The Emperor: How Should You Lead?

The fourth card of the Major Arcana, the Emperor, instructs you to examine your relationship with power. Because of the authority that this tarot card represents, people often find it confrontational—it’s named after a supreme monarch, after all.

Consider the best and worst bosses you’ve had. Effective leaders likely motivated and protected you, but ineffective leadership might have caused anger or apathy. Other people’s power over us can be challenging when we face injustice or feelings of helplessness. However, our own power challenges us because it requires us to make high-stakes decisions and to own when we’ve failed.

Overall, Spiderman perhaps said it best: “With great power comes great responsibility.” In an empire, every king answers to the emperor. And emperors, frequently considered divine, answer to no one. Thus, the Emperor card refers to the wisdom of different leadership approaches and the good judgment to know how to lead in a given situation.


When the Emperor is upright, the tarot card carries the following themes: 

  • Leadership
  • Power structures
  • Rules and norms
  • Foundations
  • Protection

In reverse, the energy of this card could have a dampened or challenging effect on you. Examples of this shifted meaning of the Emperor include the following:

  • Abuse of power
  • Oppression
  • Ineffective leadership
  • Inflexibility
  • Fragility

You’ll notice that some of the reversal meanings are contradictory—does the reversed Emperor mean that someone has too much power or not enough? As usual, you’ll interpret this reversal according to the surrounding cards, the tarot spread, and your focus. Perhaps you need to assert yourself more in a certain situation, but you might need to step down instead.

Remind yourself that the reversed position isn’t “bad,” just as the upright position isn’t “good.” In fact, all tarot cards are basically neutral. It’s your wisdom and intuition that helps you understand the Emperor’s role in the story of your tarot spread.

General Associations

The Emperor General

The symbols related to the Emperor blend security with action. When necessary, this Emperor uses his fiery personality to safeguard people, possessions, and traditions.

NumberFour (4), meaning stability
ElementFire (inspiration and action)
Zodiac SignFire sign Aries

Description of the Card

Emperor tarot
Pamela Coleman Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What do you notice when you examine your deck’s Emperor tarot card? If you’re moving chronologically through the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite-Colman deck, you’ll probably observe some strong differences between the Empress and the Emperor.

Where the Empress tarot card features curvy lines and asymmetry, for example, the Emperor card emphasizes straight lines and a symmetrical throne. The cheery Empress looks far more comfortable than her counterpart. You might interpret these cards as the two sides of supporting the community: creating and protecting.  

And yet, there are similarities between the cards too. Both figures, for instance, bear a scepter and a crown. This resemblance reminds us that both figures are necessary rulers, actually doing the same work in different ways. 

Although you can interpret the Emperor card’s details in your own way, you can also refer to the following interpretations: 

  • Red: This bright color stands for strength. It might also show a willingness to go to battle when necessary.
  • Rams: The ram heads on the Emperor’s throne represent the zodiac sign Aries. In Greek myth, rams are also symbols of protection.
  • Ankh scepter: Ancient Egyptians associated this symbol with eternal life and bestowed it on their rulers and priestesses.
  • Globe: The globe in the left hand represents domination.
  • Beard: The advanced age of this ruler shows wisdom. 
  • Armor: The Emperor wears metal beneath his robes to signify that he’s protected and acts as a protector.
  • Stark mountains: Eden Gray believes that the landscape reveals the unyielding facets of the mind. The Emperor, for instance, holds very strict beliefs.

Meaning of the Emperor

Traditionally, this ruling card possesses masculine energy. When you think of masculinity, what comes to mind? 


Some people think of the father archetype, recalling their own male caregivers. Others relate masculinity to the oppressive systems created through years of patriarchy. Still, others have different cultural relationships; Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, links the masculine to compassion. The Emperor brings your personal associations with this energy to the surface.

If the connection between masculinity and the Emperor card resonates with you, go with it. But always remember that this concept doesn’t need to relate to gender! At its essence, the Emperor is about actively protecting the foundations of society. Sure, it’s possible that a powerful man is involved when this tarot card appears, but not necessarily.

