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The Chains of Commanding
aka: The Chains Of Command

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"Well, Mr. President, do we press the Big Red Button or not?"

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
King Henry IV, 2 Henry IV 3.1.31.

Being Good Sucks. Being good and The Leader sucks even more.

Authority means a lot of things: Sure, when everything's going well, everyone has to listen to what you're saying; you don't need to do the stupid parts of whatever your group is doing; you're probably less poor than your underlings; and you get to look fine in your boss garb.

But, when things don't go quite as well — which can easily be a permanent state — it results in one side effect above all else: stress (which also happens to be loaded with side effects). That is, if you actually care about the people you're leading.

High-ranking characters can be full of angst. They feel lonely, because strict protocol has to be observed — they want to beware of showing bias to friends and family, after all — and because no one acts natural around them. They have to make the Sadistic Choice and can't always Take a Third Option; they may need to make plans that allow for their friends dying. If they overlook something and can't adjust to it in time, they may get their people killed and feel that It's All My Fault, and end up with incredible guilt. For every failure they have to be willing to be held accountable publicly when others are looking for someone to blame. They worry about the neighbors invading, about marrying for strategy, about breeding an heir, about the natural disaster that destroyed half the crop, about that backstabbing relative of theirs eying the throne on which they sit. The worst part is that they shouldn't even complain aloud and should reject any sympathy, as that they are not allowed to appear weak. Not that that notion is always obeyed.

This can be the consequence of Be Careful What You Wish For. If they crack under the stress and are usurped as leader, they'll frequently cry "I'm Still the Leader!". Sometimes the reason for Prince and Pauper, if the ruler decides to escape and leave a double to bear the burden.

Not to be confused with the chain I beat you with till you understand who's in ruttin' command here. Related to The Chain of Command, which can show just how high up someone is and so just how heavy their burden can be.

See also Being God Is Hard for the chains of being in charge of all Creation. Compare to The Perils of Being the Best.


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    Films — Animation 
  • The Lion King (1994): Mufasa explains to his son, Simba, that being King is a lot more complicated than 'doing whatever you want'. After Mufasa's untimely death, the exiled Simba adopts a philosophy of 'Hakuna Matata' (No Worries) with his new friends Pumbaa and Timon, but comes to accept his responsibilities, fight for his homeland and those he loves, and be a responsible and worthy King. Meanwhile, Scar may be good at gaining power, but he's terrible at actually handling the responsibilities of being King.
  • Sheriff Woody from Toy Story is a great leader when it comes right down to it, but gets frustrated a lot. This trope is very apparent in the third movie, in which Woody, being the most devoted of Andy's toys, keeps telling his friends that it's their responsibility to go home, regardless of whether or not Andy would ever play with them again. It reaches the point where Woody gives up trying to convince them and decides to go alone.

  • The story of the sword of Damocles is an ancient anecdote, memorably told by Cicero about Dionysius II, who was the tyrant of Syracuse in the 4th century BC, and one of his courtiers, named Damocles. Damocles said that with all of his wealth and possessions, Dionysius must be the most fortunate man who ever lived. Dionysius offered him to try his fortune, and he accepted. Dionysius held a banquet where Damocles was treated like a king, and felt happy...until he looked up, and saw a heavy sword over his head held up by single horse-hair. This sword, which could fall at any time, was put there to symbolize the constant fear and potential danger that Dionysius faced as a result of his power. Damocles didn't notice all the wealth and beauty around him anymore, and begged the tyrant to let him go, because he no longer wanted to be fortunate. Older Than Feudalism.
  • In a much more modern legend, Russian Tsar Alexander I is said to have grown so disillusioned with power after defeating Napoleon and having been involved in the politics of post-Napoleonic Europe that he faked his death in 1825 and became a monk, taking on the name Fyodor Kuzmich.

