is a dictator in all but name.
  • In Shogun, Nakamura took on the title Kanpaku after uniting all Japan under his rule. It just means "Chief Advisor," since he was supposed to be the chief advisor for the Emperor. After retiring, he took on the title Taiko (meaning 'retired kanpaku'), and continued ruling Japan until his death.
  • In ''The Annihiliation Score, Mo mentions reporting to an Assistant Undersecretary at her briefing at the Department of the Interior, and points out that this is not a junior flunky but "a frighteningly senior civil servant".
  • In Anno Dracula, Count Dracula rules The British Empire not as a king, but as "Prince-Consort". Queen Victoria was reduced to a vampire bride and little more than a puppet to him, whose existence is the only thing legitimizing his claim. After being dethrone, he becomes supreme leader of the Central Powers while using the mere title of "Graf" (Count in German), though he is technically outranked by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz-Joseph, Sultan Mehmed V and Tsar Ferdinand, therefore is a Dragon-in-Chief.
  • Heroic example in Victoria, where William Kraft is officially merely a state governor, and John Rumford merely Quartermaster General on the Army General Staff. Between the two of them, they nevertheless effectively control the whole Confederation.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: Averted Trope with Citizen G'Kar. He was offered absolute power for organizing the Narn Resistance and participating in the assassination of Emperor Cartagia, but he refused and only accepted his old position of an ambassador. Nevertheless, his fans continue to pester him until the end of the series. Indeed, they pester him more and call him a prophet after the accidental publication of his (unfinished) memoirs (whose philosophical content leads it to be declared a holy book, much to G'Kar's embarassment if not displeasure).
  • Blake's 7: First Citizen Hower of planet Obsidian is a rare non-villainous example, or at least a True Neutral one, being the leader of a secretive colony of ostensibly Perfect Pacifist People who turn out not to be all that perfect on closer inspection after the Liberator and Servalan's ship turn up in orbit.
  • Flash Gordon: In the re-imagined series, Ming is no longer "Emperor Ming the Merciless" who dressed like rulers of Ancient China. Instead, he prefers a military uniform and the self-appointed title of "Benevolent Father". His subjects, though, still occasionally call him "Ming the Merciless" behind his back. And his daughter is still called Princess Aura.
  • Game of Thrones: The obvious leader of the ruling council of Qarth refers to himself as "simply a trader of spices." Everyone else just calls him "the Spice King".
  • The Prisoner (1967): An almost literal example, where every citizen of the Village is known by number rather than by name. The official in charge of the Village is known simply as "Number Two." (The nature of Number One is one of the arc mysteries.)
  • The Prisoner (2009): The remake takes it even further, with there actually being no "Number One" and Number Two genuinely being the sole ruler. Apparently, the lack of a "Number One" is to remind the Villagers that they are all public servants, even their leader. (Apart from 2, the closest thing to a 1 is his wife, identified as M2.)
  • Revolution: President and General Bass Monroe of the Monroe Republic. The name alone is scary enough.
  • Rome: In HBO's show, this is Octavian's Insistent Terminology name for his position. A consummate politician, he knows that Romans still despise the notion of a king and thus makes himself one in all but name.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
    • After Gul Dukat takes over the Cardassian government, he retains the title Gul, roughly equivalent to a colonel or navy captain:
    Sisko: Still calling yourself 'Gul'? I'm surprised you haven't promoted yourself back to Legate by now.
    Dukat: I prefer the title 'Gul'; so much more hands-on than 'Legate'. And less pretentious than the other alternatives: President, Emperor, First Minister... Emissary.
    Sisko: How about "Dominion puppet"?
    • The Terok Nor novels suggest that, having served under a succession of Legates who are little more than Obstructive Bureaucrats, he's developed something of a grudge against the position. Dukat's former protege Damar and successor as the head of Cardassian government clearly didn't feel the same way; he jumped straight from Glinn (roughly equivalent to a major) to Legate, skipping the rank of Gul entirely.
