Perspective: The value of those who lead from the shadows

Written by
Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School

One of the more positive outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic will be the evidence it provides for those craving a different kind of leadership, writes London Business School's Richard Hytner.

In the same year that I wrote Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows extolling the virtues and vital importance of the second-in-command (‘number twos’) – the advisers, assistants and counsellors (or ‘consiglieri’) – Oxford University’s emeritus professor of politics, Archie Brown, used The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age to debunk the received wisdom that it is only strong, single-minded leaders who make a difference. Neither of us was new to the party.

Robert K Greenleaf introduced the concept of the ‘servant as leader’ in 1970, inspired by his reading of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. Greenleaf, and many who followed him, urged us only to choose leaders who have proven their worth and been trusted as servants. 

Yet half a century later, despite a wealth of academic data testifying to the effectiveness of the ‘humble leader’, we remain, in many societies, in thrall to the all-powerful, alpha leader, invariably male. 

The cult of the ‘number one’ 

Does our dependency on the ‘top dog’ lie in an acceptance that most of us would wilt under the weight of accountability? Ask yourself whether you would happily volunteer to front our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Do we yearn for a saviour to protect us from danger, infuse us with optimism and lead us to the promised land? Is it human nature in a crisis to prefer soothing words to doses of reality; cheerleaders over fear leaders?  

There is another answer. Despite an understanding that leadership extends way beyond the boss’ office, there persists an unhealthy view of ‘number twos’ ­– those who lead for the leader ­– as ‘also rans’. We know that, statistically, there are many more of them than number ones; most of us, in fact, are supporting actors in the daily drama of our work. And we know plenty of people who are remarkably effective in these roles. But there is an unchallenged assumption that these leaders are not cut out to be the leader. 

When UK prime minister Boris Johnson found himself hospitalised with Covid-19, the media’s grilling of his deputy, foreign secretary Dominic Raab, about the decisions he was and wasn’t authorised to make, revealed a disregard for the role of a deputy, and ignorance around the distribution of responsibilities that underpin effective teams. 

In business, boards pay insufficient attention to who is (or isn’t) leading behind the leader. 

For example, members of the global car alliance between Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi appeared to be asleep in the back seat while their ambitious and increasingly autocratic chairman, Carlos Ghosn took the wheel. 

And who was WeWork investor (Softbank CEO) Masayoshi Son expecting to keep an eye on the company’s narcissistic CEO Adam Neumann? The cost of not having a team of consiglieri – trusted deputies, advisers and assistants – can run to billions.

The case for consiglieri 

There is a good case for surrounding the leader with effective consiglieri – who I’ll refer to as ‘Cs’, rather than by the disappointment-laden phrase ‘number twos’. 

The right Cs can make all the difference to the success of the collective leadership endeavour, shouldering some of the pressures on behalf of their ‘number one’. While the leader attends to the most urgent and important matters, Cs have the time and space to think, plan and look ahead. They can – and should – anchor the leader in facts, holding up a mirror to their more destructive tendencies. 

Consiglieri can make things happen, implementing and amplifying the leader’s decisions. The circle must include Cs from diverse backgrounds and with diversity of thought; those willing to speak truth to power; those with the courage to dissent. Cs must be willing and able to lead, with true accountability but less need for public affirmation.

Downsides to deputies

Of course, the wrong Cs can have the opposite effect, undermining or even destroying their ‘number ones’.

Shakespeare’s ‘honest’ Iago manipulated naïve and trusting Othello. And while Russian holy man Rasputin’s influence may have been exaggerated, there is little doubt that his presence in St Petersburg helped damage the popularity of Emperor Nicholas II, ultimately leading to the downfall of the Russian monarchy. Just listen to Boney M if you don’t believe me.

More recently, in the UK, spin doctor Peter Mandelson (nicknamed ‘the Prince of Darkness’) was so pivotal to (then) prime minister Tony Blair’s leadership, that the PM reinstated him after not one but two scandal-fuelled resignations. 

And, at the time of writing this piece, our incumbent prime minister is in the midst of discovering the extent of collateral political damage wreaked on him by his top adviser and confidante, Dominic Cummings.

For good or ill, leaders and their closest consiglieri help define each other. 

Richard Hytner is adjunct professor of marketing at London Business School and founder of creative management consultancy, beta baboon. His book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, is published by Profile Books. (Follow him on Twitter @RichardHytner)

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