The Chains of Commanding

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Sometimes it sucks to be the one calling the shots.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

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. 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 they sit on. The worst part is that they shouldn't even complain aloud and should reject any sympathy, as that would leave them looking 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!" The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask and some Wise Princes are royals who suffer a lot from this Trope. 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.

Examples of The Chains of Commanding include:

Anime and Manga

  • Rossiu from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Simon actually has to save him from committing suicide.
  • Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid. Captain Testarossa has Sousuke Sagara pulled off guarding his Bodyguard Crush Kaname Chidori, as he's the only one who can pilot the Arbalest. When her normally respectful subordinate starts giving her attitude about this, Tessa's frustrations over her job, and Sousuke's devotion to Kaname as opposed to her, finally spill over.

"It's so easy for you, isn't it? You're just going to stand there angry and hold a grudge against me, but I have to look out for the safety of everyone under my command! Do you know how strong the enemy is? Melissa might die out there next time, or Mr Weber! You have absolutely no idea what it's like for me while I'm sitting in that Captain's chair!"

  • Queen Arika from Mahou Sensei Negima. Grew up sheltered but isolated, and maintained a marble demeanor with everyone she met. Near the end of the war twenty years ago, she had to make some very hard choices, resulting in the world being saved but her own kingdom being destroyed, with the survivors scattered. The Megalomesembrian Senate had her arrested, publicly blamed her for pretty much the whole war and sentenced her to death -- which she went along with because she figured it would help her people. Good thing the Ala Rubra had a clever plan.
  • Emperor Saihitei aka Hotohori of Fushigi Yuugi suffers from this a lot.
  • Shi Ryuuki of Saiunkoku Monogatari also counts, once he finally decided take up his role as The Emperor seriously.
  • Colonel Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist. He calls an ambulance for his subordinate when he himself is practically dying from his injuries and blames himself for absolutely everything that goes wrong.
  • Sengoku from One Piece is a very tragic example. He obviously has to do things he doesn't like as befitting his position (Head of the Marines), and even ends up getting screwed by his own superiors when he's not having to handle pirates.
  • In Vinland Saga this happens to Canute—not in the least because holding his position of power makes him act in ways he'd previously find repellent.

Comic Books

  • In The Legion of Super Heroes (the recent rebooted continuity, that is) then-leader of the Legion Cosmic Boy, thinking he and Sun Boy are in private, decides to cut loose and rant about all the pressure he's under and how much the various idiosyncrasies of the other Legion members annoy him. To his horror, he discovers mere seconds later that the communications channel had been open the whole time and his entire screed was heard by every other member of the Legion. This ultimately leads to a dangerous schism within the Legion, and they only just manage to pull themselves back together in time to defeat the Big Bad.
    • On another occasion, Cosmic Boy blows up at Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, telling them about the sacrifices he's made so they can be a happy couple and raise a family, forgoing relationships of his own so the responsibility of running the Legion doesn't weigh as heavily on them.
  • This is the reason that Morpheus grew tired of his role as Dream and committed indirect suicide.
  • The last arc of the X Wing Series comics featured this pretty clearly. Wedge, helping make plans for an operation to rescue a defecting Imperial, accepts that he and his people will be the ones who have to make sure any potential disaster stays potential. They have to fly cover, and if they can't adjust to any surprises... Later in the arc, after things went wrong, the Rebel Alliance Council look over the situation and decide that they can't allocate any more forces to helping their people out, to Leia's misery. She'd like to gather up Luke and Han and Lando and pull a Big Damn Heroes moment, but her sphere of responsibility is so much wider now, and she has to apply to other conflicts.
  • In another Star Wars comic arc, one that shows the men behind the masks in the Imperial army, Lieutenant Janek Sunber is put in charge of setting up defenses by the general. They have to hold against an unstoppable wave of alien natives (an homage to Zulu). During the fighting, while he and his men are falling back, the stormtrooper next to him is hit in the back by a spear. The narration notes that most men, when a comrade near them is killed, feel relief that they were not the one to die. Sunber, on the other hand, feels dismay that he couldn't save the man, that he didn't even know his name, and worst of all, that it doesn't matter, because the rest of the men need him. He even tried to drag the stormtrooper to safety before another officer pulled him away.
  • Primus of the Omega Men always felt this, often drifting dangerously close to Wangst.