    • As Sisko noted in the quote above, Dukat did hold the rank of Legate once, an award for supporting the Detapa Council's coup over the Central Command. Dukat lost that title, though, when he brought Ziyal back with him. A half-Bajoran daughter didn't exactly play over well, even with the civilian government, and he was demoted to freighter duty, and ultimately left to fight the Klingons on his own.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • Kirk & co. come across a Roman Empire-analogue planet where Kirk's buddy Captain Merrick has become First Citizen Merikus.
    • Actually somewhat odd, as it's clear he has no power whatsoever. It appears the only reason for keeping him around is to lure other Federation ships to restock their gladiator supply.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Earthdawn sees the leader of the globe-spanning Theran Empire being named the First Governor instead of "emperor." However, this is an Enforced Trope — one of the founders of Thera summoned several massive earth elementals to create a Sphinx statue that would sit outside the First Governor's palace, watching him for signs of corruption (including making Thera into an empire), and would go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge at its discretion. Not taking up the Name of Emperor is a safeguard against that, even though Thera essentially HAS become The Empire. They also make sure to make the expansive First Governor's Mansion mostly invisible from the outside, though it's unlikely such a powerful magical construct would be fooled.
  • A slight variation occurs in Exalted; while the Scarlet Empress herself has the usual fancy titles, her Dynasty is a different matter. Although being a member of one of the Great Houses confers significant opportunities for and possession of power as a matter of course, there are no titles that automatically come with it (and even the titles one gains from taking actual positions in government are fairly humble; Senator, Satrap, Minister, etc.). The heads of each House are some of the most powerful people in the Realm, but are known merely by their personal names.
  • The Tau from Warhammer 40,000 apparently have a dozen words for variations on "First among equals". The Ethereals especially are just one of five equal castes, and definitely not a ruling class of any kind.
    • Also, the Emperor of Mankind. Even though his soul is literally crafted from the human sacrifices of thousands of psychics, deep down he's just another human who has his seriously dickish moments. He established himself as the Be-All-End-All messiah of Mankind while explicitly declaring that he was NOT God, that a God of Humanity NEVER existed, and that the reason why he is in charge is because he's the most powerful human in the galaxy, period. Unfortunately, this goes horribly wrong, especially when it came to his overly-religious son Lorgar. 10,000 years later, the inverse of this happens; everybody worships him as a god, so he now has the power of one, but he's also dying.
    • His "son" Roboute Guilliman took the title of "Lord Commander of the Imperium" following the Emperor being placed in the Golden Throne and effectively ruled the Imperium as a second emperor for a time until he was fatally wounded in battle. He reclaimed the position after being revived 10,000 years later.
  • Citizen Dawn, from from Sentinels of the Multiverse, is a superhuman supremacist worshiped by her followers as a god. Nonetheless, all superhumans in her faction, including herself, are merely called "citizen."
  • Many of the leadership titles in Battletech are somewhat modest for rulers who hold executive power over dozens and sometimes hundreds of worlds and billions of citizens. While the Lyran "Archon", the FedSun "First Prince" and the "Captain-General" of the Free Worlds League are somewhat impressive, the Draconis Combine is ruled by a "Coordinator" and the rulers of the Capellan Confederation are simply referred to as "Chancellor" (both are military dictatorships where the ruler holds absolute power). Inverted with the "Lord Protector" of the Taurian Concordat, as the protector only has power over the Concordat's protection through the Taurian armed forces and the Taurian constitution (and a very powerful legislative and judicial system) heavily limits their power over civilian life.

    Theater 
  • The titular hero of Lohengrin refuses the title of "Duke of Brabant" in favor of the more functional "Protector." (In Wagner's original script the title was "Leader" — Führer — but that is usually changed these days for obvious reasons.)

    Videogames 
  • Colonel Santiago from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, leader of the Crazy-Prepared Spartan Federation. Other examples include Chairman Yang, Commissioner Lal, Sister Miriam, Captain Svensgard, CEO Morgan, Provost Zakharov, Foreman Domai... Big-shot titles are more of an exception than the norm, even by the leaders of the alien factions.
    • Zakharov's actual title in-game is Academician, which is the Russian equivalent of the Western honorific Doctor or Professor.
    • Chairman is a typical title of Communist leaders, like Mao and Khrushchev.
