Of the many leadership traits, willpower has special significance.  Difficult to describe, it is best illustrated by historical example, rather than by general discussion.  That sustained application of effort over a long period of time, and that concentrated focus on ends in the face of myriad obstacles, are manifested in the life of Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642).  Cardinal Richelieu was France’s most subtle, iron-willed, and ruthless statesman.  He was will incarnate, and arguably more than any other, he was the maker of modern France.

From an early age he showed an ability to grasp the essentials of a complicated situation and mold them to his advantage.  His maternal grandfather had been a Parisian political figure, and his father, the Seigneur de Richelieu, had been Grand Provost of the Royal Household under Henry IV.  In an age when the titles of nobility meant far more than they do today, he made the most of his connections.  His family had him nominated for the position of a bishopric in 1606, but he was only twenty one.  The young lad then traveled to Rome and made a direct appeal to Pope Paul V; he charmed the pope by first lying about his age, and then by asking for forgiveness for his lie.  Paul, not knowing whether to be angry or pleased, was won over by the audacity and keenness of the French youngster.  He here demonstrated that remarkable ability to influence men of power, a skill he was to use to great effect throughout his long career.

He discharged his duties as bishop with patient application and a probing intelligence that few of his contemporaries possessed.  While others focused on enriching themselves with the spoils of office, Richelieu was more interested in advancement.  He was nominated by his peers in 1614 to serve as delegate to the States-General; and from there it was but a short jump to be made secretary of state two years later with the help of Marie de Medicis (queen consort of Henry IV, and regent for her son Louis XIII).  He knew how to make himself indispensable to those holding the reins of power.  But he was no mere court sycophant.  His intellect and memory were second to none, and he had an quiet tenacity of purpose that preserved the ends, while permitting a remarkable flexibility of means.  Frequently underestimated, he frustrated all who crossed swords with him.

His fortunes temporarily fell when one of his allies in court was killed.  The Queen Mother was banished along with Richelieu, and she soon joined an opposition faction.  Richelieu, at the request of the new powers in court, managed to mediate the dispute between the parties and get her back into the king’s favor.  Louis awarded him the position of cardinal, and from there he became prime minister in 1624 at the age of thirty nine.

The working relationship of King Louis and Richelieu was so successful because each was aware of, and complemented, the qualities of the other.  Too many kings err, Richelieu felt, in not letting themselves be served by their ministers.  Although the king was always jealous of Richelieu’s abilities, he recognized that he could not do without him.  No one else had the will and means to keep the Huguenots in check, the French nobles in their place, and ambitious Spain at bay.  Richelieu cared little about theology; his purpose was to make France a powerful, centralized state, and to this end, any means was permitted.  He would confound many of his clerical colleagues in Rome by his ability to make alliances equally with Protestant as well as Catholic powers.  But for him, the interests of France came first.


The Cardinal at war:  Richelieu at La Rochelle

The siege of the city of La Rochelle shows Richelieu at his most tenacious.  This Huguenot stronghold had become nearly an independent city, a situation no sovereign in Paris could tolerate.  Richelieu assumed the role of military commander and, acting on behalf of the king, ordered a relentless blockade of the recalcitrant city.  Showing an amazing grasp of siege warfare and engineering problems, he had the harbor sealed, and closed all land approaches to the city.  The starving city surrendered after thirteen months of misery, and Richelieu entered in triumph on horseback.  Yet his peace terms to the Huguenots thereafter were lenient and just.  He later explained that “differences in religion never prevented me from rendering to the Huguenots all sorts of good offices.”  In an age of religious intolerance, it was a revolutionary view.


He also put France’s arrogant nobility in its place.  France at the time was still very feudal in character; the nobles in the provinces still maintained private armed forces, castles bristling with weapons, and courts of law.  These semi-independent potentates could on a whim undermine the central authority in Paris.  It was a situation that was impeding France’s national development, and Richelieu, with the tacit approval of the king, was determined to bring the aristocracy to heel.  In 1626 he issued an order mandating the disarming of all private castles and fortresses, and outlawed the aristocratic diversion of dueling.  When two barons defied the ban, Richelieu had them executed.  “It is a question of breaking the neck of duels or of your Majesty’s edicts”, he explained to the king.

Frances’s nobles were furious, and plotted his downfall.  But he was far more adroit then they.  The Queen Mother, who had originally promoted Richelieu, made no secret of the fact that she had come to despise his special confidence with the king.  She had underestimated her one-time protege, and woken up to find him running France.  She demanded that Louis get rid of the subtle cardinal, who had now become informally known as “his red eminence” (L’Eminence Rouge).  Richelieu, surprising the Queen Mother by entering her private chamber from a secret passage, confronted her.  What precisely he said (or did) to her is not known.  There followed a palace drama that was as startling as it was revealing.


Red Eminence:  a paragon of willpower

The king, not temperamentally suited to showdowns, wavered, and left the palace in distress.  Richelieu, in a private audience with Louis, persuaded him of his indispensability.  He was so successful in this that Louis ordered his own mother banished, had several rebellious nobles executed, and had Richelieu confirmed once again in power.  It was a counter-coup of stunning brilliance.

Richelieu then went on ruthlessly to clip the wings of France’s provincial governors and the local parlements.  “Nothing so upholds the laws,” he said when meting out punishments to the nobles, “as the punishment of persons whose rank is as great as their crime.”  He had made France an authoritarian state, but this was seen by most at the time as an improvement over the feudal oppression and chaos that had haunted France for centuries.

He was a man of austere and pale expression, whose delicate features masked a ferocious willpower and tenacity of purpose.  In the practice of statecraft and political maneuvering, he was without peer.  The famous portrait of him by Philippe de Champaigne (now in the Louvre) shows an almost ascetic figure, a man weary with the exercise of authority.  He understood the nature of man, and knew that a sovereign could not rule with pleas to moral virtue.  Severity was mostly a virtue in a ruler, he believed, and without it a king would not be on the throne for long.  Like all of us, he had his faults.  He paid too little attention to France’s domestic affairs, he taxed the peasantry to the point of destitution, and he set a precedent for absolutism that would be inherited and abused by those who followed him (most notably Louis XIV).


But above all, his willpower was supreme.  Frequently ill, he accomplished nearly all of the king’s (or his own) purposes that he set out to do, and left France better than he had found it.  He knew of the loneliness of power, and accepted the price paid by those who would wield it. “Great men”, he once said, “who are appointed to govern states are like those condemned to torture, with only this difference, that the latter receive the punishment of their crimes, the former of their merits.”

It is a judgment that we would be hard pressed to dispute.

Read More:  Nothing Is Permanent


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