Fan Works

  • In Tiberium Wars, Commander Karrde regularly feels the weight of the chains when his troops suffer and die for him. On the other end of the spectrum, Commander Rawne feels the weight only when he fails.
  • By the same author, Forward has Mal get weighed down more and more as the series progresses, feeling greater amounts of guilt as he conflicts with his crew and his past decisions bring extra grief down on them.
  • In the Service frequently comments upon the fact that an officer must be beyond human frailties and emotions, always having a can-do attitude and a readiness to lead...even when they don't. One of the main characters, asked why he hasn't dissolved into a wreck after a disastrous boarding action saw half of his team killed, responds thus:

I am the commander. There is no more effective way to destroy the morale and mental well-being of my team then for me to crack myself. I am the commander, and I am not allowed to fall apart.


Albert: "I'm just a naval officer... [sobs] I don't know how to do anything else..."


  • Kel from the Protector of the Small quartet fits this trope nearly to the point of insanity.
  • Prince Josua from Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. He dislikes it so much that in the end he gives over to Simon and becomes an Innkeeper. Gladly. Simon seems to like the taste of power better.
  • At the end of C. S. Lewis' A Horse and His Boy, Prince Corin is overjoyed that his twin brother has returned so that he doesn't have to become king himself. His twin brother, who up to now had thought of himself as Shasta and not Prince Cor, had not expected this reaction and wasn't sure he wanted to be king either.
  • Jake from Animorphs. It is very understandable, given that he's tasked with fending off a secret Alien Invasion of brain slugs (whose human hosts include his older brother) and his only allies are a bunch of kids like him, an alien warrior cadet and a race of Actual Pacifist androids.
  • The instructors at Command School do this on purpose to Ender in Ender's Game. They in fact deliberately engineer scenarios both inside and outside the simulator to teach Ender that he can never count on anybody but himself to help him.
  • Discworld:
    • That is one of the most defining characteristics of Samuel Vime]. Actually, there is no reason for him to be a Commander of the Watch... except that he's damn good at it.
    • There's also Pteppic of Terry Pratchett's Pyramids. Although this is exacerbated by the fact that not only does he feel responsible for his people, but also he has absolutely no power despite being the king. And nobody bothers telling him. When he finally gets the enormity of the lie he's expected to live, he naturally absconds.
  • Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. He's been emperor since the age of six. He hates every second of it and would give quite a lot to pass the job to someone else, but there isn't anyone else whose appointment wouldn't encourage civil war, and his sense of responsibility keeps him firmly in place. Pretty much a male The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask, in fact.
    • Subverted by Gregor's ambitious (but not too ambitious) foster brother, who frequently complains about the inefficiency of democracy and declares that he much prefers a "clean chain of command."
      • Only when he's at the top.
  • Horatio Hornblower of CS Forester's series of novels has this as a defining character trait as he rises through the ranks. He exhibits a much milder (and somewhat more palatable) form of it in each of the miniseries based on the novels.
    • Within the same genre, Jack Aubrey occasionally ponders the depth of isolation imposed upon captains by regulation and social etiquette.
      • Thankfully, he enjoys the relatively uninhibited companionship of his particular friend Dr. Maturin, who has an ambiguous position with regard to aforementioned regulations.
      • In The Mauritius Campaign it's noted that the officers in the RN refer to their uniform buttons as "The Curse of God", in acknowledgement of the decisions sometimes force upon them by their responsibility.
  • The titular Colonel-Commissar of Dan Abnett's Warhammer 40,000: Gaunt's Ghosts deals with this a lot.
    • Increasingly, so do the other senior officers among the Ghosts. This trope can be brutal when you have genuinely decent people in command of the Redshirt Army in a setting like this.
  • Wedge Antilles sometimes falls under this trope, mostly when pilots under his command are dying. He does have to write the letters back to their families and takes a little comfort that It Never Gets Any Easier.
    • Mon Mothma, Garm Bel Iblis, and Bail Organa were the three most significant members of the Rebellion until Organa's death at Alderaan. After that, Iblis got uneasy about the way Mothma was directing things and left to make his own Rebellion. The events of The Thrawn Trilogy let Iblis see things differently.

