Précis of Consiglieri – Leading from the Shadows

Consiglieri – Leading from the Shadows

By Richard Hytner

Précis by Pete Laburn

Richard Hytner has always wondered why management and leadership books or organisations seem to focus solely on the No.1 – the top dog in the organization. He has spent much of his life puzzled as to why the role of the deputy, the advisor, the councilor, the assistant, the ‘anybody-but-the-No 1’ is not as worthwhile for an aspiring or talented leader, and why those who fulfil these roles get such little recognition. It has been his dream to create an alternative model of leadership that identifies, nurtures and celebrates these people and the profound influence they have on organisations.

A quick search on leadership confirms that leadership teaching is still largely confined to the creation and further advancement of the No 1. However, recently this idea of leadership has come under fire as organistions realise that no one person can fulfil all the duties expected of the boss and that leadership reaches far beyond the boss’s office. The ‘top dog all-conquering hero-like leader’ is being replaced by servant leaders who subordinate the self for the higher purpose of family, community and enterprise.

One reason why number 2’s are not recognised for their leadership potential is because their No.1’s like to keep their No. 2’s feeling subordinate in order to preserve their own power base. Numbering according to rank is demeaning to all except the No.1 and the insult suits the self-preserving leaders who want to keep everyone in his shadow.

However, No.1’s are not entirely to blame for the development of Second Syndrome. Much of the problem is often self-inflicted by the No.2 who believes that they don’t have what it takes to be No.1. This self-doubt makes them rationalise their second place in the world. In so doing we have unwittingly fed a damaging norm of numbering that inhibits people from taking leadership roles which might suit them and provide them with deep satisfaction.

If we understand and 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 or alongside that of the 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. In response to this, Hytner hopes to see people getting into roles that are right for them, not squeezing into roles that they do not want, or are not best suited for them. We need a range of skills in leadership and we need people in the right leadership roles at the right time – people happy to contribute to the work of the ultimate decision-taker and happy to collaborate with each other.

Consiglieri refers to the advisers to leaders of Italian mafia families. The word was made famous in Mario Puzo’s novel – The Godfather. Consiglieri are the deputies, assistants and councellors who support, inform and advise the final decision-makers in organisations.

Consiglieri – or C’s as Hytner calls them – are leader-makers and leaders in their own right. While only a few go on to become ultimate decisions makers, the No 1’s themselves – or A’s as Hytne calls them –, many more C’s perform roles in which they make, shape, illuminate and enhance the success of the A leader and the organisation. While the A leader is ultimately accountable for the enterprise, the C’s are the Consiglieri who counsel, support, and deliver for the A. The two leadership roles, A and C, demand different muscles and stimulate different experiences. Hytner hopes to increase the number of consiglieri or C leaders who make an active choice to lead from behind or beyond the A and to do so as contentedly and skillfully as possible.

A’s and C’s

Some people are markedly predisposed to one type of leadership role. Yet, other leaders are capable of mastering different positions on the field of play. Great leaders can lead from the A or the C or from both. Wearing both A and C hats is the best way to assess ones natural leadership inclinations. Most good A leaders mastered their skills by mastering the C role earlier in their careers. That experience encourages them to surround themselves with the best Cs when they take up the final decision-maker mantle. Conversely, those who wear the C hat after being the CEO themselves can better understand the pressures their CEO is under and coach with the conviction of previous successes and failures.

Many leaders now actively seek a life that involves being an A somewhere and a C somewhere else. The wisest leaders start looking for both opportunities early on in their careers. Just like great actors and actresses accept that in a long career, there is a time to play the lead and a time to play the support role or even a cameo role, great leaders do not let pride or vanity get in the way of their next appearance.

You need to choose which part – A or C – best suits you for the situation in which you wish to find yourself. You are the A of your own development programme and you need to judge which position will be best for you next stage of development. Hytner strongly believes that the more people that try both A and C roles, and the more effortlessly they are able to switch between them – even wearing both hats at different time on the same day – the more successfully you will be as a leader and the more successful will be our collective effort. Sometimes taking on the C role for a season can in fact help you to become a better leader faster than if you just became the A leader from the start.

By trying both roles, you will be able to ascertain which role suits you best. However, should the circumstance dictate that you need to take on the other role, you would be able to do it, and do it well. Life is not about a constant linear progression through positions and organisations. That is not the way to general happiness. Satisfaction is achieved by doing something that you are really interested in, knowing that you are contributing either as No.1 or No.2 or something else altogether. Your life is a product of your choices, so choose many. 