  • "The Price of Command" by Mercedes Lackey.
    This is the price of commanding—
    That you watch your dearest die,
    Sending women and men
    To fight again,
    And you never tell them why
  • Coldplay "Viva la Vida": "Who would ever want to be king?"
  • Suzanne Vega's "The Queen And The Soldier".
    But the crown, it had fallen, and she thought she would break
    And she stood there, ashamed of the way her heart ached
    She took him to the doorstep and she asked him to wait
    She would only be a moment inside
    And out in the distance her order was heard
    And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
    And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
    The battle continued on

    Religion & Mythology 
  • The Son of God, whose responsibility was to die so the impure humans he loved could be freed of sin's consequence.
    Jesus wept.
  • Hinduism:
    • In Hindu epics such as The Mahabharata, kshatriya (warrior caste) characters have no 'off days'. They could be bathing or exiled or celebrating their son's wedding, but if even the lowliest shepherd comes along asking for help, they have to acquiesce. It's their dharma.
    • Infamously, the royal protagonist of The Ramayana exiled his wife to the wilderness because not all of his thousands-upon-thousands of subjects believed she was chaste. Rama trusted that she was innocent of the accusations (or so he says), but his logic goes that if rulers aren't absolute paragons of virtue and acknowledged as such by everyone who follows them, they have no right to rule. Like Unpleasable Fanbase, except that the fanbase decides who you have a relationship with.

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is one of the issues the titular Hopeful must deal with in Princess: The Hopeful. If one of a Princess's followers or allies commits an act that violates the Princess's principles, and if the follower has good reason to believe the Princess might approve of that action, the Princess must face a Compromise roll as she has to consider whether she has been truly exemplifying the moral standards to which she holds herself.

  • Fausta in Dorothy L. Sayers' The Emperor Constantine seriously objects to the demands that being Constantine's wife puts on her.
  • Henry feels the full effect of this as he wanders through the camp in disguise on the eve of battle listening to the concerns of the ordinary soldiers in Shakespeare's Henry V. He soliloquizes about it after.
    Upon the king, let us our lives, our debts, our souls, our care-ful wives, our children, and our sins lay on the king. We must bear all...
    • His son, Henry VI also has a similar scene in one of his own plays, but unlike his father, Henry VI can't handle it and ends up overthrown and murdered.
      • Henry VI wasn't all there to begin with, and Shakespeare didn't gloss over that much.
    • Henry V's father Henry IV also felt this way, as he'd seized the crown from the unworthy Richard II in a popular revolt and wasn't sure he was up to the task of being king.
    • Richard II himself thought (and talked) about this a lot too. It was one of Shakespeare's favorite "king" tropes.

    Web Animation 
  • The Adventures of Kim Jong Un: Enforced in "Kim Jong-un vs. Kim Jong-il Part 2". Kim Jong-uam briefly convinces Kim Jong-un to hand power over to him, but the burden of running North Korea literally crushes him into nothing.
  • RWBY: In a Volume 1 episode called "The Badge and the Burden", Ozpin warns Ruby that the position of team leader is both a badge of honor and a terrible burden. He and Oscar later discuss the terrible strain she must be under from being a source of inspiration and hope to others. As the series goes on, Ruby is forced to make increasingly difficult decisions, such as making the same decisions as Ozpin after her team had turned him for keeping secrets or using the Relic of Creation to save Penny and evacuate thousands while dooming the Kingdom of Atlas to destruction. During Volume 9, it becomes clear toll this has taken on her and how she is starting to lose her way and her hope because of it. This finally reaches its breaking point and she snaps at her friends in Chapter 7, especially seeing as they seem to focus more on themselves and not the fact that she's in a very bad place right now.