Iblis: After all these years, I finally understand why she does things the way she does. I've always assumed that she was gathering more and more power to herself simply because she was in love with power. But I was wrong. With everything she does there are lives hanging in the balance. And she's terrified of trusting anyone else with those lives.
All the pieces of [Leia's] life these past few years fell suddenly into place. All the diplomatic missions Mon Mothma had insisted she go on, no matter what the personal cost in lost Jedi training and strained family life. All the trust she'd invested in Ackbar and a few others; all the responsibility that had been shifted onto fewer and fewer shoulders. Onto the shoulders of those few she could trust to do the job right.

    • In Solo Command, General Han Solo shows a bit of this while commanding the task force sent after Warlord Zsinj. There's mention that all he could do was issue orders and hope they were so good that not many of his people died. They were never so good that none of his people died. Never.
  • In Gav Thorpe's Warhammer 40,000 Last Chancers novel Kill Team, Kage, having personally selected and trained the team, tries to persuade himself that if they fail or get themselves killed, it will be their own fault, but is unable.
  • In William King's Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolf novel Grey Hunters, Ragnor feels this strongly when he receives a Field Promotion. Especially because one of his new subordinates was a man he had long hated and wanted to kill. He wonders whether, if this man died, he could tell whether he had done all he could or had secretly wanted him to die.
    • In Lee Lightner's Sons of Fenris, Berek, though longing for the battle on the planet and knowing the fight would be renowned, nevertheless knows it is his duty to stay on shipboard, thinking that it is a situation where rank lacks privileges.
    • In Wolf's Honour, Mikal feels heavily burdened by the role that fell on him when Berek was gravely wounded. He sees the unconscious leader and asks why him and is enraged when he realizes that the skald, Morgrim, listened to him. When Morgrim says that he will describe this as a warrior paying respects to his lord before battle, Mikal can not believe him and confesses to his doubts. Morgrim assures him that Berek felt the same way and that having not shirked his duty, he has not failed.
  • In Sandy Mitchell's The Traitor's Hand, Ciaphas Cain explains his friendship with the general this way: it gives the general a chance to socialize with someone outside the chain of command.
  • Conan's feelings on being King of Aquilonia, from Robert E. Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword:

When I was a fighting man, the kettle drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse's feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.

