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Coming top is sometimes second best

05 Jun 2014


Rewards of leading from behind revealed

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Interviews with more than 100 leaders from business, sports, the arts and politics have shed new light on an unhealthy obsession with the limelight that devalues the crucial role of the counsellors, coaches and deputies behind some of the world's greatest leaders.

Together with insights drawn from literature, history, psychology and contemporary culture, candid interviews with those leading successfully behind Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Tony Blair, among many others, feature in a new book Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows is available today.

The author Richard Hytner, Adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing, London Business School and Deputy Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, explains the problem: "Management books and organisations have tended to focus solely on the top dogs, the ultimately accountable leaders, and by omission have perpetuated the dangerous belief that deputies, counsellors, advisers and assistants are positions not worthwhile for aspiring or talented leaders.

"Our culture's unhealthy obsession with No. 1 in the pecking order masks the vital contribution made by those who lead from the long shadows cast by their overall leader. From Alastair Campbell, David Gill and David Brailsford to Eleanor Roosevelt, Valerie Jarett and Nicki Chapman, life as a consigliere comes with large doses of accountability and private pleasure, and is driven as much by achievement as by ambition. A career in leadership is not complete without a stint as a consigliere."

While reaffirming the need for those willing to make the big decisions and to lead in the increasingly punitive glare of the lens, the book is a warning to As – leaders with ultimate accountability – who underestimate the importance of the deputies who counsel, guide and anchor them. It is also an encouragement to Cs, as the book's author Richard Hytner calls them, who want to flex their intellectual and creative muscles in the many diverse roles available to consiglieri.

"The role of C is neither a step down, nor a step back. It is a chance to make a contribution to the overall leadership endeavour, with its own positive motivations and its own very particular set of skills", Hytner explains.

The new book which sets out crucial cohabitation rules for As and Cs, analyses the qualities A leaders and their C leaders share, as well as those that drive their distinction. Among the author's advice is an alternative 360 appraisal designed to retain diverse leadership teams and ensure that the glare of the limelight doesn't dazzle us into an implicit and inaccurate belief that deputies lack the ambition or talent to make it to the top. Indeed that may be their very next move says Hytner.