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Unfit for Greatness

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"Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset." Translation 
Tacitus, describing the Emperor Galba

A fundamentally good and well-meaning character who attains (either by chance or through his own effort) a position of great prestige, power, and responsibility — only to cause more harm than good because he doesn't have enough willpower, foresight, and general virtue to handle them right. Despite trying to make life better for others with his power, he ends up wasting it on petty things or unwittingly pushing them into ruin. The tragedy of this character is that he often realizes that he screwed it all up but doesn't know how to fix it (and in this, he is different from someone who's simply Drunk with Power).

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Such character may be contrasted by the one who is better suited for greatness but doesn't receive any recognition (at first). Both of them may want the same thing but by a twist of fate, the one who has the power is not the one who can properly wield it.

Compare Leader Wannabe. Contrast Reluctant Ruler and Cincinnatus. See also Drunk with Power and Well-Intentioned Extremist. The Peter Principle is a related phenomenon often observed in the business world (and thus discussed in media about business). Reality Warping Is Not a Toy is a common fantastic variation.


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Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In After War Gundam X, Prince Willis of Estard spends most of his time being pushed and pulled between the hawkish General Lee and the political Grant. He's not happy about being talked over and ruled by them, but he lacks the savvy and self-confidence to put them in their place and truly take charge.
  • In Fairy Tail, Macao is a skilled Fairy Tail mage, and one of the better ones outside of those who hold the S-Class rank or took the exam. Unfortunately, he proves to be lackluster as a replacement for Makarov as Master of the guild when Makarov and Fairy Tail's finest disappear after the S-Class Exam, which results in Fairy Tail's fortunes declining over the Time Skip.
  • Sir Penwood from Hellsing is a timid, nervous man acting as Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy. He knows he's born into the position, and laments that he can do nothing other than sit there while his underlings do all the works. But when push comes to shove, he takes his duty seriously, refusing to abandon his post while telling all his panicking underlings to save themselves, assuring them that he can run the command center by himself. His underlings pause for a moment, laugh, and go back to their posts, telling him to just shut up and sit down, and let them do everything as usual. Penwood may be incompetent, but he's not a coward, and above all, he's not a traitor. For this, his colleagues give him the highest praise and honor, despite his incompetence.

