Recently, there has been much debate about income inequality. To remedy the disparity between rich and poor, commentators recommend economic measures: progressive taxation, higher minimum wages, and job training programs. But even if those were put in place, they would address only the material dimension, and that incompletely. There will always be some privileged people in society: people with a relatively high share of wealth, status, and authority, often gained through their own efforts. Even if they decided to leave their positions or divest their fortunes, that in itself wouldn’t earn others’ respect or trust.
Most members of the top 1 percent know, at least when they stop to think about it, that their continued fortune depends on having productive relationships with those around them: employees, customers, fellow citizens. They can’t do this if others assume that they will always look out for themselves at the expense of everyone else. When people don’t trust their leadership, all of society is diminished. And right now, 99-percenters everywhere can find plenty of evidence to support their lack of trust.
It is the responsibility of the privileged to overcome this disconnect—if they don’t, no one else will—but it is not obvious how they should go about it. How do you manage, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, to “walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch”?
History presents us with a surprisingly relevant example: Louis XIV—the Sun King—who ruled France for 72 years, from 1643 (he was crowned at age 5) to his death, in 1715. Here was a man whose personal motto was nec pluribus impar (“inferior to none”), and who believed in the divine right of kings. Yet he is regarded as a successful ruler with a long, prosperous regime who earned the respect and commitment of his country.
We know about Louis not only from historical research, but also from daily accounts written by courtiers in the Palace of Versailles, which he built, and from memoirs he wrote as a guide to the craft of kingship for his son. One chronicler, the cynical but scrupulously detail-oriented Duc de Saint-Simon, accused Louis of “vanity without limit or constraint,” but also admired him: “He was always the same—sensitive to his subjects, devoted to truth and justice over reason.”
Today’s business leaders could learn a great deal from the Sun King about handling the responsibilities of privilege. For example:
Business leaders could learn a lot from the Sun King about handling privilege. Seriously.
1. Business comes first. Louis was a ladies’ man and bon vivant, but he made it clear that his first allegiance was to his kingship. “If you notice any woman, whosoever she might be, exercising any influence over me…you are to draw my attention to the fact,” he ordered his ministers. “I will need only twenty-four hours to free myself.”
He warned his son about putting pleasure before business. “Nothing is more taxing than prolonged idleness,” he wrote. “You will always find in me the same perseverance in labor, the same firmness of resolution, the same love for my people, the same passion for the prosperity of my state and the same ardor for glory.”
2. Stay involved with everyday operations. Today we might call Louis a micromanager. His desire to know the details of how France was run kept everyone in his administration on their toes. He forbade anyone to sign any document without his knowledge and he answered correspondence himself. Each day, Louis reviewed the kingdom’s accounts. It was an eye-opener for him, and it reaped benefits: “I learned many details about the condition of my people. They saw I was concerned about them and nothing did so much to win me their hearts,” he wrote.
3. Communicate effectively. Louis was accessible to his courtiers and others who wanted his time. “He [had] the ability to speak well and to listen with quick comprehension, with much reserve of manner…always distinguished and suited to the age, rank, and sex of each individual,” wrote Saint-Simon. According to another courtier, Madame de Calyur, Louis also knew when not to speak: “He knew how every word a monarch utters is canvassed over in public and he often kept to himself most discoveries his penetration had enabled him to make.”
4. Watch your conduct. “The more facility I have as king to glorify myself, the more I ought to be on my guard against sin and scandal,” Louis advised his son. “A sovereign cannot live too wisely or too innocently; you must regulate your own morals. Avoid the empty noise of applause, which is incessantly flattering.”
5. Promote the deserving. Louis believed in the nobility’s right to privilege, but not as a caste closed to newcomers. He exercised his royal patronage to promote those who showed promise and talent. In addition to creating a royal meritocracy, it ensured allegiance to the crown.
But Louis’ reign also shows that power is not without its limits. His example offers one final, humbling lesson for today’s executives.
6. Privilege doesn’t give you absolute control. By the last phase of his reign, in 1694, France faced severe hardships and bankruptcy owing to the wars it was fighting (many of which Louis had started himself). Louis responded by attacking privilege itself, raising money by levying a 10 percent tax on all incomes, including those of the nobles and clergy, in order to prop up the country. Even in Louis’ time, under the reign of an absolute monarch, privilege was not immune to public policy, market forces, or the consequences of a leader’s decisions.