  • Councillor Arfarra in Yulia Latynina's Wizards and Ministers. He was literally dragged out of his guilt-filled exile under extraordinary circumstances and then more or less had to take control of the empire because it was obviously going straight to hell.
  • Heavy lies the crown for any poor sap born into the Atreides bloodline.
  • Survivor's guilt and assorted associated emotions send Honor Harrington into nearly crippling bouts of depression on several occasions.
  • King Glyn the First in the Deverry novel Darkspell.
  • In Assassin of Gor Marlenus of Ar has to exile Tarl as punishment for his actions in the first book even after declaring Tarl a hero and friend. The decision is greeted with dismay even by Marlenus's adoring and loyal subjects, but as Ubar of Ar it is beneath his dignity to so much as explain his decision. (One of his trusted advisors has a quiet word with Tarl afterwards, acknowledging as he does that Marlenus would be angry with him for piping up.)
  • In the Dragonlance novels the young elven princess Laurana suffers from this during her time as the Golden General. The immense stress she is under ends up making her highly susceptible to Flaw Exploitation at the hands of her Arch Enemy Kitiara.
  • Kimball Kinnison does a thorough job of kicking himself in the rear after a wrong assumption about just what he was facing caused the deaths of several Patrol members.
  • In the Halo Expanded Universe - Fred-104, Master Chief's second in command, suffers from a mild bout of this when he takes the rest of the SPARTAN-IIs down to defend the planet Reach. It doesn't help when four Spartans die in the initial drop - the most to die in a single mission in the unit's history.
  • Prince Roger, in Empire of Man, becomes this once he realizes that the Marines guarding him are people who have their own problems. It's bad enough while he's on Marduk but things become infinitely worse once they get off-planet and discover the real situation back home. By that point, there are so few of the Bronze Barbarians left that he's fanatic about keeping them safe and will do anything to reduce casualties on his side. His advisors are so concerned about this that they talk to his Bodyguard Crush to make sure that she'll serve as his "prosthetic conscience" to make sure that he doesn't just roll over the opposition with More Dakka when a less-violent alternative is feasible.
    • Roger's fiancee has the same problem; As the advisors point out, both softly and loudly, her sacrifice is to marry Roger and live in a protected fishbowl for the rest of her life—no matter how hard that is for her, because it's her duty to the Empire.
  • March from The Sirantha Jax Series feels the weight of command so much that he's had more than one Heroic BSOD in his lifetime.
  • In Shadows of the Apt, why Selma can't leave his band.
  • In Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg's Legion, Falkenberg instructs a friend and fellow officer that "The reason command has no friends isn't to keep from having to send friends to their death. Command has no friends because sooner or later you'll have to betray your friends or your command."
    • Early in his career Falkenberg abandoned his wife to stay with his regiment.
  • This becomes a (frequently) recurring motif in Tom Clancy's Ryanverse novels once Jack Ryan ascends to the Presidency. In fact, it might border on overdone by The Bear and The Dragon.
  • In The Dresden Files book Ghost Story, Harry Nearly has a break down when he realizes that the choices he made in the previous book (leading his friends into a battle against the entire red court to save his daughter) may have been wrong, and caused more harm than good. Killing Susan to destroy the red court may have gotten rid of many evil monsters, but the power void left over means that equally bad things are scrambling to take the Red Court's place. The result is a chaotic unsafe world, where even the normals are noticing something bad is going on. Harry sees his friends suffering and can feel nothing but guilt.
  • King Robert Baratheon from A Song of Ice and Fire either fits this trope or is a subversion, as he leaves most of the ruling to his Hand while he drinks and whores. Ned stark plays this trope completely straight though. He becomes said Hand just because the king commands him to do so, although he would rather stay home and govern his peaceful land instead of the whole realm.
  • In John C. Wright's Count to a Trillion, the princess feels her position strongly. Menelaus is argued into the Ermine Cape Effect to help her.
  • In the Codex Alera book Princeps' Fury, Gaius Sextus gives a rather impassionate (for him) speech about the incredible amount of Dirty Business he's had to do over the years, not to mention the general stresses and downsides of his office, in order to keep his realm together and allow his people the luxury of not having to take his choices. He then goes on to add that if he really hated his main political opponent as an enemy, he'd hand him the crown himself and retire.
  • In Warrior Cats, the Clan leaders realize that they may have to make some difficult decisions. One character points out that Onestar especially was hit hard by this: he's had to break old friendships to prove that his Clan stands alone. Firestar himself realizes in The Darkest Hour how hard it is to be a leader, because he realizes there's a chance that his entire Clan may be killed in battle because of his choice.
  • Labyrinths of Echo occasionally mentioned a ludicrous system of Court ceremonies (it takes a small library in itself, and the "short" version is still dozens of tomes) set up by the first Gurigs (the last dynasty) for political reasons. As a result, the King gets almost no freedom to do whatever he wants, or even free time, even despite having Body Doubles and other tricks allowing to not participate in everything. It used to be so bad that merely having some light snacks on an unofficial audience "to not feel like I'm the least hospitable host in the World" was enough of a victory to impress the Chief of Secret Investigation.
    • In the second sequel series lots of people began to visit Echo in dreams - thanks to the Heart of the World, quite visibly for normal people and some got "stuck" with risk of dying in the sleep wherever their real bodies were left. A few just had to dream up that they are rightful monarchs in this beautiful palace. Gurig VIII is clever, so when this happened the second time, he convinced the courtiers to play along and "resigned" on a morning when there was no important activity he could not move, thus leaving a naive unprepared guy to observe the routine Court formalities. The poor soul opted out by waking up with a scream before an "easy" Royal day was over - and, of course, some courtiers felt quite awkward after this... All According to Plan!

