‘Leadership is often a duet rather than a solo’

21 January 2016 by in Business and finance

We’re used to seeing leaders exerting their charisma and putting forth their opinions, but we hardly see the collaborators, those who made the leader look so good. Being Number Two may not sound like a very attractive position to most aspiring entrepreneurs, but Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, authors of What we mean when we talk about leadership, show that it can be the person behind the spotlight who gets all the glory.

Do we have unrealistic expectations of our corporate and political leaders? This was one of the questions we asked Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter when we spoke. Her answer was illuminating: ‘Yes. If the expectation is that a single leader can do it all then it is unrealistic. But it is also interesting how much a single leader can set in motion. In turnarounds it is quite striking how much fresh leadership can accomplish by unlocking talent and potential that was already there in the organization but which was stifled by rules, regulations and bureaucracy.’

So, individual leaders can be hugely influential and powerful. They can change things. But, and it is an awfully big but, leaders are nothing without followers. And some follow more closely than others. Look around at many great leaders and you will see a reliable accomplice at their side – think Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, William Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher, Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair and so on. Leadership is often a duet rather than a solo.

So, the John Wayne type of heroic leadership loner is history? We asked leadership guru Warren Bennis. ‘Yes, the Lone Ranger is dead,’ he replied:

Instead of the individual problem solver we have a new model for creative achievement. People like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney headed groups and found their own greatness in them. The new leader is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, too, and eagerly sign up.

Chris Gibson-Smith, chairman of the London Stock Exchange and a former BP executive, emphasized the teamwork element of business – and of leadership: ‘Business is a team-based enterprise; there are almost no exceptions. The combined brain is a bigger brain than the individual brain. There is almost no problem that is not better solved by engaging a group of the right sort of people with the right skills in the solution harmoniously.’

Richard Hytner, deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, has studied leadership duos and champions the role of the much neglected number two. The reality, he points out, is that we can’t all be number ones – there aren’t enough number one roles in the first place and many of us would be ill-suited to them anyway. ‘The truth is we spend most of our careers, even as heads of functions, factories, geographies or service lines, serving at least one master, yet choose to shape our identity as early as we can as a number one, a supreme leader. Where, after all, is the glamour in shaping an identity as one who merely advises or assists?’ says Hytner.

What is needed is a new model of leadership for all leading players, one that assigns roles clearly and aspirationally, and one that encourages more people to discover, through choice, not just the well-trodden path to the top but the joys of leading from the shadows as a destination in its own right. By conflating all types of leader into just two: A – the ultimately Accountable – and C – the Consiglieri (there are usually more than one) who liberate, enlighten and deliver for the A, the role of the second is elevated to equal amongst firsts, circumventing the tyranny of the number one’s titular supremacy and the prevailing undercurrent of ‘second syndrome’.

The Godfather leadershipThe original consiglieri were the advisers to leaders of Italian mafia families, made famous by Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. As Richard Hytner makes clear, consiglieri also operate in more legitimate fields.

They are the deputies, assistants and counselors who support, inform and advise the final decision-makers of organizations. Consiglieri – or Cs – are leader makers and leaders in their own right. While only a few go on to become ultimate A leaders, many more perform roles in which they make, shape, illuminate and enhance the success of the out-andout A leader and the organization. ‘The majority of consiglieri positively embrace their roles,’ says Hytner:

They have not settled gloomily for C after having their love for A spurned. They have learnt the joys of influencing As whom they admire and respect. They wish to be close to power across their organizations and to have autonomy to get their jobs done. They are insatiable learners, accruing new experience as if their life depends on it (which, as some consiglieri have discovered, it sometimes does). They have found their greatest and most consistent pleasure in helping others reach their full potential.

The first question for leaders is whether they are prepared to recognize that leadership is not an activity performed by them in splendid isolation. The second is how they can best create and work with their own consiglieri.

Richard Hytner, Consiglieri (Profile, 2014).

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