Book Review: Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows

First the worst, second the best, third the one with the hairy chest.” Richard Hytner quotes this playground rhyme in his preface and goes on to explain how he discovered the first might be second best after becoming deputy chair at Saatchi & Saatchi. Here, he was more happy to influence the cause than make “the big ugly decisions”. His book is therefore a celebration of the “Consiglieri” (referred to as “Cs”): the advisers, counsellors, assistants that inhabit organisations. The plural in the title is deliberate as he recognises and promotes the idea that organisations should have more than one. He also encourages regular opportunities to move from the role of boss to serve as deputy.

Hytner challenges the lack of recognition given to deputies and affirms those who resist temptation to become No 1. I have observed aspiring deputies in schools encountering disdain from some governors when declaring their reluctance toward headship. Hytner will give them heart. Aspiring headteachers who are damned with faint praise in interview feedback (“We think you should try being a deputy in a bigger school”) might be less deflated on reading Consiglieri. The author is clear they are leader-makers and leaders in their own right, and in a more rewarding place.

“How best to lead from the shadows is a question very rarely asked”, but Hytner puts in effort to provide answers and this is the most rewarding part of the book. It is done through an examination of the roles of bosses and Cs. The final section advises how to get the best out of each other, so Consiglieri is as much for bosses as deputies.

Some of the writing is witty and teasing. The author anticipates that leaders will be too busy to read the whole book so will cherry-pick chapters, not an option for the C.

The most practical points are the questions framed for those choosing their next leader. The highlight, however, is Hytner’s presentation of a humorous and moving template letter for a boss inviting a deputy to discuss their relationship. Three of the many questions asked are: “Which of my other Cs do you most admire and why?”; “When did you last squeak to your PA that I was an ungrateful bastard who….” and “Would I pass the Steve Peter’s toilet test?” This test is one of many memorable prompts that will inform the respective roles. One of the qualities in a boss that he cites is “inevitable narcissism” and so he also provides a similar framework for a deputy to offer the leader.

The book contains illustrations from fiction or entertainment but, with the honourable exception of Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, the behaviours of Roald Dahl’s Twits or Laurel and Hardy did not edify me nearly as much as the real-life insights from the inner circles of political or national leaders, sports teams and businesses. Ofsted watchers will be interested to note ex-chair, Dame Sally Morgan, is described as a straight-talker and challenging to Tony Blair.

In the acknowledgements I noted the name of Jim O’Neil, the former Goldman Sachs economist who was appointed to counsel Michael Gove in 2013. I hoped for insights into that relationship but was disappointed, Mr O’Neil clearly understands the need to remain the shadows.

Eunuchs, sherpas, the baboon theory, snakes in suits, marriage counselling, Darth Vader, Hopi Indian elders, the Girls’ School Association, Yoko Ono, Elvis and Rasputin all feature in Consiglieri. It ends, however, with a notion I dispute: “… to be a complete leader one needs to have a long stint leading from the shadows.” A stint, yes, stints perhaps, but not necessarily a long one. Sergeant Wilson would, of course, phrase that in the style of a good C by whispering “Do you think that’s wise, sir?”

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