THE BLOG
03/31/2016 04:07 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

Empress Sisi: A Leading Lady Before Her Time

Empress Sisi: A Female Leader in a Man's World

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. In the case of Sisi, Europe's last great empress before World War I, the woman did not stand behind her man.
Sisi was right there beside him, and, in many cases, way out front. So how did Sisi manage? And how did she assert her intelligence and strength, utilizing her gifts as a charismatic leader in a man's world?

If we use past as prologue, Sisi still has much to teach us. Even now in the days of leaning in and powerful female presidential candidates, Sisi's style presents a fascinating view into successful strategy and savvy leadership that remains relevant and effective today, even centuries after her tumultuous reign.

She Knew the Importance of Representing the Underdog

Sisi was a savvy politician who understood that even empires and emperors have an Achilles heel. In the case of the Habsburg realm, that was the rebellious Hungarians. Hungary was a massively important piece of the Austrian Empire -- both in terms of population size and the value and vastness of the land itself. That said, the Hungarians were also a very restive and unstable minority. They were an ever-present thorn in the emperor's side, constantly threatening armed rebellion; the Hungarians wanted their freedom from what they saw as Habsburg foreign occupiers.

Sisi saw that her husband's empire was a crumbling house of cards. His Italian territories rose up in armed rebellion and won their independence. The territories in the Balkans were an unstable powder keg. The Czech lands could threaten revolution at any point. And the Hungarians looked like they were on the verge of starting a civil war if they didn't get more rights and autonomy from the Austrian Empire. Sisi had the foresight and the political acumen to see that losing Hungary was not only a very likely scenario, but that it would be the deathblow to her husband's empire if it happened. So she negotiated a peaceful accord, known as the great Austro-Hungarian Compromise, whereby the Hungarians agreed to stay in the empire in exchange for greater autonomy and increased self-governance. It was a huge coup that Sisi was able to bring the Austrians and the Hungarians to the negotiating table and get them to hash out this compromise after centuries of bitter enmity and armed fighting. Though she was not officially titled as an advisor or government minister, one sees Sisi acting much like today's Secretary of State or diplomat might.

The Hungarians said vocally that the only reason they agreed to the deal was because of their love for Sisi. And the emperor? Why, he probably only agreed to it because of his love for Sisi, too. And she pulled this all off without a single shot being fired. The consummate politician!

She Understood The Delicate Balance Between Family and Duty

The job requirement for any empress in Sisi's time was to produce an heir. So when Archduke Rudolf was born, the entire empire breathed a sigh of relief, no one more than Sisi. That is, until it came time to raise little Rudy. The emperor and his band of uber-conservative ministers and advisors (the most powerful among them being his mother, Sophie) advocated a program whereby the little boy would be raised from the age of toddler-hood as a small soldier. This was the Habsburg court -- this was how things had always been done. They wanted him in a military uniform, marching to military drills, and studying war-craft when most other little children were just learning to speak. This was how the emperor had been raised, so why not raise his son that way? Sisi had a problem with that. Her own childhood had been different -- her parents had been loving and lenient and had encouraged Sisi's sensitive and independent nature. Sisi saw that the effects of a harsh and militaristic course of study would be disastrous for her son, whose nature was so like hers. So she intervened. She overrode the emperor. She stepped in and fired the cruel military tutor who was using cold water cures on her tiny, traumatized son. She said that such measures were cruel and unnecessary, and she insisted that her son be allowed a more gentle, more reasonable childhood.

Sisi understood the role her son had to play as the emperor's heir to the throne but she found her own way to raise and guide him. When it came time to face-off against the way things are done, Sisi flexed her formidable influence over her husband, insisting on a liberal arts education that would allow their heir to study history, writing, and the arts. And the crown prince would do so under the guidance of a kind and patient tutor, selected by her. How modern of Sisi!

She Knew That Finesse and Flair Can Work Better Than Force

Sisi knew that, as a leader, the love of the people was the most powerful tool she could harness. People wept when they saw Sisi. They adored her. They would wait for days in inclement weather just to catch a glimpse of her. Sisi's subjects thought of her as almost superhuman. They wanted to dress like her, they would wear their hair "a la Sisi" and frequent the places she frequented.

And as a leader, Sisi appealed to the hearts of her people, rather than instilling fear. While the Habsburgs held themselves as God's divinely anointed vessels on earth, Sisi loved to mingle with the common people. She regularly visited hospitals, asylums, and spoke out for minority parties, lending her soft and sensitive voice as a counterpoint to some of the more hard-line advisors of her husband's court. The people loved her for it.

She Changed The Course of History for Her Children

When Sisi looked back on her experience as a young bride, she thought the entire arrangement set her up for a doomed marriage from the start. She said: "When I think of myself as a girl of fifteen, given away in marriage, taking a vow that I could never understand..." She despised the mercantile and loveless view of marriage that the Habsburg royal family espoused. Their family motto was, after all, the following: "Let others wage war; you, Happy Austria, marry."

Sisi put a stop to this centuries-old practice of using marriage as a tool of diplomacy and marrying off one's children like pawns in the geopolitical chessboard. She insisted -- and never wavered -- that her own two daughters would marry for love, and not until they were ready. She held to this and, as a result, both of her daughters reported being happily married. Unlike their less fortunate mother.

She Was No Shrinking Flower

Sisi led a deep and vibrant life. She was a voracious reader, a lifelong student of literature, history, and foreign languages. Most impressive of all, however, is perhaps that she was an intrepid traveler.

Sisi famously confessed: "I want always to be on the move...every ship I see sailing away fills me with the greatest desire to be on it." Her travels took her from the ancient ruins in Corfu and Egypt to the remote seaside towns of France and Italy. She loved to be on the water, sailing through tempests that made her attendants sick and frightened. She was known as the best horsewoman alive, racing her horses everywhere from the shires of England to the Austrian Alps to the plains of Hungary. She longed to some day travel as far as Asia or America. Given that this was the mid and late 1800's, and that she undertook most of these trips alone, without her husband, Sisi was quite the strong and adventurous woman!

She Faced Public Scrutiny Over Her Private Life

Much of Sisi's own personal turmoil stemmed from the fact that she was a modern woman in an archaic world, a world that saw her independence and willfulness as impeding rather than empowering. This made her a prime target for public scrutiny, and Sisi was a regular in the press.

In fact, Sisi was hounded by the "paparazzi" of her day. Viennese newspapers filled column after column with articles discussing everything from her physical appearance to her parenting skills, from her personality quirks to her wardrobe choices, from her marriage woes to her activities at court.

Because of this crushing public scrutiny, Sisi often fled the capital, traveling under the alias of "Countess Hohenembs" and seeking some solitude in remote regions outside of her husband's realm. As she became more and more bothered by the constant haranguing, the notoriously shy Sisi made it a habit not to leave home without a fan and a parasol, both tools to shield her face from prying eyes and camera lenses.

One can certainly see Sisi as the first of many high-profile women who would face such overwhelming international attention and focus. It's not a difficult line to trace from the days of Sisi's escape attempts to today, when public figures are forced to venture out of their homes in sunglasses and wigs, trying but often failing to evade the unforgiving specter of the 24-hour news cycle, blogs, and social media.