  • Baron Wulfenbach from Girl Genius could easily compare his job to herding cats and is implied to be constantly exhausted from stopping various Ax-Crazy Mad Scientists from going out of control, but he's the only thing preventing Europa from collapsing into blood-soaked anarchy. As proven when he drops a time-stop on Mechanicsburg, trapping himself in the center, and two and a half years later Europa has indeed collapsed into blood-soaked anarchy. Here and here. He also punishes someone who has displeased him by putting him in charge of a city. Admittedly, it includes the threat of being sent to Castle Heterodyne at his very first slip-up. Later, we catch up with him in Castle Heterodyne.
  • In Homestuck this seems to be a running element of the aspect of Blood. Thematically it's tied to society, the networking of people working together but in most instances come up as the pressure of maintaining a unit in conflict. Symbolically it's represented as chains and red tape and is an aspect characterized by The Fettered.
  • In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, Princess Voluptua takes her job very seriously, both as heir to the throne and as veicereign of Earth's solar system. Apparently, a lot of Nemesite royals and aristocrats are terrible jerks, whereas she's trying very hard to be a fair and just leader. She seems to be doing a good job, since even people who hate the Nemesites in general seem to respect her.
  • One of the key themes in Kubera is "Who do the gods pray to when they are in despair?" It's implied that more than a few problems (such as the god Kubera's plan that kickstarted the plot, or the Nastika Gandharva's desperate attempts to save his clan and find his daughter) happened solely because the primeval gods disappeared, leaving the other gods and god-like beings with no idea what to do, and no one to go to for advice.
    • In a more comedic example, the side novel states that the primeval gods made Indra the king of the gods just so they could dump more of their paperwork on him.
  • Lord Shojo from The Order of the Stick is the leader of Azure City and an order of Paladins. He does this by Obfuscating Stupidity as a Chaotic Good person. When one of the Paladins called him out for his underhanded tactics, he has some choice words in combination with To Be Lawful or Good:
    Lord Shojo: It is good for you Paladins to stick to your convictions, but if I make a mistake, half a million citizens pay for it.
  • Though he rarely shows it, Ben from Weak Hero suffers under a lot of stress from being the leading force of Eunjang High, and the main thing keeping the school safe from the Yeongdeungpo Union. Whenever the school or his friends are targeted, Ben is quick to blame himself and fly into a rage against the attacker. In Season 3, Gerard realises how much he's taken on his shoulders and resolves to be his supporting pillar.

    Web Original 
  • Adventures in Jedi School: When confronted about his alleged plans to conqueror the galaxy, Evol dashes that theory immediately, pointing out that he's stressed enough managing one lousy school and he doesn't want the stress of anything bigger to age him faster.
  • In Chapter 53 of The New Narnia, The Nanny (as her adult-baby form Annie) confesses to Tommy that as much as she likes doing what she does, it takes a lot of time and energy being "God Mother to everyone who wanders in here".
    Annie: Heaven isn't Heaven for the person running it.
  • The lord in A Caution to the Wise, a story in The Wanderer's Library, has only one lament: "If only I were free!"

