Monday, November 9, 2020

The Mind of the Good Ruler: How Empathy Drives Governance

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II (1797-1870) did something very peculiar for a ruler of a state: he left us a personal diary. It was a collection of handwritten notes that cover all the period of his rule as Grand Duke, up to when he was deposed in 1859. It was published in 1987. It is a fascinating document (unfortunately existing only in Italian, as far as I know) that allows us a rare chance of a glimpse of how the mind of a ruler works -- in this case a good ruler. 


Why are our leaders so bad? Maybe it is us who always choose the worst possible persons for the job? But are they bad at the start, or do they go bananas as things go on? It would be nice to be able to understand what goes on inside the head of leaders, but they are people notoriously capable of cheating just about anyone, including themselves. And the main tool of the cheater is to hide what he is thinking. 

Maybe we could know more if we could have the personal diary of some of those powerful figures, but they don't usually keep diaries. That's probably part of their habit of keeping hidden what they really think. But sometimes we do have documents that open a view for us inside the head of these people. I already discussed the case of Benito Mussolini on the basis of the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. 

Mussolini was an almost paradigmatic bad leader and here I would try to contrast his approach to ruling with another figure of leader who, under many respects, was completely opposite: that of the Grand Duke Leopold II, who ruled Tuscany from 1824 to 1859. And he did something that very few rulers did: he left us a diary of his everyday life throughout all the period of his rule as Grand Duke of Tuscany!

It is a fascinating document that gives us an incredibly detailed view on the life of a person who was in charge of a state of nearly 2 million inhabitants. Of course, it is not the only document we have about Leopold's life. The story is complex and a matter of study for professional historians. What I can say, here, is that I did my best to digest the more than 500 pages of the diary and I'll try to pass to you my impression of the Grand Duke life and personality. And I think he was a good man who did his best. 

Of course, it is not that Leopold did everything right as Grand Duke. On the contrary, his rule could be defined as a failure since, eventually, he was deposed and forced to leave his beloved Tuscany. But note that when he left nobody in Tuscany would even remotely imagine to harm him, to say nothing about killing him and hanging him upside down, as it happened with a later ruler, Benito Mussolini. There is a poignant detail in the story: it is said that the Florentines lined up along the road of the carriage that carried the Grand Duke away and saluted him by taking their hats off and calling him "Babbo" ("Daddy"). In the picture, you see him represented as an old gentleman saying goodbye forever to his city and to his people. 

So, you see? People can recognize a good leader when they are blessed with one. And the basic characteristic of a good leader is that he cares for his people. In other words, it is a question of empathy. A good leader likes the people he leads. 

Contrast, again, with Mussolini as he appears in the notes of his son in law. The aging Duce clearly disliked his subjects, considering them little more than cannon fodder. And not just that, he rejoiced when he thought that Italians were dying of cold. So much that he imagined himself as having caused their death by ordering the reforesting of the Appennini mountains and, as a result, generating a colder climate. Not a joke: it is what Ciano reports and we have no reason to think it is not true. (incidentally, that makes Mussolini the first leader to use a "climate weapon," although he used it against his own people. But that's typical of petty dictators).

Compare with Leopold's kind attitude: it appears so often in the diary that you are forced to conclude that it was genuine, not a construct of state propaganda. The Grand Duke was no populist. He was a truly popular leader. He loved to speak to Tuscans, even with peasants, and to hear their opinions. And he was truly happy when they were happy. As an example, (p. 67 of the 1987 Sansoni edition) he reports how he met a 102 year old peasant who told him, "qui ci stava la fame, Pietro Leopoldo, suo nonno, fece tante cose, la cacciò, e non ci venne più" (here, there was hunger. Your grandfather, Pietro Leopoldo, did many things, chase it away, and now it is no more). 

Another example from the Grand Duke's notes. The straw hat industry had generated prosperity among the Tuscan people, so much that peasant girls who were skilled in making straw hats could "marry without the need of a dowry." ("una giovane che sapesse quel lavoro andava senza dote a marito") (p. 77). Leopold clearly likes that, and that's the more remarkable in an age when the straw hat industry was considered as something subversive as it had brought a certain degree of prosperity to the Tuscan peasants. It was the way he saw the world: he was primarily a family man who enjoyed his role of father so much that he extended it beyond his family, all the way to all Tuscans.