    Comic Books 
  • Irredeemable is a giant extended exploration of this trope.
    • The Plutonian, the universe's resident Superman Expy has gone very, very bad and is terrorizing the planet with his powers. His former comrades gradually discover that, far from being The Paragon as they originally believed, The Plutonian was not capable of handling the emotional burden of being the world's mightiest hero. His desperation to be universally loved and inability to handle criticism (combined with uncontrollable Super Hearing that ensured he heard every bad word uttered againt him) led to making a huge mistake that caused him to snap from the guilt and frustration.
    • Charybdis, one of a pair of twins who share an enormous amount of power, discovers after the death of his brother that he has inherited enough power to match or surpass The Plutonian. Having previously been the shier and more mild of the two brothers, this newfound power and authority quickly goes to his head, becoming an irrational, ill-tempered megalomaniac more concerned with ruling the world than protecting it.
    • The spin-off comic Incorruptable follows former supervillain Max Damage, who was shocked into reforming by witnessing The Plutonian's rampage. Despite doing some good, most notably ensuring that his city is one of the few not demolished by The Plutonian, his attempts at heroism are limited and occasionally self-defeating because he has no actual idea how to be a hero. His approach is largely "do the opposite of what I used to do", which ultimately leads him to be rigid, myopic, and incapable of real leadership. That said, he's a far more sympathetic example than the above two, as unlike the Plutonian and Cary, he wants to do good, but can't figure out how.
  • The one-shot JLA: Superpower is structured around this trope, in the person of Mark Antaeus.
  • Magog, the Anti-Hero Substitute of Superman in Kingdom Come, turns out to be one of more well-meaning anti-heroes. He really only wanted to make a better world by killing The Joker and the like and before he realized he was wrong, he was filling in Supes' shoes, which eventually culminated in the Kansas disaster.
  • The Paperinik New Adventures relaunch story "Chronicle of a Return" has the Evronians Bonton and Manootensyon, a sergeant and a spore technician. Bonton is an awesome Sergeant Rock and Manootensyon can easily grow hundreds of spores into warriors, but when anyone above him on their planetoid dies and they have to take over as commander and head scientist respectively they're far out of their competence zones.
  • This trope is a major recurring theme in IDW's Transformers comics.
    • Bumblebee struggles with this when he's named as Autobot leader. As a scout he's very competent and popular with the Autobots. This leads to him getting voted into a command position — despite his own protests — during a time when Optimus Prime was separated from the troops. Turns out he was right to protest; Bumblebee can't handle command at all. His desire to make everyone happy often clashes with his duties, he has trouble understanding high-level tactics and strategy, most of the senior Autobots don't respect his authority and still see him as The Baby of the Bunch, and the stress of the job causes him to develop a nasty temper, robbing him of the friendliness and moral wisdom that made him popular to begin with. When he's effectively kicked out of command, he's relieved and almost immediately goes back to his usual cheerful self. The wiki even calls him out on this.
    • This also applies to the two main faction leaders. Optimus was a brilliant cop and commander, and Megatron an insightful writer and political theorist, and both were powerful fighters. However, when they found themselves in the positions of having to effectively run a star-spanning civil war, their internal weaknesses came to the fore. Optimus's self-questioning nature and strident morality keeps giving way to periods of ennui followed by rash decisions and causes him to become increasingly corrupt, while Megatron's lack of experience in warcraft and deep-seated traumas leads to him creating overcomplicated or needlessly brutal plans and neglecting the actual peaceful endgame that was his motivation to begin with. It's even implied at one point that Optimus isn't truly worthy of the Matrix, and Starscream (though obviously a biased source) outright says that Megatron had no idea what the implications of his own war were. Basically, they were charismatic and talented people who wound up in the best possible place at the worst possible time, and by the time their weaknesses had become evident, the war had been grinding on for centuries with thousands dead and no clear frontrunner.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Invoked in the The Da Vinci Code adaptation: When Sir Leigh Teabing is revealed as the Big Bad, he clamors to Robert Langdon to tell him the location of the Holy Grail, which Langdon holds in his hand. Langdon, in an Ironic Echo simply tells him that the unworthy aren't allowed the knowledge. The Big Bad is then taken away by the London Police.
  • The Expanded Universe for TRON shows Flynn as this. No one would argue he wasn't a charismatic, crazed genius with big ideas and good intentions. However, he was stretched thin to the point the Encom board was getting tired of his erratic behavior, leaving Alan (who is a good programmer and strategist, but very poor at a leadership role) to try and run interference, put the big crazy ideas into reality, and do his own job running day to day operations. Twenty years after Flynn vanishes, Alan is still chasing after him with a proverbial mop and broom. It's even worse on The Grid as he is so enamored with the Isos that the Programs get slapped with a denigrating label of "Basics" and Flynn does a poor job of hiding his favoritism. He also is in love with the promise of the Grid over its reality, blowing off the growing Program-Iso tensions, multiple technical issues, and stability problems that were threatening to destroy the whole system. Eventually, his avatar/administrator Clu gets fed up, gathers the support of the disgruntled Programs, overthrows and traps Flynn, slaughters the Isos, and carries out his "perfect system" directive in the most self-serving way possible.
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    Literature 
  • Philipp Tagere from the Arcia Chronicles is a brave warrior and a charming diplomat but turns out to be a weak king who estranges his best courtiers and officers and surrounds himself with yes men. He is contrasted by his two younger brothers, Edmon (who dies young) and Alexander (who succeeds Philipp but is overthrown by external enemies soon thereafter). On the other hand, he is also contrasted by Pierre Lumen, who overthrows and succeeds Alexander and is simply Drunk with Power and has an "It's All About Me" attitude when it comes to state affairs, completely blind to his lack of political skill. Pierre does approach this trope once or twice when he ponders on his and Alexander's differences but he prefers to suppress these thoughts.
  • Ciaphas Cain:
    • Subverted with Regina Kasteen, who gets promoted to colonel of a regiment made from the mauled remains of two entirely different regiments, the all-male 201st (planetary assault) and the all-female 396th (HQ security and logistics) because she had three days' seniority over her counterpart Ruput Broklaw. After Cain gets the two regiments to stop their gender-based Cutural Posturing and reorganizes the squads to be mixed-gender (renaming the regiment the 597th in the process), Kasteen shows herself to be a perfectly capable officer.
    • Subverted with Jenit Sulla, an excellent quartermaster in the 396th who takes on a combat role and takes to it like a fish to water despite her Leeroy Jenkins tendencies (her soldiers are noted to have higher morale despite their losses), eventually becoming the Imperium's first Lady General, which she credits to the inspiring leadership and mentoring of Cain (who finds her an overenthusiastic nuisance). But from a literary standpoint, she's godawful, with Inquisitor Vail snarking at every one of her excerpts.