Upright Interpretation

If you are (like I was) someone who bristles when the Emperor appears, you might be aware of the idea that the historian Lord Acton summarized: “power tends to corrupt.” Although we can keep this tendency in mind, power itself isn’t essentially harmful. To feel safe in this world, for instance, we need to be able to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

As a result, the Emperor acts as an energetic bodyguard. When this tarot card appears for you, your reading might focus on the following:

  • Leading others and considering how best to lead them
  • Setting and defending your boundaries
  • Making unpopular but necessary decisions
  • Building foundations and systems that work for you
  • Dedicating yourself to a plan of action
  • Using logic to solve a problem

If the Emperor emerges as a call to lead, look to the four Kings of the Minor Arcana as references for the different types of leadership. For instance, the gentle King of Cups leads with compassion while the passionate King of Wands stirs up emotion. Meanwhile, the King of Pentacles is a traditional provider, and the King of Swords enforces the rules.  

Instead of representing you, the Emperor could symbolize the following:

  • Your relationship with a protector, manager, or father figure
  • A social institution such as the legal system
  • The company you work for
  • A well-established older person

In summary, the upright Emperor invites you to reflect on how you’re using (or can use) your power in your current situation. Who or what needs your protection and guidance? Is that person someone else or yourself? Who or what provides stability for you?

Reversal Interpretation

When the Emperor appears in reverse, some structure in your life is missing or even hurting you. As with the upright meaning, “structure” can have a broad interpretation. It might mean anything from an organization you’re a member of to your own organizational methods. 

If the reversed Emperor points to an overexertion of power, these themes could apply:

  • Being controlled by a domineering person
  • Pleasing people with authority
  • Being unwilling to change your thinking
  • Overusing or misusing your own power
  • Bullying yourself with negative self-talk

By contrast, a reversed Emperor could reveal a lack of control in the following ways:

  • Failing to stand up for yourself
  • Resisting leadership roles, possibly due to “imposter syndrome”
  • Experiencing harm within a hierarchical system
  • Lacking discipline

Finally, this reversal could simply signal a misguided leadership approach that needs adjustment. In this case, analyzing the situation objectively and taking corrective action will likely help. 

As an example, let’s say you’re a teacher, and you’ve developed a behavioral plan for a student who’s late to class every day. You’ve been using a Swords approach by emphasizing the rules and natural consequences to breaking them. 

But after weeks without improvement, you realize that introducing Cups energy can help you build a stronger relationship with this student and understand the reasons for their tardiness. At that point, you can adapt your strategy to better suit the student’s needs and motivations.

Meaning in Specific Readings


I write a lot about how context matters in tarot card interpretation, and the reading’s intention is a huge part of that. Consider how the Emperor card’s meaning shifts for yes-no card pulls, work readings, and love readings.

Yes-No Meaning

The Emperor yes or no

Generally, the Emperor means yes! It encourages you to be assertive, apply logic, and create systems that help you achieve your goals.

Meaning for Love 

The Emperor Love

Unlike the Empress, the Emperor isn’t a particularly romantic tarot card. The guy is wearing a full suit of armor, after all. That said, the Emperor can reassure you that with effort applied to a mutual goal, you and a partner can find true security with each other.

In a more literal sense, the Emperor in a love reading could reflect your partner. This is especially true if your partner is older, logic-driven, or has difficulty showing emotions. 

Finally, the card’s presence might indicate the influence of the father on your relationship or your approach to relationships. This could mean your literal father or the beliefs you inherited from your parents or the dominant culture. For instance, the Emperor might signal that traditional gender roles are important to you.

Meaning for Work

The Emperor is typically favorable in tarot readings about a career because it suggests that you have power (or could have power) within the organization. Your discipline and structured approach have helped you build a strong foundation. Now, you might see success by way of a raise or promotion.

If the card is reversed, the emphasis shifts a bit: how can you be more assertive in order to gain influence? Alternatively, are you motivated to have influence in your current role, or are you eager for a career change?