But it is not just a question of feelings: you can be well-intentioned, but also a bumbling idiot. But that wasn't the case of the Grand Duke. He was not just caring, but also a competent manager who personally took care of the everyday details of the government's work. Again, compare with the behavior of a bad leader: Benito Mussolini had locked himself inside a personal echo chamber in which he would hear and care about little more than his own grandiloquent proclaim. And he launched Italy into a disastrous war largely because he really had no idea of the real possibility of the Italian military forces. Think instead of Leopold II: it is clear from what he writes that he has a quantitative, even scientific, understanding of what the government is doing, often relying on the advice of scientists and experts.

Just as an example, in a note of 1851, Leopold describes how a combination of bad weather and pestilence caused a poor harvest and a diffuse famine. He says (p 414) that in some villages "le donne tenevan chiuse le finestre ai bambini per ingannarli perché credessero non venuto il giorno ancora e non domandassero pane." ("the women were keeping the windows shut for the children, in order to cheat them and convince them that the day had not come yet so that they would not ask for bread"). But this is not just a feeling, the Grand Duke is actively looking for ways to import grain to Tuscany, and when ships loaded with grain finally come, he rejoices while listing their numbers and the loads carried. As a final note, he praises not himself, but the Tuscan government for having stuck to a policy of free commerce that had encouraged the delivery of food to the population. He was a modest man not only in what he wrote but in everything he did.

There is a lot more to be said about this document, but that would be out of place, here. Let me just explain how it was that such a good and caring ruler eventually failed and was ousted. That was the result of forces that were operating outside Tuscany. The Grand Duke, although caring and effective as a local ruler, never gives us a hint in his notes that he understood the power game that was going on in the world at that time. 

The "Great Game" as it was played in mid 19th century, involved the Empires of the time competing against each other (then as now). Italy was a weak player in the game, being a patchwork of statelets, That was well recognized by the Italian thinkers of the time, who clamored for a unification that would give to Italy a sufficient economic and military force to become a serious player at the world level. But things weren't simple, they never are. The neighboring French and Austrian empires had all the interest in keeping Italy divided, and eventually partitioning it among themselves. Conversely, the British didn't want the rival French and Austrian empires to expand in Italy and pushed for a unified Italy that would keep both at bay. 

Eventually, the British won the game by one of the greatest masterpieces of diplomacy of all time. In an incredible strategic mistake, the French ruler, Napoleon 3rd, was bamboozled into making war against the Austrians to help Piedmont to conquer Italy. That involved much work by the Countess of Castiglione, said to be the most beautiful woman of her times, while at the same time an agent of the Piedmontese government. But that's another story. The French and the Austrians defeated each other and Italy fell into the hands of the King of Piedmont.

In this game, the Grand Duke Leopold was in a no-win situation. He was from an Austrian family of aristocrats and he could do little but lean on the Austrian side. He tried his best to maintain a certain level of neutrality, but when the Austrians were defeated, he was automatically defeated, too. And he did what he had to do, leave his Tuscany, while maintaining his dignity. I think we can say he remained faithful to his duty as a leader even with this last action.

And that's the story of a good ruler who did his best. How was it that Leopold II was so much better than most of our modern rulers? It is, of course, difficult to extract general rules from a single example, but one thing we can say is that Leopold didn't just become a leader. He was trained as a leader from his early years. He spoke fluently both German and Italian, he studied art, literature, and law, gaining a certain recognition as a literate, author of essays on Italian poetry. He also was very much interested in science, and he studied agricultural technologies. In terms of the intellectual climate of the time, I think he was deeply affected by the "Enlightenment" atmosphere of his age. He may well have read the Book by Antonio Muratori titled "About the Public Happiness" (1749) where the author clearly states that the job of a leader is to ensure the happiness of his subjects. And that's what Leopold seems to have striven to do during all of his life. 

So, shouldn't we train our leaders a little better, instead of choosing them in the haphazard, inefficient, and unreliable rituals we call "elections"? Shouldn't we train them in showing a little more empathyProbably yes, but a proposal like this one is not likely to go very far, nowadays. 

When was it that we lost the idea that a good leader should be trained as such? Hard to say but, probably, it has to do with the rise of propaganda during the 20th century. Then, leaders learned that the way they appeared was way more important than the way they actually were. Whatever it was, we are stuck where we are. Bad leaders are the last thing we need, but we have plenty, and I don't need to name them.