  • King Cinhil Haldane in the Legends of Camber trilogy. Having spent most of his life as a cloistered priest, he is unprepared for the machinations of politics, and is unable to prevent several human lords on his council from staging their own coup d'etat after his death. He also blames Camber (the man who engineered his succession to the throne) for the loss of his vocation and his misery over it, and he distances himself from an experienced courtier's advice when he needs it most.
  • While many characters in the Harry Potter verse wished that Dumbledore was the Minister of Magic, Dumbledore himself believed that the terrible mistakes of his youth were proof that he couldn't be trusted with power. Instead, he dedicated himself to guiding future generations of wizards and witches as a teacher, then as a headmaster, though even there he makes a number of grievous mistakes such as leaving Harry unsupervised with the Dusleys for years while they abuse him. This is in sharp contrast to the appointed Ministers of Magic throughout the series, who all fulfill this trope: Fudge does an okay-ish job in peacetime, but is politically weak-willed and is basically the puppet of a few pureblood families, and of course when the war begins he behaves atrociously — refusing to acknowledge Voldemort's return and slandering everyone who tries to warn him. Scrimgeour at least tries his best and is more aggressive at fighting Death Eaters, but he is too obsessed with public image and left his government open to infiltration. And, well, Thicknesse is a Voldemort mind slave, of course.
  • In Labyrinths of Echo, Chief of the police General Bubuta Bokh. He earned his rank and more for exploits during the war, remains loyal, not malicious (only noisy), his abuses of power are limited to petty embezzlement and nepotism. He's also completely unfit for this job, except the part when he scares arrested folk. Note that he doesn't actually screw anything up (yet)—if only thanks to the work of much more competent lieutenants working under him.
  • Sien Sovv, Supreme Commander of the New Republic in the New Jedi Order series. As noted in the novels, he's not very good at combat command but has very real administrative and logistical talents, and in peacetime he kept the military running smoothly and efficiently, resulting in a force that could respond quickly to hotspots throughout the galaxy with a minimum of wasted expenditures. Unfortunately, fighting a galaxy-wide war against aggressive invaders is far beyond his talents, and in situations where he's forced into direct command (such as the fall of Coruscant) he performs poorly. He much prefers to give his generals and commanders freedom to pursue objectives as they see fit (and with generals like Garm bel Iblis and Wedge Antilles, it's easy to see why).
  • Sophos of The Queen's Thief is the highly reluctant heir to Sounis who would much rather spend his time studying history, poetry, and natural principles than learn to fight and conduct politics. As a result he's a big disappointment to his father and his uncle Sounis. The fourth book has Sophos given a sharp dose of reality when he's abducted by barons who want to make him a Puppet King and he realizes his apathy has done a terrible disservice to his country. He proceeds to shape up.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The series is full of these to varying degrees:
    • Robert Baratheon fights valiantly in a just war to dethrone a mad king, but when he takes the throne himself, he proves himself incompetent in dealing with matters of state, spends lavish amounts of money on feasts and tournaments, and his inattentiveness to his own family sows seeds of disaster. He is fully aware he's a horrible king and tries to compensate by leaving details and day-to-day operations to subordinates, which just makes things worse.
    • Robb Stark kick-starts his rebellion with surprising tactical brilliance and the magnetic charisma to draw twenty-thousand men under his banners. But his political inexperience and youthful, ahem, indiscretions lead to him losing his head. Literally.
    • Robb is contrasted (as ever) by his younger half-brother Jon Snow, who seems to subvert the trope: Despite becoming the fifth-youngest Lord Commander in history, he buckles down and starts making some sensible decisions. And then he gets stabbed by his own men who can't let old prejudices go and we're waiting for the sixth book to find out if he lives.
    • The Targaryens occasionally produced kings who were this, gathering sobriquets like "The Cruel" (Maegor I) and "The Mad" (Aerys II) for the obvious ones, and ones like "The Young Dragon" (Daeron I), "The Befuddled" (Baelor I), and "The Beggar King" (Viserys self-styled-III) for the borderline cases. But, only one got stamped with this trope in a direct form of Exactly What It Says on the Tin with no hint of irony, hedging, or excusing whatsoever: Aegon IV, "The Unworthy". There's a reason for that: almost everything he did guaranteed that the Blackfyre Rebellions (note the plural) would occur upon his death and that their impact would last for decades more beyond their apparent end. Well done, Jerkass.
  • King Elhokar of The Stormlight Archive is a bad king, and painfully aware of it. He lacks the force of personality of his father Gavilar, focuses more on hunting chasmfiends than trying to win the war with the Parshendi, and is paranoid to the point of seeing assassins in every shadow. He wants to be a good king, and is contrasted with his uncle Dalinar, who does not want to be king, but borders on usurping Elhokar by total accident simply because he is respected and a skilled leader in ways that Elhokar is not.
  • Onestar from Warrior Cats is first introduced as an amiable, well-meaning friend of Firestar, always helping him out despite Onestar being from WindClan while Firestar is from ThunderClan, and the two groups are sometimes at odds with each other. Right before the Clan's leader Tallstar dies, he unexpectedly names Onestar his successor over his deputy Mudclaw who was supposed to succeed him. Onestar is as shocked as everyone and doesn't even want him to be leader, though Firestar pressures him into it, and since the only witnesses to the change were Firestar, Onestar and another Thunder Clan cat, Mudclaw suspects a conspiracy to install Firestar's loyal friend as a puppet leader and launches a failed coup to overthrow him. Onestar, shaken by the knowledge that some of his own Clanmates hate his friendship with Firestar, cuts ties with him to show his Clan is independent and increasingly makes a mess of his leadership from then on, culminating in launching an unprovoked invasion of ThunderClan just to prove he only has his own Clan's interests at heart.
    • From the same series, Rowanstar takes leadership of ShadowClan with good intentions and not wanting to use the brutal tactics that previous tyrannical leaders of his Clan have done, but is unable to command the respect of the rebellious young apprentices of his Clan who see him as weak and turning away from the violent glory days of his Clan, as well as lacking compassion for the rogues trying to live in their territory just because they live a different lifestyle. After a plague hits his Clan and the aforementioned Onestar refuses to grant ShadowClan the herbs to cure it which are found on his own territory, ShadowClan's frustration with his inability to procure them leads everyone except his immediate family to choose to leave the Clan to join Darktail's rogue group. Most of them come back after realizing the rogues were far worse than Rowanstar ever was, but he is unable to command the respect of his Clan and eventually comes to believe himself that he is a horrible leader, and resigns his position and takes back his nine lives.
  • Wang Lun of Water Margin is an interesting case. As the original leader of the outlaws of Liangshan Marsh, no one would really expect him to be a good guy, but he nevertheless holds the position that the audience knows (if familiar with the source folklore) belongs ultimately to the famous Song Jiang. As well-known and valiant men begin flocking to his band, seeking fortune and refuge from the law, Lun realizes that he may be Unfit For Greatness, and he tries turning away those he sees as Leader Wannabes even though they would be great assets to the group. This "discourtesy" is his undoing.