Key Card Combinations

The tables below show some card combinations that I’ve observed. The interpretations aren’t fixed, but I hope they’ll inspire you to make your own meaningful connections between cards.

Major Arcana

Major Arcana CardMeaning with the Emperor
I. MagicianYou thrive as an entrepreneur and find success in an off-beat path. Through your success, you pave the way for others to take the same path.
III. EmpressTogether, these cards might represent a well-balanced partnership or your parents.
IX. HermitYou’re contemplating a decision about your spiritual growth. You don’t need to take immediate action, but when you do, you should prioritize structures that support your spirit.
XI. JusticeA legal battle or judge’s final decision affects your situation.
XV. DevilYou’re involved in a controlling relationship. One person is likely abusing their power.
XVII. StarA long period of hard work is now rewarded.

Minor Arcana

The Emperor always boosts the energy of the number four. But the card also creates unique meanings with other Minor Arcana cards.

Minor Arcana CardMeaning with the Emperor
Six of WandsYou’ve received a promotion or large-scale success.
Seven of WandsYou must stand up to authority.
Six of CupsA father or male caregiver from youth is on your heart or mind.
Eight of Cups Walking away from an oppressive structure is necessary. Confusion might ensue, but trust the need to leave regardless.
Two of SwordsRemain impartial as you make a decision.
Nine of SwordsYou worry about making decisions when you have a high level of responsibility.
Six of PentaclesCharity is involved.
Any KingThe King might represent a person with influence, such as a manager, within a hierarchical system.
If the King represents you, the suit of that King suggests the most beneficial leadership approach:Wands: inspireSwords: judgeCups: empathizePentacles: provide

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

The questions below reflect common curiosities about the fourth card of the Major Arcana. 

Is the Emperor a positive tarot card?

Neither positive nor negative, the Emperor represents power and asks you to consider your relationship to it.

What does the Emperor card mean in a relationship reading?

The Emperor suggests that a structured approach to a common goal creates security for your partnership.

What is the personality of the Emperor tarot card?

The Emperor represents a person who might be older, logical, stoic, and established in their career or lifestyle.

Which feelings does the Emperor tarot card represent?

Expressing personal feelings isn’t beneficial at this time. However, the Emperor indicates that protective feelings are motivating. Anger might also be present.

What advice does the Emperor give?

The Emperor advises you to objectively examine and adjust your leadership approach. This tarot card also encourages you to protect your energy and stick with the systems that help you achieve your goals. Let everything else go.

Which zodiac sign does the Emperor represent?

The fire sign Aries appears in the Emperor tarot card.

Learn the Tarot with Online Flash Cards

Are you looking to dive into the world of tarot and master the meaning of each card? You should check out our post, “Learn The Tarot Cards – Online Flash Cards” by our own Tarot expert Ersa Fay. With interactive flash cards covering all 78 cards in the tarot, both the Minor and Major Arcana, you will learn key facts and the symbolism and meanings associated with each card. 

By using these flash cards, you’ll become more comfortable with performing your own readings and enhance your journey into the world of tarot. 

In the post, Ersa focuses on the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, known for its rich imagery and profound symbolism. The captivating illustrations in this deck draw from various sources such as mythology, astrology, alchemy, and the Kabbalah, creating a visual language that resonates deeply with the human psyche. So, if you’re ready to start learning, don’t miss out on this fantastic resource. We hope you find it useful and remember to have fun with it!

Featured Image Credit: silverstonesstars

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Ersa Fay

Ersa Fay (they/them) is a traveling writer, mystical dancer, and tarot reader. You can often find Ersa in central Texas, but they have connections to places all over the world. With nearly 20 years of tarot experience, Ersa draws cards not to find definite answers but to uncover the questions that focus attention. Their tarot practice supports clarity and protection for your personal journey—for this reason, Ersa is inspired by the powerful beginner’s energy of the Fool in the tarot’s Major Arcana.