As a sign of changing times, the good Grand Duke of Tuscany, was the object of a memory removal campaign after he was deposed in 1859. So, there is little left in his city, Florence, that directly reminds us of his presence. One exception is this votive tabernacle on the hills south of Florence. It escaped destruction probably because it doesn't mention the Grand Duke's name, but we know it was him who wanted it erected. On it, we can still read that it was placed there "by a Father and his two daughters in gratitude for having survived a carriage accident." That he didn't sign the dedication was typical of Leopold's personality: he was a modest man who didn't like to show off (just like our modern politicians, right?).


A comment by

The note below was not written for this post, but Dr. Hsi Yen sent it to me as a comment. Indeed, the memories of the Grand Duke of Tuscany transpire a certain aura of Confucianism, a sort of Tuscan version of the Tao Te Ching. And it is also true that the European thought of the 18th century was much influenced by Chinese philosophy. Too bad that there was no Great Wall to defend Tuscany from foreign barbarians!

My father’s beautiful calligraphy, Dr. Ernest Chu Yen. What he taught me about how we care for each other the Confucian way. I’m named after Chu Hsi, 12th century neoConfucian scholar which paved the way for more than 600 years of relative harmony in China before Western powers decided to try to carve up China like they did Africa.
When the Great Way prevailed, the world community was equally shared by all. The worthy and able were chosen as office-holders. Mutual confidence was fostered and good neighborliness cultivated. Therefore people did not regard as parents only their own parents, nor did they treat children only their own children. Provision was made for the aged till their death, the adult were given employment, and the young enabled to grow up. Old widows and widowers, the orphaned, the old and childless, as well as the sick and the disabled were all well taken care of. Men had their proper roles and women their homes. While they hated to see wealth lying about on the ground, they did not necessarily keep it for their own use. While they hated not to exert their effort, they did not necessarily devote it to their own ends. Thus evil schemings were repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless elements failed to arise, so that outer doors did not have to be shut. This was called the age of Great Harmony (Ta Tung)


  1. "the women were keeping the windows shut for the children, in order to cheat and convince them that the day had not come yet" - cannot go forever - physically and morally...

    Putting finite fossil fuels in the hand of humans in the fashion it has been done by the agency of Economics of the Western Civilisation - has been a disaster - no less tragic than the deluge.

    Economics forcing humans to fight against the laws of Physics, since early mass coal in Britain, by making the commons to believe 'Price' will take care of the problem of finite Energy resources - is an idiot quest - it even caused our civilisation itself, and all the knowledge produced during it, to be out of the real context - Energy - and fake!

    Economics, since James Watt, obsessively promoting that "Energy is a function of 'Price' not Physics", has been a clear demonstration that humans are so primitive.

    This far, that has proved now humans are the most primitive across all the animal kingdom.

    Shame, humans have mastered mass extraction of fossil fuels before they were morally developed enough to be capable of dealing with the one-off finite fossil fuels, and what to do with it responsibly.

    There is a relentless 24/7 campaign nowadays, in English, Arabic and Russian, to demolish the way the origins of Islam have been understood since the 19th century, when the BBC has been very busy in all the last century recording and promoting Quran recitations in the Middle East free of charge like no tomorrow, religious factions in the Arab world have been heavily financed and guided by the West, etc - i.e. how 'Islam' has been re-created, re-packaged and synthesised by the West to be the Islam we know today...

    Jaws dropped open, outsiders can speculate from what they can see today that there is a great deal of an investment put in making the commons to understand now that Islam is no more than Judaism and Christianity themselves - hybridised.

    Could this campaign be, actually, an attempt by our Civilisation to find a new global ground and order on how to burn the few little remaining batches of recoverable fossil fuels in the future - more morally?!


  2. Any relation to King Leopold II of Belgium? Piece of work that one.

  3. A link to the tabernacle's position:

    1. Yes. It is close to where I live, in Florence.

  4. Maybe catholic monarchy would be a good idea after all. Order based on the sacraments, which function as order-generators needing only a very tiny material base themselves, instead of the gigantic apparatus of technocratic capitalism. Catholic social teaching provides guidance for all aspects of human life, from the local to the planetary level.
    Even relics of saints could provide for at least a part of necessary money functions, as you wrote once - even if this sounds very strange for modern ears: relics as "money" turn, or transubstantiate, commodification, into personal relation. they are not "something", but part of "someone", who would intercede for the economical transaction in question, and this relation would in turn foster a sanctifying dynamic in those transactions.
    And - it is not just a theory, one can just decide to start practicing catholicism, and do it. As absurd such a decision would seem to many modern people, in face of climate and ecological breakdown and civilisational crisis, maybe it would be worth giving it a try.