    Live-Action TV 
  • For much of Babylon 5, this would be a fair assessment of Ambassador Londo Molari, who makes the worst choices possible with the best of intentions. He rises considerably in social status as a result, but finds himself increasingly trapped by his previous decisions.
    Londo: When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.
  • Game of Thrones: Tytos Lannister was a well-meaning but weak Lord Paramount, a bad mix in the cutthroat world of Westeros.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Federation President Jaresh-Inyo is a man (or Grazerite in his case) who never wanted to be president. He's well-meaning and would have made a good peacetime president, but he's wholly unable and unwilling to adapt to the wartime situation the Federation is caught in. A later episode in the series implies the voters threw him out of office because of this.
  • In the Supernatural episode "Devil May Care" (S09, Ep02), Abaddon views Crowley this way because he is a salesman instead of a conqueror.
  • In Teen Wolf, Derek becomes the Alpha in the Season 1 finale. He then proceeds to fail utterly — he cannot protect his Betas (who proceed to leave him or die or both), gets manipulated by every villain in town, and in the end Scott has to clean up his mess. He's noticeably more well-adjusted when he gives up being an Alpha and chooses to act as advisor to Scott in Season 3b.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In a sense, this is what ultimately holds back and lets down Victor Steiner-Davion in BattleTech. He genuinely means well, and surrounds himself with reasonable and competent advisors, but his soft heart and blind spot to family and public opinion means he is easily usurped by his sister Katherine, who is a superior politician but quickly grows tyrannical and authoritarian. When able to serve as a sort of commander-in-chief in military operations, Victor is much more capable, and he eventually abdicates both of the thrones he has a right to claim in order to rebuild after the Word of Blake Jihad. He eventually joins Devlin Stone as a Paladin, and remains comfortably in that role for the rest of his life.
    • A similar statement can be said for Victor's friend Kai Allard Liao. A genuinely good person but too idealistic to play the political game, when the Capellan Confederation threatened the peace of the Republic of the Sphere, he refused the order to invade non-Capellan worlds and was shocked to discover how many people in his own unit disagreed with him, due to their increased nationalization. Ultimately he too defected from his noble position in the Confederation to the Republic of the Sphere and took up a governorship position within it, where he reportedly excelled at easing internal tensions.

