The Leadership Joy of Being a Great No.2
By Frederick E. Allen, published on Forbes, 06/18/2014
Don’t settle for second place, says almost every leadership writer out there. Correct, Richard Hytner would respond. Rather than settling for it, embrace it, love it, glory in it. Hytner, a former chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and now down a slot as deputy chairman, is the author of Consiglieri: Leading From the Shadows, a new book devoted to the seriously underappreciated role of the expert No. 2. It’s a trove of advice about how to be a great deputy and principal adviser, a calling that has brought out the best in people as varied and admirable as Warren Buffett’s Charlie Munger, Anna Wintour’s Grace Coddington, Abraham Lincoln’s William Seward, and Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell.
I talked to Richard Hytner about the book and its many lessons.
Fred Allen: What made you want to write a book about secondary leaders. Was there a moment when the idea caught you and stuck?
Richard Hytner: Yes, there was a moment, about three years ago. I was on a train talking to two people who were asking me about how I was finding my role as deputy chairman as opposed to my role as chief executive of a big region. And I said, it’s incredible—I’ve never been so happy. And when they probed that, I started to think about how I really was happier knowing I had more influence and effect as a No. 2. We talked about the fact that nothing had really been written about that, so I said, I’ve got a book in me, and I think that’s going to be my book. I started to interview people and was surprised at how willing they were to talk about this, how much they wanted to talk about it, how even the most ego-driven chief executives almost wistfully looked forward to the day when they might park that responsibility and start to pass on their wisdom as chairmen or chairwomen, not executive directors. I was also struck by how many people violently agreed that the No. 2 job gets a very bad rap.
Allen: Why is that?
Hytner: I think there is something deep in our backgrounds, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world, that says: Hands up, who’s going to be the team captain? And once that appointment gets made, everybody else is the also-ran or the silver medalist.
Allen: But, using your shorthand (you call top bosses As and their consiglieri Cs), the vast majority of people must not be As.
Hytner: Yes, statistically we’re all playing the wrong game. And I spoke to so many people in C positions who are genuinely happy to be there, to stretch themselves there. There’s great pleasure in performing that role well.
Allen: How does one figure out if one is at heart an A or a C?
Hytner: Starting personally, I always believed I was an A, by inclination, by upbringing, by experience, by education, by initial experience in the workplace. And gradually I realized that you can have an immense impact not being the leader. There are certain qualities that the A and the C share. You can’t be a leader of any sort unless you are trusted, unless people believe you’re competent, act with integrity, and have a certain degree of emotional intelligence. The differences seem to be that if you’re going to be the leader you have to be comfortable with decision-making, you have to be comfortable these days making decisions very quickly, you have to love the adrenaline of action, you have to be comfortable in the limelight, operating under the intense scrutiny of the media and other stakeholders. The C, by contrast, is a more private person, possibly more reflective, definitely someone who likes to see success in others, someone who’s comfortable giving up a lot, whether it’s status, cash, ego, or overt authority. You have to get your pleasure privately from seeing an outcome that you want to see happen, without your name attached to it. I think there are definitely different motivations and qualities involved in the two positions.
Allen: Do you have an all-time favorite C?
Hytner: I truly admire a number of people I interviewed for the book. I admire a lady called Nicki Chapman who features in the book who has been the publicist and plugger for a number of famous musicians who must have the biggest egos I can imagine. All the As who I spoke to about her said they trust her, she’s got 100% integrity, she’s no pushover, she will tell us straight if we’re misbehaving, she’s a rock. I think there’s something rock-like about great Cs. In historical terms, I think Harry Hopkins is a great example of an extraordinary convener of people across cultures and countries to effect an extraordinary outcome. To be working with Churchill and Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt and create admiration amongst them all took an extraordinary person, and his loyalty was simply to FDR and the cause. He’s a great example.
Allen: Who was the worst C ever?
Hytner: Well, I just saw Macbeth yesterday, the brilliant production in which Kenneth Branagh stars, and Lady Macbeth is some C. She is a piece of work. Together they conspire to do awful things, but I think without her extraordinary ambition for him, for her A, things might not have unraveled quite so quickly. Then there’s Iago in Shakespeare, the most malevolent C imaginable. I didn’t interview any malign Cs. There’s a great clip on YouTubeof Stalin having to silence his Cs. He has to ring a bell in the Politburo to stop all his flatterers from clapping. They literally wouldn’t stop. I think the flatterers, the fauners, are the dangerous Cs.
Allen: What’s the key to a great team of A and C?
Hytner: I think a great team is made up of a fantastic A, brilliantly trusted, able to cast around him or her a diverse set of consiglieri, a combination of people who will make things happen, who will enlighten and educate, who will tell their leader the truth, and who will liberate that leader. It’s really a diverse set of talents—truth-tellers, gamers, fixers, people confident to disagree with each other. And it’s a team that has a higher-order purpose. Every member of the team buys into what the organization is trying to do, its dreams and aspirations, how it goes about its business. Everybody’s really clear what their role is within that, and they are generous with each other. They understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they can play to that.
Allen: Is the C role more appropriate for one gender or the other?
Hytner: I don’t think that’s an issue. I think great leaders are great leaders. But I do think that some of the skills innate in the C role have been brilliantly performed by women. One of the hopes I’ve had in writing the book is that if more men felt comfortable with the C position, that might equalize the opportunities for women to take the A position. So one of the sort of secondary objectives of the book is just to get men more comfortable with playing support roles, which of course they can do extraordinarily well.