Live-Action TV

  • Space: Above and Beyond: this trope was used several times by the main characters.
  • Star Command: Shane Ridnaur explains this to a cadet. The commanding officer is alone and must appear invincible to encourage confidence among the crew. Also titled “In the Fold”. (This is a tv movie and not a film, therefore it belongs in the live action tv folder.) [2]
  • Babylon 5: in several episodes the characters talk about the miseries of command.
  • Wings: after Joe leaves Nantucket in 'Joe Blows' due to being overworked, Brian discovers how difficult it is to operate a business. [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8]
  • President David Palmer of 24 is a lot like this.
    • President Allison Taylor moreso.
  • While we're on Presidents, it'd be shameful to omit President Bartlet, particularly in Season Seven's "Duck and Cover," where he orders two civilian engineers to their deaths in order to avert irradiating Southern California.
    • President Bartlet, when woken up early in the morning, has to be told, "Sir, it's not a dream. You really are the president." Doing the job of a president is a nightmare to him.
    • When he's forced to compromise his principles and violate what he believes America should stand for by ordering an assassination, and asks why he has to do it, Leo responds, "Because you won."
  • Jack from Lost is a very reluctant leader.
  • Tony Soprano seems unable to decide which he feels more strongly: the stress or the benefits of being mob boss.
  • Though most of the time Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds doesn't show the stress that his job as Captain of the good ship Serenity would foist on him, there are a few occasional moments where he does show that weight of responsibility, particularly in the Big Damn Movie.
    • Simon sometimes seems to feel guilty for not being a "good enough" (My word!) big brother, not least for having twinges of regret in River's presence. It must be awful having a little sister who can read minds.
  • Long story short, pretty much every captain from Star Trek feels this at some point. This includes all the spin-offs, and even one shot captains often wind up feeling the burden of command before their spot is over.
    • Janeway started to embody this trope over the course of Voyager. Entire episodes would revolve around her locking herself in her darkened quarters brooding over the ship's predicament.
    • Really, this has been in Trek ever since the very first pilot, where Captain Christopher Pike discusses the possibility of resigning, tired of being responsible for the lives and deaths of his crew.
    • One episode of Next Gen features Troi taking the Bridge Officer's Test, which she keeps failing until she realizes that the win condition is saving the ship by sending a virtual crewman to certain death.
  • General George Hammond of Stargate SG-1 has it tough as head of Stargate Command. He has to juggle the conflicting issues of his SG teams and their safety, the Air Force, the President, other politicians, and of course, the safety of the Galaxy as a whole. The point is driven home when Jack O'Neill is promoted and takes over for Hammond and almost quits because "he can't fill Hammond's shoes".
    • Same thing with Dr. Weir, Colonel Carter, and Mr. Woolsey during their respective times as the leader of Atlantis. While the IOA likes to interfere and chew them out for not following protocol, they always refuse to make decisions, instead leaving the leader to make the tough calls and then deal with being chewed out for making said tough decisions (vicious cycle, no?)
    • Later in Stargate Universe, Jack O'Neill chews out Col. Young for hesitating and making the wrong (no) call, pointing out that literally moments ago Col. Carter left two people to die so her ship and crew would be saved.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer often felt this way about her calling as the Slayer making her feel different. It bordered on what could be considered supreme egotism sometimes and when faced with one very tough decision about whether to kill Anya for restarting her vengeance demon ways she claimed that the Scooby Gang was not a democracy, that she's the slayer and eventually all the tough decisions come down to her. I believe the line "I am the law" was even uttered.
    • The Scoobies finally revolt late in season 7 when they disagreed with one of Buffy's conclusions. She was right, but her attitude about it certainly worsened matters.
      • Faith later confesses to Buffy that while she was in charge, she felt it too.
  • Battlestar Galactica: William Adama. Seeing as how the military affairs of all that's left of mankind are in his hands...Also, Laura Roslin as a non-military example.

Forty seconds, sir... All I've needed... was forty seconds...

  • In one of the more humanizing moments for Dr. Kelso in Scrubs, he puts Dr. Cox in charge of trying to figure out how to balance the budget without firing someone. Much to Cox's chagrin, he can't, and Kelso points out that he doesn't (always) make his decisions because he's a Jerkass; sometimes, it's the only way to keep Sacred Heart running.
  • Dollhouse's Adelle Dewitt feels this trope pretty hard, though most characters are unaware of how much it weighs on her, thanks to her Queenly Mask.
  • Londo Mollari of Babylon 5 remarks that he started with no power and all the choice in the world, and ended up with all the power in the world and no choice at all. Not only are his hands tied by the complex political machinations, but he's also being controlled by a Drakh Keeper. In the end, he sulks in his throne room because he can't bear the thought of accidentally looking at the ruined Centauri homeworld and bursting into tears.
    • Ivanava also had several stories focused on this when she's put in charge. Usually these are B stories that play up her Straight Man character against the ridiculous demands. Often results in Crowning Moments of Funny.
    • Delenn is so much The McCoy that it is impossible for her to have the job of being a stateswoman without suffering considerably from this. The unusual nature of the circumstances demanded someone like her. But it definitely came at a price as we see in those times when we catch a glimpse Beneath the Mask.
  • Not that modern monarchs do much actual "commanding," but the young King Richard in The Palace struggled to reconcile his role as monarch with his political views, love life, and so on.