    • Given the Data Angels' anarchistic nature, it can be assumed that Sinder Roze's title Datajack just means "hacker."
    • The only true grand title is Prophet Cha Dawn. Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five is debatable, given that these are machines with no delusions of grandeur.
    • The reason Domai is only known as a Foreman (he doesn't even get a first name) is because his faction is made up of escaped drones (i.e. lowly workers). Naturally, they wouldn't accept anything higher than a title equivalent to "shift supervisor", meaning he's their immediate superior, but that's it.
    • Given that the Morganites are, essentially, a Mega-Corp, Morgan's title of CEO means quite a lot.
    • The Spiritual Successor Civilization: Beyond Earth largely averts this either with non-stated titles or fairly big titles (e.g. Commander Rejinaldo Leonardo Pedro Bolivar de Alencar-Araripe, General Vadim Petrovich Kozlov). However, Samatar Jama Barre of the People's African Union prefers that his people call him Kubwa Mjomba ("great uncle" in Swahili). Naturally, this helps to inspire great loyalty for their leader.
  • Lynette, First Citizen of Vault City in Fallout 2. Lovingly referred to as "First Bitchizen" by the fan community.
    • Oddly enough, while the title fits, she makes it very clear that she is the leader (more clear than it seems she actually is - she says autocratic rule is absolutely necessary for a government to function, yet she can be overruled by a Council).
    • Joshua Graham from Fallout: New Vegas denies being in charge of the Dead Horses, saying that he is only their warchief. However, it becomes clear to the Courier that they respect and fear him in equal measure to the point where if he told them to "Jump", they would have done so immediately without bothering to ask "How high?"
    • Also in New Vegas, played for laughs in the case of Tabitha. As a crazed Super Mutant who controls the State of Utobitha (a.k.a. Black Mountain), her self-appointed title is "Best Friend Tabitha".
  • Chairman Drek from the first Ratchet & Clank game. Runs an organization that may as well run the entire Blarg homeworld, not to mention is in charge of a lot of their military power. Subverted more and more during the course of the game as he keeps getting more and more prefixes until he's "Ultimate Supreme Executive Chairman Drek", despite how he's not actually gaining anything for the title promotion.
  • In Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Nines Rodriguez is very insistent that he is not a leader of the Anarchs, but just a soldier that's survived longer than any other (given that the Anarchs are, well, anarchists, pretending otherwise would be very hypocritical). Despite this, he's obviously the de facto leader of the Anarchs in downtown L.A., since they all look to him for leadership and follow his advice.
    • Of course, given how the anarchs operate, he didn't exactly pick his role or take the position by free will, and is instead thrust into his position through respect from the other anarchs in Los Angeles. For a bit of contrast, we do have Isaac, the Baron of Hollywood, and he doesn't hold nearly as much authority over the Anarchs as Nines does, even with a title.
  • Inversion in Half-Life 2. Gordon Freeman's crimes have rendered him Anti-Citizen One.
  • In Allods Online, Yasker, the ruler and archmage of the Empire, is styled simply "Leader". Not Emperor, not even Archmage.
  • Played straight in Champions Online. In Multifaria, the Big Bad, Shadow Destroyer, is called "Citizen Harmon".
  • Vayne of Final Fantasy XII takes this Up to Eleven: His official title is "Consul", but he insists that the citizens of Rabanastre don't even use that to address him. Instead, he requests that they address him as "Vayne" and treat him like any other citizen.
  • The version of King Louis Philippe in Aviary Attorney both tries to claim this trope and constantly shows that he doesn't believe in it at all.
  • While the default leader titles in Stellaris don't fit this, at least contextually (High Technician sounds a lot more impressive in a society centered around powerful computers calculating the most efficient ways of governance), they are subject to player customisation — so it is entirely possible to design a People's Republic governed by a First Citizen and have the government type be Despotic Empire
  • Superman in Injustice: Gods Among Us rules over a totalitarian Regime that had previously dissolved all of governments in the world and ceded all authority to him, but his official title is that of "High Councilor". In the tie-in comic, Plastic Man accurately calls him a despot who is even sitting on his own throne.