What makes an A

An A leader has the extraordinary capacity to lead from the front and rarely look back. The A is desperate to be in charge, to be able to look at the organisational chart and see their name at the top. In addition to being in charge, A’s also need to have vast amounts of autonomy. The A needs to make the big decision, to shape the desired results and then to build and grow a team capable of delivering them. They do not want to be told what to do but want the opportunity to express a vision about how the business might develop. They want to be left alone to deliver results.

A leaders also enjoy popularity – being adored and revered. However, what A leaders really want is power. The thirst for power explains the race to be captain of the team, top dog, the guy who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, the final decision maker with the final answer.

A Qualities

What makes A’s special? A leaders have charisma, conviction and self-assurance. They are driven, single-minded, ruthless, competitive, risk-taking and fearless. They grasp situations quickly, cope with adversity calmly and get the best out of their C’s. They are cool in crisis and enjoy a challenge.

A’s waste no time in setting direction, aligning resources and mobilising energies. A leader’s articulation of the direction they want to take exemplifies their leadership style. They want to establish a culture to drive the team’s performance to its peak. They do not shy away from making bold choices, or worry about the fall-out if something goes wrong.

The hallmark distinction of an A is courage. Great leaders do not make decisions to be congenial, they make necessary ones that prove to be good most of the time. The A job is often a lonely one. While the A can take counsel, listen, reflect, mull, mitigate the risk, make multiple bets, ultimately the A must make the decision and be held accountable for the outcome.

While the above traits characterise the traditional A leader, A leadership is often not confined to those who make it the only option. Sometimes the circumstances demand that a more C type leader will, due to necessity, take on an A role in order to fill a vacuum. Leaders sometimes find themselves in A roles due to circumstances beyond their control. The best leaders are able to adapt to meet the needs of the group in which they belong. Some are transformed into strong A’s, even when the role is an unnatural fit for them.

What motivates a C

C’s are people who have learnt the joy of influencing a leader they admire and respect. They want to be close to power across their organisations and to have autonomy to get the job done. They are insatiable learners, and their greatest and most consistent pleasure is in helping others reach their full potential. The majority of C leaders choose the role because of its variety. Some have tried the A role and concluded that it is not for them – either because they didn’t enjoy it, because it didn’t compare with the C role, or because they failed at their A assignment. Others have added a C role to their A role.

Many C leaders are happy to stay at No. 2 because they value the preservation of their privacy. For some people being in the limelight is not in their DNA and they really don’t want the top spot. Other C’s are keen to free their minds of the relentless burden of decision-making faced by A leaders. Still other C leaders feel that they can make a more useful contribution to the leaders they serve if they have fewer distractions and time enough to think, experiment and shape decisions and outcomes – all of which are a luxury that A leaders do not have. While the A is fighting fires, battling todays questions and barking tomorrows orders, the C can reflect on next week or even next year’s agenda, separating the important from the urgent.

While a C leader does not get the ultimate responsibility, they do have a great deal of power. While they are not the main man, they do hold a seat of considerable influence, and true C leaders are much happier here than in the A role.

What C’s need to realise is that by subsuming their own ambition and helping an A leader succeed, a C is exhibiting a great act of servant leadership. A C leader may not be the main man/woman, but they are still a leader – a leader of thought and ideas. Taking up the C role should never be thought of as losing or not having what it takes to be an A. Your motivation for being a C should be to influence, contribute and to share the leadership endeavor in order to win. C leaders do not lack the ambition or courage to have a go at the leadership role. They make an active and positive choice to share the leadership activity within their organisation.

C leaders do not subordinate to their A’s like lost souls. In fact, they have their own grand vision and seek out an A who will implement it. C leaders often influence their A’s – through soft power – to implement the strategy that they have had all along. In this way, power is not the exclusive preserve of the A. C leaders are able to use soft power – the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes they want. Using this soft power selflessly to facilitate and help others to achieve and produce their best performances provides C leaders with their highest sense of achievement. The C’s ambition is housed in realising the potential of others – my achievement is your achievement and my success is your success. C’s place their abilities, influence and authority at the service of the A. As the A succeeds, that success and pleasure also belong to the C, but the C’s contribution to the A, often without recognition of any kind, is as selfless as leadership can get.

Being a C means that you are close to power and have access to the leader. With this proximity to power also comes influence. One of the main roles of the C is to classify information and make it easier for the A to understand and act on. Once the C has full knowledge on a subject, the A can ask him for his opinion on a matter. In this way the C can help and influence the decision making of the A. The C enjoys being the person through whom every decision has to be made.

