Second place could be best choice

14 September 2014

Richard Hytner’s decision to step down as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Europe, Middle East & Africa to become worldwide deputy chairman proved to be his best yet

I have often wondered why management books and organisations focus solely on the firsts; why the role of the deputy, the adviser, the counsellor, the assistant, the ‘anybody-but-the-number one’ is not seen as worthwhile for an aspiring or talented leader. I have wondered why those who fulfil these roles get such little recognition and how best to create an alternative model of leadership that identifies, nurtures and celebrates these people and the profound influence they have on organisations.

In the world in which we operate, you are a number one or a number who, the supreme leader or a subordinate heeder. Even in the East, where one’s position in the hierarchy is accepted gracefully to enable organisational cohesion and mutual respect, there is a growing awareness that we have allowed uncertain times to fuel a greater sense of superiority in the few, at the expense of the potential contribution of the many.

Leadership’s reach

A Google of the word ‘leadership’ confirms a suspicion that leadership teaching is largely still confined to the creation and further advancement of the number one.

However, most leadership commentators agree that no one person can fulfil all the duties expected of the boss. Even in organisations blessed with leaders of a humble, self-aware and emotionally wise disposition, it takes more than one man or woman to lead the organisation to greatness and keep it there. Leadership has always reached far beyond the office of the boss.

If leaders are able to fathom what they are feeling and why, they can unearth those same feelings in others

If we acknowledge that not everything can or should be decided by an all-powerful leader, why do we conspire to limit the sphere of influence of those beyond, beneath and alongside that leader? We treat with faint disdain those confident enough to declare that they do not have the inclination or the qualities to be the leader. We view those number ones who conclude that there might be more to life as lazy or burnt out; and we call those content with and committed to playing a supporting role to the leader unambitious.

The solution lies in a way of assigning roles to leadership that preserves the primacy of the final decision-maker and acknowledges the importance of those around him or her; a way of identifying one’s natural leadership bias while encouraging greater experimentation between leadership roles.

Consiglieri are advisers to leaders of Italian mafia families, made famous by Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. Whereas A leaders are those with the final accountability, I assign C leadership to those consiglieri – the deputies, assistants and counsellors – who support, inform and advise the final decision-makers of organisations. Consiglieri are leader-makers and leaders in their own right. Although only a few go on to become ultimate leaders, many more perform roles in which they make, shape, illuminate and enhance the success of the out-and-out leader and the organisation. They counsel, support and deliver for the number one leader.

Effective A and C leaders, whether in an accountable position or in that of a counsellor, share some important qualities. First and foremost, they must be trusted. We need to know that our leaders will keep their word, will not abuse their authority and will ensure that fair play is done and seen to be done. We need to trust them to do the right thing.

While trust is a mandatory requirement in both types of leaders, the distinctive characteristic of consiglieri is that they have a higher degree of emotional intelligence. Learning how to understand and manage feelings in yourself and others, and to use those feelings as tools to facilitate thought and action, is guaranteed to give you substantial leadership influence.

Emotional IQ

If leaders are able to fathom what they are feeling and why, they can unearth those same feelings in others, a distinct advantage to the leadership endeavour. Unleashing emotions liberates all kinds of activities, such as problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making and creativity. Recognising the often subtle relationships between different emotions helps consiglieri navigate complex interpersonal relationships. Learn to lead your own emotions and you will mastermind victories.

The seconds in command have the ability to read situations and people. They are able to influence and persuade without overt authority. They are comfortable giving up and sacrificing recognition. Moreover, they really take pleasure in seeing other people succeed as well.

In my view, the position of a consigliere is the most rewarding place to be. No role has presented me with more challenge, required as much subtlety, or so demanded the leadership behaviour I most admire in others. How best to lead from the shadows is a question very seldom asked.

Towards the end of my tenure as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Europe, Middle East & Africa, I reflected that I was rarely happy making the big, difficult decisions, yet really happy influencing the cause. So, I decided to become a deputy instead of an always-deciding CEO. Being second became my first choice.

It proved to be the best one of my career.

Richard Hytner is adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School and author of Consiglierie: Leading from the Shadows

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