  • Ulfric Stormcloak in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is effectively the ruler of half the province of Skyrim at the start of the game and can potentially rule over all of it after the Civil War questline is completed, depending on which side you support. Yet, his official title is that of Jarl (the ruler of a single hold) instead of High King. He insists on being called that because he wants to wait for the moot to officially elect him as High King, as per tradition.
  • In Metal Gear Naked Snake goes through a lot of military organisations (most of them NGO Super Powers) as their leader, first is the Mercenary outfit MSF (Military Sans Frontiers) until it's blown up, then the Diamond Dogs which is basically a beefed up version of the previous organisation, both are situated on oil rigs out at sea. Then he goes on to be in charge of Special Operations FOXHOUND and a large military fortress on the southern tip of Africa known as Outer Heaven, and then his own nation of Zanzibar Land. Throughout all of this he takes no military or political rank, simply being known as Big Boss.
    • Revolver/Liquid Ocelot himself manages to become the most powerful man in the world by taking control of every weapon in the world using his GoP system. Yet he never takes any kind of rank or title, only ever being mentioned or addressed by his code name.
  • Meredith Stannard in Dragon Age II during the game's Act 3. On paper, she is merely the Knight-Commander of the Templars in Kirkwall, but following the Qunari invasion which results in the murder of the local ruler, she takes control of the free city as an transitional leader, but prevents elections to select a proper replacement to turn Kirkwall into a Police State. The only person capable of reining her in is Grand Cleric Elthina, and even she is very hands-off and mostly allows Meredith to do what she wants.

    Webcomics 
  • Girl Genius:
    • Baron Klaus Wulfenbach:
      • Despite reluctantly controlling most of Central and Eastern Europe, Klaus Wulfenbach seems content with the lowly title of Baron. For those of you unfamiliar with noble titles, this is like the Chief of Naval Operations insisting on being called Lieutenant; in most systems of nobility it's not the absolute lowest title, but it's close.
      • He also uses this to rub everyone's noses in the fact that yes, they're princes and dukes and whatnot, and according to their rules of succession he wasn't eligible to assume the title even of Baron Wulfenbach (due to being the patched-together and reanimated remains of three Wulfenbach brothers killed in a lab accident), but an illegitimate heir to a minor house was the one who ended the Long War which was destroying Europa.
      • Would-be king of Europa Martellus claims that this was the Baron's biggest mistake, saying that if he had crowned himself Emperor, all of the nobles would have gladly followed him. Refusing the title was refusing to play the game, an insult the noble houses couldn't forgive. It's unclear if he's right, but it turns out that Klaus had a plan for that too—his son is Skifander royalty, on his mother's side.
    • The von Mekkans are seneschals of Heterodyne Lords, and this responsibility includes running the city of Mechanicsburg. They are heads of the shadow government since Wulfenbach conquered the city, but their only official title is "Doom Bell Ringer." To give an idea of just how humble this title is, the Doom Bell is automated. (This is not to mention that it never rings when there's no Heterodyne in residence.) Vanamonde, the current Seneschal, doesn't even seem to have an office, as he prefers to do all of his work at his favorite coffee shop.
  • S.S.D.D: The Anarchists take this a step further. The highest leadership position is Acting First Advisor; the position of First Advisor is reserved for their founder, who is still officially missing in action and has never been formally declared Legally Dead even centuries past his natural lifespan. Position is obtained purely by merit, and the ability to get people to follow suggestions. Disregarding advice can get a person promoted, or demoted, depending on how it works out. Anyone trying to politic their way into position is promptly shot.
  • In The Order of the Stick, General Tarquin likes to publicly claim he is simply the top general of the Empress of Blood. He and his priest friend really run the empire and their four other friends (formerly the other members of their evil adventuring party) run two other empires, making them the de-facto rulers of a third of the continent altogether. The empress being a particularly dimwitted dragon helps with that charade, and they kill anyone who is too close to finding out that Tarquin has more powers than "just a general" should.
  • In Nip and Tuck, the Show Within a Show Rebel Cry features a Royal Brat who, though calling all the shots, is merely "Madame Chairwoman".