Typically A’s have a lot less time to learn beyond the job than C’s. C’s are usually voracious readers, dedicated students, obsessive observers, keen to stay alert, enhance their expertise, challenge their thinking and improve themselves. Becoming a C is an opportunity to learn new skills too: such as how to make things happen without any overt power, how to negotiate, how to manage the fallout from an unpopular decision and smooth the way for its flawless execution. These are just some of the many C roles potentially available that can hone your leadership skills.

Also, if you want to be effective in a firm and aspire to taking on more leadership responsibility, being a C is an opportunity to get your head around the complexity of the organisation. Working next to the CEO will enable you to see what they see and deepens your appreciation of the whole. These C experiences will be of great help to you later as you enter an A role, giving you a fresher perspective on the context in which the organisation operates and a mental map on how to navigate it. Ideal C’s exhibit 4 main characteristics: They are content, constant, catalytic and courageous.


The A leader lives life at a sprint, without looking back. He is always heading somewhere new, the next decision, the next promotion etc. In this way the A lives and thrives in a state of perpetual discontentment. The C on the other hand, needs to be content if they are to be a sympathetic promoter and guardian of the cause. C leaders are content to confidently and proficiently lead from the No.2 spot. This contentment grows from a greater certainty, and kind of stillness that eludes most A’s.

C leaders need to be content to cede or give up things. Give up power, give up the top position and the big pay cheque it brings. C’s even need to be content to give up their ideas, allowing them to become the A’s. It takes an enormous lack of ego to let things go and not to imprint your name on everything you do and not require recognition for it. Harry S Truman was right when he said: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ If you are happy to work unrecognised behind the scenes and to let the main man get all the glory for it then you are a natural C.


People who lead from the C have a strong sense of professional and personal purpose. They demonstrate commitment to their organisations cause, their A and their peers and subordinates. They embrace the cause as an expression of who they are and that is at the root of the best kind of constancy. Several other qualities define a C’s constant attitude towards their A – devoted affection, a sense of duty, tough love and parental protection. You should not agree to work for an A for whom you feel no affection. You will need to care for your A in order to remain constant and endure some unpleasantness from them. A C can usually remain constant in this if there is evidence over time that the cause to which they are both committed is advancing.

The C role also includes protecting the A’s reputation from cynics within and beyond the organisation. However you feel about you’re A’s decisions, a great C will draw from their bank of contentedness to transmit positive energy throughout the organisation. At times when the organisation is experiencing stress and turbulence, and doubts are being expressed about the A’s judgement, the C has a duty of care. The worst thing the C can do is sit around with the rest moaning about the terrible boss but instead needs to protect that boss and discourage the spread of negativity.


In order to be catalytic, the C needs to first consider – the C has to find the time and space to give diverse challenges due consideration, in a rigorous manner that addresses the complexity and interconnection of issues in order to come up with the best possible answers. More than raw intelligence and the ability to structure arguments, the best C’s have superior contextual intelligence and the ability to discern situations and read patterns of play that can aid the A’s final decisions.

While situational awareness and contextual intelligence will help Cs get intimate with the organisation’s resources, knowing how to put them to best use is an act of creativity, which is the next step to the C being catalytic. Catalytic C’s manage talent to facilitate thinking. Knowing the people in the organisation, matching them to a task, unleashing their capabilities, and making random connections between them all help to create fresh ideas and alternative options.

If you bring your A only one option, you back him into a corner. An A enjoys being presented with thinking that he has not requested. Catalysts need to be creative. They need to know how best to use people creatively, to imagine new processes, policies and strategies.

Once C’s have sold an idea to the A, they need to sell it to the rest of the organisation for execution. C’s find deep satisfaction in making sure things are done properly.


The virtue most sought after in a C is courage, even though it is more readily associated with an A. In order to contribute properly to the leadership, C’s need courage – to look inside themselves, makes sacrifices, cede control, show commitment to the cause and to exercise all their influence to get the job done.

C’s need to be very courageous when they need to dissent or disapprove. Courageous C’s act in spite of personal consequences. They carry on regardless of disapproval from colleagues. Courage demands the dispensation of sharp advice that cuts through crusty old opinion, something to jolt a group and it’s A out of complacency. Telling the truth is what an A needs from his C. The A needs advice that is truthful, not diluted.

While the state of leadership may not be completely overthrown any time soon, it would be good to periodically turn the spotlight away from A leaders and reflect instead on what makes their concealed C leaders magnificent. Great leadership needs a circle of diverse C leaders as much as it needs a lionized A. We need to celebrate the dynamic collaboration between A and C – and C and C, and make their contribution more visible and their impact more values. One thing is certain, in order to be a complete leader, you need to have a long stint leading from the shadows.

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