    Theatre 
  • William Shakespeare depicts Richard II and Henry VI like this. The former is portrayed as a legitimate ruler who nevertheless makes rebellion against his rule inevitable by his tyranny and capriciousness. The later is portrayed as being too young and inexperienced to rule effectively, and whose inability to rein in the squabbling and conniving of the nobles under his rule predicates The Wars Of The Roses.

    Video Games 
  • In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, Randver Thunder Stone is a good dwarf, but he's in way over his head as King-in-Waiting of the dwarves, and later as King. If his father doesn't return, then he'll take the throne under a cloud, and not have the strength to prevent a civil war from tearing the Dwarves apart. However, this example is downplayed if he takes the throne under better circumstances. If his father dies a hero's death in the Void, Randver becomes a great and wise king.
  • In Dark Souls II, King Vendrick laments that he was more a jester than a king, as he was manipulated by his Eldritch Abomination wife into stealing an artifact from the giants across the ocean, sparking a devastating war that ruined the kingdom, and what was left then collapsed under the Undead Curse. He was actually very close to discovering how to stop the latter, but unfortunately it was too late.
  • In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Pelleas, heir to the throne of Daein, is a well-intentioned youth who strives to free his country from Begnion's oppression. Despite having not known of his parentage until somewhat recently, he tries his best to lead his people, but due to his mild personality and inexperience in warfare he's got some pretty big shoes to fill, and he knows it. As such, he ends up deferring to his mother and advisor on all matters. Unfortunately, this prevents him from being the strong leader the revolution needs and, were it not for Micaiah's efforts, the rebellion likely would've ended in disaster. After becoming King at the end of Part 1, things look like they might improve... except his trusted advisor betrays him by tricking him into signing a blood pact with Begnion and then vanishing. This ends up putting the lives of the entire country of Daein into jeopardy if he doesn't follow Begnion's orders to the letter, with no way of knowing how to stop it. He struggles to deal with this on his own throughout most of Part 3, but by the time he finally confides with Micaiah on what's really going on and is able to find a solution shortly after, Ike's army is right on their doorstep. And to make matters worse, his solution, killing a pact-bearer (i.e. himself), is only half of what needs to be done, and just results in him dying for nothing. This is the only fate for him on one's first run through the game, but on a second playthrough Micaiah can stop the sacrifice, allowing him to survive and fight alonside the army. It's somewhat telling in that, should he survive to the end of the game, he willingly abdicates the throne to Micaiah and serves as an advisor on her court, a role far more suited to him.
  • Mass Effect:
    • In Mass Effect 2, Jacob's disappeared father Ronald Taylor and the crew of the Hugo Gernsback crash-landed on 2175 Aeia. The previous captain, Captain Harris Fairchild, was killed in the crash, and following emergency protocols, Ronald was promoted to Acting Captain, a position he turned out to be thoroughly unsuited for. Upon learning that the food on the planet was toxic and caused neural decay, Ronald decided at first to ration the uncontaminated food from the ship's stores for the scientists working to get them all off the planet. Unfortunately, as time went by, Ronald soon let the power go to his head, and he turned the camp and his neurally-decayed crewmates into his own personal kingdom. By the time Shepard and crew arrive, things have gotten bad.
    • The nicer interpretations of Ambassador/Councilor Udina throughout the trilogy paint him as this. He's fundamentally a normal guy, good at bureaucracy, okay at politics, who is thrust into a position of power at way the hell the wrong time, leading him to mouth off to the Council, subvert Shepard at critical moments, and side with Cerberus to plot a coup against the Council for the sake of Earth. He's probably the most effective politician in the series in terms of getting things done quickly and efficiently, he just makes consistently bad judgement calls.
    • In Mass Effect 3, the Illusive Man's plan for defeating the Reapers by controlling them is entirely a valid one. The problem is, the Illusive Man wasn't Shepard, which meant that he couldn't control the Reapers' technology without instead becoming indoctrinated by it. Shepard can do what he was trying to do without a bit of difficulty if he or she does well enough.
    • The trend continues in Mass Effect: Andromeda.
      • Director Jarun Tann was eighth in line for the title of director before everyone ahead of him was killed by the Scourge, and it shows. He's incompetent, racist, and holds a bit of an inferiority complex, and by the time you're trying to activate Meridian he's lost all ability to rein in the Pathfinders.
      • Cora's loyalty mission proves she would have been a poor Pathfinder. Initially passed up for the role of Pathfinder at the end of the initial mission she harbors a bit of a grudge for Ryder because of it. After her commando mentor is exposed for abandoning the original asari Pathfinder to die, she realizes that she's too dependent on mentors and superiors telling her what to do when the going gets tough and that she can't make a decision when that support isn't available.
  • The nicest interpretation of Garrosh Hellscream in World of Warcraft. He was fundamentally hotheaded and Weak-Willed, and a man defined by being the son of Grom Hellscream rather than being his own person. This left him open to negative influences within the Horde that ultimately pushed him to tyranny. During a final Mak'Gora with Thrall, he calls out Thrall on making him shoulder all of the responsibilities of Warchief, which Garrosh described as picking up the pieces Thrall left behind. Garrosh was not ready to be Warchief, and deep down he knew it.