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Gargoyles provides a somewhat less villainous example with Oberon, whose sole title is Lord of Avalon, even though for all intents and purposes he's a Physical God who rules the Third Race as king. His sense of egalitarianism seems especially odd, since as a rule he's not exactly humble.
  • Dolf in Alfred J. Kwak does this when he creates a National Crows Party and uses it to seize power in Great Waterland, in a clear satire of the rise and fall of Nazism. Like Hitler's Führer, he demands that others refer to him exclusively as "The President" or "President Dolf". Note that he does this in a country that has apparently been a monarchy for many hundreds if not more years, and where this title doesn't seem to have been widely if at all used prior to Dolf's adoption of it.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, although Long Feng had worked very hard to be Regent for Life over Ba Sing Se and the Earth Kingdom, he retained the simple title of Grand Secretariat.
    • Some seventy years later in The Legend of Korra, Kuvira commands a massive army and is effectively the military dictator of the self-same nation - now the Earth Empire - but does not appear to hold any official rank whatsoever. She is referred to as the "Great Uniter", is addressed occasionally as "your Eminence", and Mako refers to her as "your emperor" in a conversation with one of her lieutenants, but those are just aliases/compliments, not actual titles.
    • As the founder and leader of Zaofu, Suyin doesn't seem to have an official title, though her seniority is clearly acknowledged by others.
  • Yogi's Gang: Smokestag Smog. He lives in a castle made of smog and convinced the people of Smog City to think the smog from his factory is a good thing but, as he claims whenever someone asks if he's the Mayor, he's really just the number one citizen. Another character is later revealed to be the Mayor and Smog is never shown to have anything to do with how the city is ruled.
  • Hank Scorpio in The Simpsons is the an evil corporation executive and a supervillain that ultimately takes over the East Coast of the United States, but he claims to dislike being called Boss or anything that elevates him above others, so he insists his employees call him by his first name.

    Real Life 
  • Trope Namer: Pericles, the statesman in the Greek city-state of Athens who first established democracy as an effective system of governance, was described as the "First Citizen of Athens" by the contemporary historian Thucydides.
  • The first Roman Emperors called themselves simply "The First" (Princeps, from which the word prince is derived, originally from the historical honorary title Princeps Senatus, that is, the person allowed to speak first, which by the late Republic evolved into a post not unlike the modern Speaker position), after the example of Augustus.
  • When the Zand dynasty ruled Persia, they never actually used the title of Shah, instead styling themselves as Vakil e-Ra'aayaa (Advocate of the People or People's President).
  • Josef Stalin zig-zags this trope. Despite the almost absolute power Stalin wielded over the Soviet State, his official title was simply, "General Secretary of the Communist Party." His rivals during his rise to power jokingly called him "Comrade Card-Index." In addition, he also allowed himself to be called simply Vozhd ("chief" or "boss"). On the other hand, he unofficially allowed all kinds of grandiose epithets and decorations to be awarded to him, such as, "Father of Nations," "Generalisimus," "Brilliant Genius of Humanity," "Great Architect of Communism," "Gardener of Human Happiness," and "Coryphaeus of Science."
    • Note that because of Stalin's use of this trope, the position of General Secretary became the de facto leader of the Communist Party, which itself became de facto leader of the entire country, even if on paper the offices of state indicated otherwise. This has carried on to the present day. Officially in China the office of Prime Minister is the head of government, with the office of President as head of state in a ceremonial role. Unofficially, the real power in China is the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party...who is always also the President (at least since then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin took the presidency in 1993).
  • Maximilien Robespierre, deputy and Member of the Committee of Public Safety.
    • And shortly thereafter, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. He later gave up all pretense and just crowned himself Emperor.
  • After Deng Xiaoping retired from his last formal position as the chairman of the military commission, he only kept the title of Honorary Chairman of the China Bridge Association. Until his death, however, everyone knew who was the real leader of Peoples' Republic of China.
    • For that matter, Chairman Mao Zedong. His actual office was called "Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China". Since there's no one specific office that every leader of the PRC has held, in the West the term "Paramount Leader" was invented to refer to whoever is obviously in charge of China.