    Real Life 
  • Say what you will about modern political leaders, but they go through a lot.
    • Many live in a fishbowl and are ruthlessly scrutinized by the media, their political opponents, and online bloggers. Even the most minor mistakes and misstatements can blow up in one's face, particularly in the modern age when blogs, Twitter, and other online media can spread news almost immediately. Imagine if almost everything you said, every expression you made, was broadcast to the world and mercilessly picked apart across the internet and cable channels. It gets worse when you consider the level of personal venom some commentators direct at them, which in some cases would be grounds for slander or libel if made against a private citizen. And then there's what happens if your family gets dragged into it...
    • In non-democratic states, leaders faced the threat of being overthrown by a rival in the competition for power. Even in democratic societies, jockeying for power can lead to vicious political backbiting and attacks.
  • Russia, whether as an absolute monarchy, a totalitarian communist state, or an oligarchical republic, has never had rulers who But Mother Russia has not been fun for those who have held her reins either.note 
    • Ivan the Terrible gets a reputation for being, well, terriblenote . He was guilty of bloody purges and killing his own son in a fit of pique. But Ivan grew up in the shadow of boyars a class of nobles who often vied for power with brutal backstabbing, and Ivan's own mother may have been poisoned to death in these fights for control.
    • Nicholas I and Alexander III are both remembered as hyper-reactionary and hyper-nationalist monarchs who suppressed liberal reforms, setting the stage for Russia's political problems in the 20th century. But the two emperors faced political tumult at the beginning of their reign; Nicholas endured the Decembrist Revolt by reformist military officers while terrorists assassinated Alexander III's father. Both these incidents made them two men leery of liberal ideas that, in their minds, threatened to topple the autocratic traditions they considered necessary for Russia.
    • Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, has often been called (possibly deservedly) a terrible leader. But he struggled to balance an emotionally fragile wife, an heir who suffered from hemophilia, emotional baggage from his late father, the threat of revolutionary terror, and trying to appease both the conservative and reformist elements of Russian society. He became so overwhelmed with trying to run the Russian Empire during World War I that it took a severe toll on his physical health, suffering a coronary occlusion just days before he resigned. As noted by biographer Robert K. Massie in his seminal book Nicholas and Alexandra, being deposed as the Russian Emperor had a fringe benefit, as it freed him from the stresses of running the country. Life in captivity wasn't pleasant, and it got worse after the Bolsheviks seized power. Still, Nicholas' health did recover once he no longer had to put up with the headaches of running a country so huge it made up one-sixth of the world's landmass.
    • One anecdote has Nikita Khrushchev write two letters to his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, saying "When you get yourself into a situation you canít get out of, open the first letter, and youíll be safe. When you get yourself into another situation you canít get out of, open the second letter." The first letter's instructions were - "Blame it all on me." The second letter? "Sit down and write two letters."
    • Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union's sclerotic and oppressive edifice into a more open and democratic society and reduce tensions between the two superpowers. His reward was economic decay, nationalist uprisings, a coup by hardliners, the breakup of his country, Russia's fall from superpower status, and enmity from Russians who blamed him for Russia's loss of territory and prestige.
    • Boris Yeltsin suffered from a plethora of health conditions as President of Russia. You could notice that in Boris Yeltsin's interviews around a year after resignation he looked way better than five years prior, after the election for the second term (not even to mention a year before resignation). Removal of the strain made him look somewhat younger with time.
  • Many people who knew George VI, his wife the Queen Mother especially, have long maintained that his suddenly becoming King in the wake of the Abdication, and the stresses of leading the British through the Second World War, are what ultimately killed him at the age of 56.
  • Presidents of the U.S. tend to age rapidly in office. Political diarist Alan Clarke thought that public office aged you several years for every one calendar year, and he was not even in a very important post at the time.
    • Before the two-term precedent was put into the Constitution, the reason why it had been followed was not just because American politicians wanted to set a tradition of voluntarily surrendering power; they left power because the job was that exhausting. George Washington wanted to quit the presidency after his first term but was urged to stay by those who feared that America would be without strong leadership. Despite his own popularity, Calvin Coolidge not only refused a third term, but refused to be nominated in 1932, showing even popular Presidents can be worn down by the demands of the job.
    • A good visual example is Bill Clinton. His hair has been completely gray for so long that most people forget that when he was elected in 1992, his hair was a dark blonde. By the time his first term was up, the man had visible bags under his eyes, and his hair was completely gray.
      • In a letter to Clinton, George HW Bush commented that many presidents felt lonely in their office, although Bush admits he never felt that way.
    • A President who aged before taking office was arguably Dwight D. Eisenhower, due to serving as Allied Commander of the European theater. The stress of leading allied forces against a well-trained military force drove Ike to drink and smoke constantly. And he took the duty seriously: A letter was found after D-Day that Eisenhower wrote in case the Normandy landings failed where he asked to take full blame (even though the landing was successful, the letter is still considered an excellent example of leadership). By the time Ike was President, he wasn't in the best of health.
    • Harry S. Truman had a sign on the oval-office desk reading "The buck stops here." He also repeatedly stated in conversations that no sane man would want the presidency if he knew what it entailed.
    • James K. Polk was 44 years old when elected to the Presidency in 1844, at the time the youngest man elected, and while he served one termnote  it severely aged him to where he ended that one term in poor health. During a post-Presidency tour of the South, he contracted an illness - likely cholera - and died in June 1849, suffering the shortest ex-Presidency in history.