    Web Original 
  • Mahu: In "Frozen Flame" the father of Prince Arius became ruler of his kingdom after defeating a powerful mage who nearly brought the whole continent to ruin. Though he was the best warrior in the land, the king did not wish for the crown at first and only took it after much pressure. Years later, his failings as a ruler began to be revealed, to the point where a revolution took place. Surrounded by spies and lacking in support, him and his family were either killed during the siege of the capital city or captured and later executed by the new government. Only Arius, his youngest, managed to flee to the colonies.

    Western Animation 
  • In the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero episode "The Most Dangerous Thing in the World", Cobra attempts to destroy G.I. Joe by getting the three Joes least suited to lead the organization promoted into leadership roles, causing chaos. When General Hawk returns to sort things out and fix everything, he points out that some people have the desire to lead but not the ability (referring to General Failure Dial-Tone), some people have the ability to lead but not the desire (referring to the Brilliant, but Lazy Lifeline), and some truly exceptional(ly disasterous) people have neither the ability nor the desire (referring to The Caligula Shipwreck).
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, main protagonist Twilight Sparkle twice finds herself thrust into a position of much greater authority — first when she's crowned "Princess of Friendship" at the end of Season 3, and again when she's named as the successor to the throne of all Equestria in Season 9. Both times, she is deeply concerned that she's not qualified for the role, and makes a number of mistakes as she adapts to the power and responsibility. Despite her fears, however, this trope is ultimately averted: the Distant Finale of the series implies that Equestria is enjoying something of a golden age under Princess Twilight's rule.


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