  • Kim Jong-il was merely the chairman of the North Korean National Defense Commission; the actual office of president gets cycled round other people every year or so. He also used "Supreme Commander", "Party Chairman", "Dear Leader", and "Great Leader". His father holds the post of Eternal President, even though he died in 1994. Basically the exact opposite of this trope.
  • The United States "President" (i.e. "the one who presides") was originally conceived as one of those, and the title had previously been mostly used for chairmen of committees. The style of the King was "By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, Prince-Elector of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick" and he was addressed as "Your Majesty". The longest title the President gets is "the President of the United States" and is generally addressed merely as "Mister President".
    • The style of "Mister President" was chosen by George Washington. (This was in response to the attempts of his vice-president, John Adams, to get the Senate to vote Washington the title of "His Democratic Highness" or possibly "His Elective Majesty." The Senate eventually resolved that Adams would receive the title of "His Rotundity." Adams did not make friends easily because he was obnoxious and disliked!)
    • The German title Kanzler (often translated as chancellor) did not originally mean "head of the government" either. The term originated in the medieval period derived from Latin cancellarius and initially described a glorified clerk. And as a matter of fact, the German federal chancellor (Bundeskanzler or in case of a woman holding that office Bundeskanzlerin) is not the first citizen. In the official order of protocol the Bundespräsident is the undisputed number one, with the number two being either the President of the parliament or the President pro tempore of the Bundesrat (the upper chamber made up of appointed representatives of The Sixteen Lands of Deutschland; the position of president pro tempore rotates among the heads of the sixteen states) and the Bundeskanzler being somewhere down the line. As a further emphasis how "unimportant" the office of Bundeskanzler is, their official residence, the Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin is both lower and within viewing distance of the parliament (Bundestag). Given however, that the Bundeskanzler almost always has the support of the majority of the Bundestag, and is often the leader of one of the major parties, the real power is usually reversed.
  • "Prime Minister", in those countries where the government leader has that title, is just the first minister among equals (primus / prima inter pares) in parliament, no matter how much power (s)he actually has. In the UK, the title was originally meant as an insult despite also carrying the title "First Lord of the Treasury".
    • The New Russia is a presidential republic, but during the Medvedev presidency, the guy in power was still Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Not because he was the Prime Minister, but because he was Vladimir Putin. Since then, he's back to being President, since the Russian constitution only has a limit on the number of consecutive terms in office. Basically, he can fairly easily be President for 2 terms, then put a puppet in his place for a term, and get "re-elected" after that.
  • The title of Führer, which Adolf Hitler adopted when he became leader of the Nazi Party and elevated to a government title when they took power in Germany, can be simply translated to "guide", although it is generally translated as "leader", which is more in line with fascist philosophy. Although not even nearly as ubiquitously used as Führer, Hitler also awarded himself a number of bombastic titles over the years designed specifically to invoke this trope, including "First Soldier of the German Reich", "First Worker of the New Germany", and "Supreme Judge of the German People". In something of an overlap with Modest Royalty, Hitler's ceremonial uniform was also much more staid than you would expect from a man in the process of conquering the world. He wore a plain uniform with only the awards that he earned in World War I, which looks funny in contrast to, say, Goering, who blinged it up with silks and furs and every medal he could lay his fat hands on (even though the awards Goering had legitimately won as an Ace Pilot in World War I would've been sufficiently impressive on their own).
    • Before him we have Benito Mussolini, who started out calling himself Duce del Partito Fascista, meaning "Leader of the Fascist Party". Duce itself was just a fancy way to say "leader" (coming from the Latin dux, from which also the Italian duca and its English equivalent duke are derived), before his use of it ruined the title in the eyes of most Italians. As for the titles he used to rule, he was merely the "President of the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of Italy", or Prime Minister for short (officially the king was still in charge, and had the power to dismiss him... As he actually did in 1943), and, during the German occupation, he was the Duce e Capo del Governo (Leader and Chief of the Government). After the conquest of Ethiopia, however, he gave himself a couple of bombastic titles, changing his title as chief of the Fascist Party into "Leader and Founder of the Empire" and appointing himself as "First Marshall of the Empire" together with the king (a move to put the prime minister, that is himself, on the same rank of the king in the military chain of command).