    • When James Buchanan left office, after failing to prevent the Civil War and seeing the division of the Union, he told Abraham Lincoln, "If you are as happy to be entering the presidency as I am to be leaving it, then you are a very happy man."
    • During his first term in office, Grover Cleveland met a five-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1887 and is supposed to have said to him, "My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be President of the United States." Roosevelt himself served for far longer than any other president, at just over 12 years in office, and ended up saddled with the tasks of surviving the Great Depression and dealing with the most devastating war in recorded history, while also having to cover up his paralysis from the public by forcing himself to stand while wearing iron braces. By 1945, he looked haggard and emaciated, ultimately dying in office from a cerebral hemorrhage, which United News attributed to "years of brave responsibility."
    • Thomas Jefferson was quite happy to retire after his second term of office. In a letter that he wrote to his friend Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours shortly before his departure, he stated, "Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power."
    • After seeing the toll the Presidency took on Woodrow Wilson note  Florence Harding wrote she didn't want her husband Warren G. Harding to run. Warren grew incredibly weary with the job overtime, stating "I am not fit for this office and I should never have been here". Having to manage his corrupt cronies, he also stated "I have no trouble with my enemies - I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends... They're the ones that keep me walking the floors at night!" He died two years into his first term. Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a woman famed for her vicious snark, sympathetically commented on how the job had overtaxed him.
      Alice Roosevelt Longworth: I think every one must feel that the brevity of his tenure of office was a mercy to him and to the country. Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob. He had discovered what was going on around him, and that knowledge, the worry, the thought of the disclosures and shame that were bound to come, undoubtedly undermined his health — one might say actually killed him.
    • Several media personalities commented on how Ronald Reagan seemed to suffer from his position far less than most Presidents, especially given how old he was when elected. This is probably related to him being one of the most 'hands off' presidents ever, with him largely letting his cabinet run itself (at least until the Iran-Contra Affair). Also, since premature aging is often one of the main signs of this stress, his age at the onset might have also played a role, making the stress less visible than it might be on a younger man.
      • Same could be said for Donald Trump, who was the oldest first-term U.S. president when elected in 2016 and seemingly never aged since then as of 2020 despite being far more "hands-on" than Reagan. He still Lampshaded the toll of the Presidency his one-hundredth day in office, stating, "It's a lot of work."
    • Barack Obama: If you look at pictures of him before he was elected and towards the end of his presidency, it's as if he aged about 15 years in the course of eight. Most prominently, his dark hair grayed out into a salt and pepper coloration. Lampshaded by the man himself on The Colbert Report.
  • For a British example, compare Tony Blair before and after his time as Prime Minister; you'd never believe he was only ten years older.
  • In his book Bastards and Boneheads, Canadian historian Will Ferguson provides a list of quotes from the Canadian prime ministers that all pretty much say the same thing: Canada is an extremely difficult country to govern. Ferguson's book was written while Jean Chretien was in office, but one could argue that Paul Martin and Stephen Harper would add their quotes to the list if they were asked about it.
  • It should come as no surprise that military officers in general (or at least any decent, self-respecting one) deal with this on a regular basis. Given the lives of the men under their command, logistics, the orders they give and the realities of war, they have to bear it. The ups and downs of rank is summed up with two complementary sayings which, in the tradition of the US military, are expressed via an acronym: RHIP. Rank Hath Its Privileges, and Rank Hath Its Problems.
  • Brazil is a nation notorious for corruption and economic mismanagement, but with its vast and challenging geography and oligarchic social structure, running Brazil is difficult for any leader.
    • Pedro I, who led The Empire of Brazil to independence from Portugal, did not have a fun time reigning: he faced constant criticism from regional leaders over his centralized rule and was blasted by the public for his treatment of his first wife, Leopoldina, and was backstabbed by traitorous family members back in Portugal who interfered with his attempt to put his daughter Maria on the throne.
    • Dom Pedro II, Brazil's second and last emperor, has been lauded in Brazilian history as one of its greatest rulers, with accomplishments ranging from modernizing the education system to the abolition of slavery. But by the time of the 1889 coup, he was incredibly exhausted by ruling. When the Republicans revolted, he fled into exile despite having more than enough support to maintain power. It didn't help that the job had been forced onto him at a young age, effectively robbing him of a childhood, and that when traveling abroad under a pseudonym, he could escape the pressures of the station.
    • Getķlio Vargas is a controversial figure in Brazil's history, with some seeing him as an autocrat who weakened civil liberties for political gain. But he was a man who struggled with oligarchs that fought his attempts to modernize the country, with his last years in office being so stressful he was Driven to Suicide.
  • Charles II of Spain endured a particularly miserable reign. Being the product of generations of inbreeding, he suffered bouts of ill health, physical deformities, and poor mental health (although he was more lucid than he was given credit for). He struggled with managing a Spanish Empire that was a shadow of its formal self, and his infertility prevented him from producing an heir, leading to his final years spent trying (and failing) to manage a Succession Crisis for his throne.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Chains Of Command


Diddy is the new future-ruler

Diddy is initially ecstatic to be named Future-Ruler, but quickly realizes it's not all it's cracked up to be when Cranky tells him he's expected to risk his life "at a moment's notice" and protect the people.

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Main / TheChainsOfCommanding

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