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?"

Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends

  • 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 posessions, 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. 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.


  • Hal 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.
    • As does his son, Henry VI, 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 it all that much.
    • Hal'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.

Video Games

  • A video game example: Mass Effect has two missions where you have to make a very, very unpleasant choice. First, you get to choose which of your human squad members dies. There is no way to find a third option: the one you choose to leave behind will die spectacularly. And then in the downloadable content, you can either let the terrorist who is trying to drop an asteroid on a multi-million population human world go, or he'll kill the three miners that he took hostage on the asteroid. You cannot talk him out of it and you cannot disarm the mine before he sets it off if you choose not to let him go.
    • Comes to a head for the player in Mass Effect 2, where during the final mission, if you make the wrong decisions for the various jobs and tasks, your crewmembers can get killed one by one.
    • For an NPC example, Ronald Taylor tried to invoke this trope as an excuse for his flying leap over the Moral Event Horizon (basically, he got stranded on an alien world, and killed most of the men and forced the women in his crew to serve as a harem). If you choose the Paragon option, Jacob calls out his father as being a horrible, selfish man who didn't make the best of a horrible situation, but rather turned a horrible situation to his advantage at the expense of his fellow human beings, and only called for help when the situation became untenable. He then disowns his father.
    • This is arguably the driving theme of Mass Effect 3. Garrus and Shepard have a conversation at one point talking about the "ruthless calculus" of deciding who lives and who dies, and party members will express concern about Shepard throughout the course of the game as the weight of the decisions s/he has to make in the war against the Reapers take their emotional toll. Towards the end of the game, when Shepard fails on Thessia and the Asari homeworld is completely lost, s/he very visibly cracks under the strain, and it just gets worse from there.
  • Final Fantasy VI has the royal Figaro brothers, princes both. When their father died neither wanted to take the throne, and the succession was settled by a coin toss. Edgar threw the coin. Sabin got his freedom. The coin was double-headed.
  • Micaiah and Prince Pelleas go through Part III of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn losing a war and being the bad guys of said war because Pelleas followed his Treacherous Advisor's advice and signed a Deal with the Devil.
  • The reasoning behind the King's plan, and Strong Bad becoming a literal Chessmaster in Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Episode Two: Strongbadia the Free.
  • Mitsuru Kirijo of Persona 3 feels these all too keenly, though some of it is self-imposed. She is the club leader of SEES, the sole force capable of fighting Shadows, and is thus directly in charge of the battle against them as well as responsible for the welfare of the team. But more than that, she is mercilessly driven by the guilt she feels as heiress of the Kirijo Group, who were responsible for their creation in the first place. Or so it seems. After her father's death, she breaks down entirely, because it was his guilt she worked so hard and sacrificed so much of herself to erase. With him gone, she sees no point in anything. Harsher in Hindsight when you realize Takeharu, though clearly a caring parent, never knew the depth of her love and devotion to him; he merely chastised her for feeling guilty over something that wasn't her fault and trying to do too much on her own.
  • The upcoming Dead State is all about this. Turns out that being the leader of a group of survivors during a Zombie Apocalypse isn't an easy job.
  • Fable III beats the living hell out of the player with this trope. As the Prince or Princess of Albion, you spend the first half of the game gathering allies to overthrow your tyrannical brother, promising them that you will make things better once the throne is yours in return for their support. Then you discover exactly why Logan ruled his kingdom with an iron fist; he knew an Eldritch Abomination would be at his doorstep within the year, and had to impoverish the rest of the country in order to fund the army that would save it. You then have some very difficult choices to make if you're trying to be a good leader; if you keep all your promises and dig deep into the treasury to improve the country, its people will be adore you and be happy - for one year before being annihilated, but if you scrimp and save on everything to fend off its impending doom you'll be a traitor, oath-breaker and hated throughout the land - but your kingdom will live on even though its people despise you. Logan suffered under the same weight of command. His quote from the Fable III page isn't a Caligula-esque rant. It's a statement of absolute fact.
    • Somewhat subverted in that the gameplay mechanisms allow the player to Take a Third Option in relatively painless fashion: just let the game run long enough for real estate income to compensate for the losses you'd take, and you get to keep all your promises to your allies without sacrificing a single life.