  • In 1653 the English Parliament offered Oliver Cromwell the crown and, after two weeks of deliberation, he turned it down (twice) and instead accepted a republican office with equivalent powers - Lord Protector. This was mainly to try and bring in more support for the deeply unpopular parliamentarians (most of whom had not gone into the civil war wanting to remove Charles I, Cromwell included) by creating a more monarchical system to bring in more and broader civilian political support, while not provoking the army who were dead set against any revival of the monarchy by that point. The post was still referred to as 'His Highness', and a second investiture of Cromwell was a royal coronation in all but name. After he died, the post passed on to his son, and the English decided that since they had already gone this far, they might as well bring the monarchy back; cue the Stuart Restoration.
  • The shogun of feudal Japan, whose title simply meant "general" and was condensed from a longer one meaning roughly "commander-in-chief against the Eastern Barbarians" (i.e. the poor, beleaguered Ainu).
    • Take note that besides Regent for Life, another precedent in Japanese politics is the position holder will retire from the position to hold real power.
    • Toyotomi Hideyoshi, disqualified by his humble birth from becoming shogun (that position required descent from the Fujiwara clan), had to settle for ruling Japan under the title kampaku (imperial regent), and later as taikō (retired regent). These positions would have made him subordinate to the shogun, had one existed at the time; he made damn sure that one didn't for his lifetime.
  • The original Muslim state, the Caliphate, was one of these: "Caliph" comes from the Arabic word khalifah meaning "successor" (to the Prophet, that is). Ruling an empire that stretched from Spain to Central Asia, the Caliph was constantly reminded that he was just a half-decent replacement for the plain illiterate orphan who had founded the religion.
    • In the early days of the Caliphate, humility was taken seriously. Omar, the second Caliph, used to tool around Medina in a shabby old robe and gave away nearly all of his (gigantic) income to the relief of old soldiers and their orphans.
    • Prophet Muhammad himself. "Messenger of God" was the only title he held. And even then, he wasn't even the Head of State. The Qur'an explicitly states that GOD holds the title "King of the Realm"note  Meaning that the Prophet ruled as the equivalent of a Governor-General (like in Australia).
      • A common title used by Muslim rulers - up to and including the Ottoman Sultans at the height of their power – was "Slave of God" (abd-allah) or some variation thereof. (All those Arabic names that begin with Abd? They all mean 'slave of [some synonym for God]', e.g. Abd al-Rahim = Slave of the Merciful One.)
  • Popes have always signed their letters as "the servant of the servants of Christ," even back in the days when they ruled half of Italy and were carried around everywhere in fancy thrones/sedan chairs.
    • This title comes from an instruction of Jesus to the Apostles: "The greatest among you must be the servant of all."
    • The title of Pope is an example as well, being derived from the Greek word for "Father", the traditional title for any Catholic priest.
    • Another name for the pope is Pontifex, builder of bridges; that's a relic of an office of the Roman Republic, whose job was to bless bridges.
  • In French absolutism (Louis XIV etc.), the king was also called the first servant of the country.
  • Frederick The Great also called himself "the first servant of the state".
  • Taken to its Logical Extreme by Muammar al-Gaddafi, who hadn't held any formal position of power since resigning as prime minister of Libya in 1972 — however, he was dictator all the way up until 2011, and was often referred to as "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" or "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution." This was taken to absurd levels during the civil war that ousted him: Gaddafi kept insisting that he could not step down because there was nothing to step down from.
  • The Medici family ruled Florence like this during the Italian Renaissance. Florence was a republic, and its people took pride in their freedom and democracy; which didn't stop the Medicis from becoming de facto monarchs, since they used their enormous banking finances in order to buy the loyalty of every important office-holder. Hence, Cosimo and Lorenzo made all of the decisions without ever holding a public office. (However, after 1530, the Habsburg family gained political control over Florence, and thus turned the Medicis into hereditary dukes, thus shattering the illusion of "just the first citizen".)
  • In ancient Macedonia the king was the "First among equals", and the king's Companions tended to simply address them by name. People kicked up a big fuss when Alexander the Great adopted the customs of the defeated Persians (i.e. asking them to bow etc...)