  5. Why are our leaders so bad? Is it because leaders hide what they think, or is it because the hierarchical systems they sit on top of are not designed to meet our real human needs, but rather skim off the profits from the work of others to ensure continued power for the power elites? I vote for the second, for it seems most leaders reveal their goodness or badness, not by revealing their thoughts but by revealing the results of what they do – actions speak louder than words (or thoughts in this case). And for more insight on what those results are, I believe you would be better off to ask the folks most affected by the actions of the institutions they “lead”, and not the kind thoughts of the leader spelled out in his diary.
    In your Leopold example, what was the source of Leopold’s enjoyment of the skilled peasant girls making straw hats? Was it that these girls could get married and not have to worry about their families paying a dowry since as long as their straw-hat making skills remained intact, they could spend the rest of their productive lives cranking out straw-hats all day, with this labor coincidently pumping profits into the pockets of the straw-hat company owners? And like all kind liberal governance, in good times the prosperous peasants appeared to make enough money to buy what they could to supplement the family income needed to try and keep the family fed from the Tuscan markets, assuming the markets functioned.
    It is also interesting how like all apparently effective leaders, the Grand Duke is able to blame the failure of the market agricultural system he was apparently the leader of to be able to feed the people, on “bad weather and pestilence caused a poor harvest and a diffuse famine”, which he then in hindsight steps in to correct by importing more grain to sell to the hungry peasants, so that once again the straw-hat making peasants can open their windows in the morning and not have to trick their children into thinking it is not breakfast time yet, and buy more grain as well. Of course, empowering the peasants to have access to land to be able to grow and gather their own food is not really an option, since this would take away the joy Leopold got from keeping the peasants making straw hats.
    So, I don’t think that investing more energy in educating leaders will ensure more kindness in their actions, but rather would prefer that the peasants be empowered to take care of their own needs, and not be forced into of life of monotony and dependence on following fools, not matter how “good” our “Babbos’s” thoughts tells us they are.
    My thoughts on following fools for what they are worth. For a more modern and wordy and incomplete take of evaluating market-leaders talk or thought, see my writings beginning here: .

    1. You are making several interesting points, but the story is nuanced. Really, Tuscany became a desperately poor country after that the wool industry collapsed in the 16th century, driven to destruction by the overexploitation of pasture land. The conditions of Tuscany during that period were simply terribleThen, in the 18th century, someone developed the straw hat technology that was a little economic miracle. Everyone benefitted from it, not just the owners of the factories and the merchants. Then, it was necessary to open the Tuscan economy to worldwide commerce, because the cultivation of straw was only in part compatible with food production. And that started a machine that went on running for a couple of centuries, until the Chinese forced Tuscany out of the world market by making cheaper straw hats, at some moment in the second half of the 20th century. Was it good or bad? Difficult to say, but my grandfather was employed in the straw hat industry and he enjoyed a prosperity that his peasant/worker ancestors couldn't have even dreamed of. Things are never simple and there always is more of one way to look at them.

    2. Obviously, I am ignorant when it comes to knowing anything about the actual history of Tuscany, the straw-hat economy that “sustained” the region through some previously even worse ruling class practices, nor it’s Grand Duke Leopold II. However, I think I am becoming more aware of how the complexities of our current economic system – likely in part refined from the lessons learned by the practices of ruling economic ministers of the past – are mostly about padding the pockets of the ruling class who control it, rather than enriching the lives of the peasants that provide the labor to sustain it. Sure, mass production of goods and services can indeed result in prosperity – in this case a good number of the lower-class folks having perhaps more leisure and money to keep themselves fed and entertained as a consequence of spending a good portion of their life’s involved in making mass manufactured goods like straw hats. And maybe the so-called “good rulers” really do have empathy for and care about the lives of the peasants whose lives they rule. But if that is the best we can hope for than I think it is perhaps time to stop letting ourselves be ruled by fools – no matter how prosperous we think we are compared to how poor we were in the past; no matter how good the intentions of these fools may be; nor even based on how many folks who felt prosperous under their leadership come out to wave hats at them when they are forced to leave their positions of power, or cling to it in desperation(All of these are still going on in my time, and in my place). Because I think it is obvious that in the end these are the practices that lead to the collapse of societies that forget about the consequences of a way of life dominated by over-consumptive well-intentioned fools, and forgetting about being ruled by an inner wisdom that requires living in harmony with the planet and our fellow human beings. As much as I wish “good” leadership could solve all our problems, I have given up on this fantasy.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)