Web Comics

  • Baron Wulfenbach from Girl Genius finds ruling his empire tiring and doesn't want it, but he's the only thing preventing Europe from collapsing back 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.
    • After Twiddle managed to assert his domination among the relatives, he holds only for a few days before feeling Surrounded by Idiots enough to think again about his old idea of opening "a designer pet shop in Paris".
  • 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.

Western Animation

  • Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Being made Fire Lord makes her snap HARD, and she wasn't the most stable individual in the first place.
    • Subverted Trope: Azula snaps because, mere moments after Ozai makes her the new Firelord, he declares himself Phoenix King and ruler of the entire world - Azula's title becomes completely meaningless.
  • Wing Commander Academy: Tolwyn teaches this lesson to Blair on several occasions.
  • Rodimus Prime in series 3 of Transformers Generation 1.
    • Rattrap was put in charge of the Maximals once Beast Wars. He categorizes this responsibility as "A pain in the tail."
    • And Optimus Prime feels it now and again.
  • Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) suffers through this, and it becomes the focus of his character arc during the first half of the fourth season.
  • Ahsoka has to learn this lesson when she loses her squadron of pilots in Storm over Ryloth on The Clone Wars.
  • Commander Walsh from Galaxy Rangers, especially in "Supertroopers." He was in charge of the Super Soldier project, and it blew up in his face.
  • Wildwing from The Mighty Ducks when he was put in charge by Canard, just before he disappeared.
  • Mufasa, in The Lion King, 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 Pumba and Timon, but comes to accept his responsibilities, fight for his homeland and those he loves, and be a responsible and worthy King.
  • Homer Simpson, of all people, invoked this trope to cheer Bart up when he was bitter about losing the election for class president. Homer points out that Bart would have had to do a lot of extra work without getting paid, and he wouldn't even have been able to do anything cool because of it. When he realizes just what he would have had to put up with if he'd won the election, Bart actually feels a lot better.
  • Rebel Prince Lion-O from Thundercats 2011 feels like this from time to time. It doesn't really help that everyone in his kingdom thinks his adoptive older brother Tygra would be a better king, Tygra included. Once a sword that Only the Chosen May Wield marks Lion-O as The Chosen One, and his father is assassinated, the newly-crowned young king remains full of doubt in his leadership, wondering aloud "Maybe the sword chose wrong."
  • Aqualad from Young Justice ever since episode six has express that being leader is a burden. He has repeatedly attempt and thought about giving up leadership because his actions. During the episode "disorded" he had accepts leadership after he explains why his team mates can't handle it "Artemis is too secretive and untrustworthy of others,Superboy is too angry, Kid Flash is too implusive, Miss Maritian is too eager to please everyone and Robin is too young for the burden."
    • Robin may also count too. In "Failsafe" after Aqualad's (temporary) Heroic Sacrifice, he had to take control and intentionally sent Superboy on a suicide mission and the choice devastated him. He admits to Black Canary that he doesn't have it in him to pull off a Good Is Not Nice and he doesn't want to be the next Batman.

Real Life

  • Say what you will about modern political leaders, but many of them live their lives in a fishbowl and are ruthlessly scrutinized by the media, their political opponents, and online bloggers. Even the smallest 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. 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...
  • Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, suffered from this during World War I, when he became so overwhelmed with the task of trying to run the Russian Empire during a time of war that it took a serious toll on his physical health. As noted by biographer Robert K. Massie in his seminal book Nicholas and Alexandra, being deposed as the Russian Emperor actually had a fringe benefit, as it freed him from the stresses of running the country. Life in captivity wasn't exactly pleasant, and It Got Worse after the Bolsheviks seized power, but 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.
  • 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.
    • A President who aged before taking office was arguably Ike, 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.
    • 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."
  • In Russia, you could notice that in 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..
  • 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.