  • King at its root means "offspring of a family" — that it was of Royal Blood, a good family, is implied, but it comes from the same root as kin. Queen at its root means "woman."
  • Hungary, back when it was a kingdom, had an interesting variant of this. The ruler of the country was the crown, the physical object, itself, having something which would be called today a legal personality / corporate personhood. The king himself was merely acting as its regent, subjected to strict rules by an assembly of nobles. This went so far that there was a king who had to be crowned again with the right crown, because he didn't possess it the first time (or the second time; he got it right on the third attempt), and people didn't accept him as a ruler because of this. Of course, depending on the person of the king and the circumstances, his de facto power ranged all the way from a puppet to an absolutist monarch.
  • Thomas Pendergast, boss of the Kansas City-area Democratic political machine in the early-mid 20th century, the one who maneuvered Harry S Truman into the Senate seat that put him on the road to the White House, never held elected office himself. "Boss" Tweed, of Tammany Hall in New York City, served one unremarkable term in Congress in the 1850s, before his rise to power.
  • Nicaragua is ripe with this trope. Back in the 1930s, rebel leader Augusto C Sandino who had no official title whatsoever and started out with a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits for an army (he borrowed his starting capital from local prostitutes) came to control half the country, until he was murdered by Anastasio Somoza, who went on to become "Head of the National Guard", and even though he (and later his two sons) were in and out of the presidency due to constitutional constraints on infinite reelection, nobody was fooled as to the true ruler of the country until the fall of Anastasio Somoza jr. in 1979. Current (as of 2016) President Daniel Ortega abolished the rule that a President cannot be reelected with the Insane Troll Logic that this part of the constitution is unconstitutional, but he himself has stated that as a sign of feminism he has given half his power to his wife, Rosario Murillo, yet some observers say, she is really the Man Behind the Man or in that case the woman behind the man, despite being the de jure President of jack squat. Her only official title being "Chairwoman of the Citizen's Councils" something the Sandinistas made up. However, for the November 2016 election the official FSLN presidential ticket is... Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Yep, the man has his wife as his running mate.
  • During the so-called Age of Liberty in Sweden, the single most powerful man in Sweden was, for the most part, not the King but the Chancery President (though their power were far from as large as the monarchs had been, as they were ultimately responsible to the Estates). Formally they headed the Chancery College, the central coordinating bureaucratic agency, and in that role were a delegate to the ruling Council of State. In practice, they had a leading position in the Council of State to the point of being a de facto head of government, as well as having responsibility for foreign affairs.
  • Godfrey of Bouillon was the de facto first king of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, but refused the title, believing that only Christ could truly be called king of Jerusalem. Instead, he used the title "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre". There was also the issue of him being unmarried and without known children. His successors were less scrupulous and did refer to themselves as kings.
    • This is somewhat comparable to how today's Saudi monarchs (and previous Ottoman sultans after Selim I) proudly claim the title خادم الحرمين الشريفين‎‎ (Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques/Servant of the Two Noble Sanctuaries/Protector of the Two Holy Cities - depends how you translate it) but not "King of Mecca".
  • While there is disagreement on this point, one theory (popularized by The Cartoon History of the Universe) about the ritual anointing of kings in ancient Judea was that it was derived from the Egyptian practice of anointing (placing or pouring sanctified oil on the head) of royal governors. The theory holds that this was meant to reinforce in the king's mind that he was only acting as The Lord's governor.
  • Albanian national hero Skanderbeg united the squabbling feudal lords into the League of Lehze, gave his people a sense of national unity and could have very well considered himself a king by his own right, specially since he was technically a prince from a Principality. The only official title he ever took was Dominus Albaniae - "Lord of Albania", and always signed himself in documents using this title.
  • Initially inverted with the title King in Prussia held by the Electors of Brandeburg in the Holy Roman Empire. Though they were awarded with a sovereign title, they were still technically vassals of the King of the Romans (i.e. the Holy Roman Emperor), hence they were Kings in Prussia, not of Prussia. It would only under Frederick the Great that Prussia would become a superpower and he could formally crown himself as King of Prussia.

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