Consiglieri by Richard Hytner: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Consiglieri: Leading from the shadows by Richard Hytner.

In Short

People tend to have a preoccupation with the ultimate leader – the CEO, the president, the general in charge. At the same time we know that these people do not operate alone. They have ‘chiefs’, advisors, assistants – all professions which we can call consiglieri. Oftentimes these consiglieri wield great amounts of soft power and can leave a clear mark on the final decisions and directions.

The idea of this book, looking at the men behind the man, is great; the execution less so. There’s not that not much information, and if you decide to stop reading after the introduction you will walk away with 90% of the information. On top, most of the examples cited are either from British politics or sports, so unless you are familiar with those areas they don’t provide that much added value.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

There’s an unhealthy relationship with hierarchy: most people are very focused on being number one, and if you’re not the supreme leader, you don’t matter. We believe in the “superiority of the few, at the expense of the potential contributions of the many.”

This ‘second syndrome’ is also made worse with the amount of ‘chiefs’ and ridiculous titles that are created. “We understand why we need a Chief Executive, a Chief Financial Officer, and a Chief Operating Officer: one is the final decider, one keeps the decider out of trouble and the other makes the decider’s decisions happen.” But beyond that, what do the chiefs add besides title inflation? “With titles, as in life, it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.”

Originally, consiglieri were advisors to leaders of the Italian mafia, but the concept can be applied to legitimate jobs as well. Consiglieri are the councilors, advisors, deputies, assistants who “support, inform and advise the final decision-makers”. These “Cs” are potentially good leaders and decision makers by themselves, but they might not go on to become the final A leader (willingly sometimes).

“I’ll tell you what I really think is the main characteristic of a  leader. A leader is someone who can lead his own thoughts and emotions. If you can’t do that you are not a leader, not even a little bit. You can be the boss, you can be the head of something but leadership starts with begin able to lead yourself, which means your thoughts and emotions. I have seen so few leaders being able to do that because a lot of leaders, they become the big boss and do things because they have the power. That can come from a sense of emptiness. They want to develop their being-ness through their having-ness and their doing-ness.” – Bruno Demichelis

‘A leaders’ are motivated by popularity, adoration, independence, but above all by power. Being in charge and able to make the final calls.

But power is of course not just the prerogative of the A; Richelieu, Rasputin, Machiavelli, Mandelson, Thomas Cromwell, Alastair Campbell are all C examples cited with soft power (= the ability to influence others to get the outcome you want).

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry. S. Truman

John F. Kennedy wrote about courageous senators who followed their principles. ‘“The way to get along”, I was told when I entered Congress, “is to go along.”’ He loathed this mentality, arguing instead that: ‘Conformity is the jailor of freedom and the enemy of growth…only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions.’

People are fascinating by the ultimate leader and their fall from being a hero to being a zero. But we don’t usually look at the advisors behind these men, even though the Cs behind them most likely influenced and directed their policies.

“The virtues of a man in favour are his vices in disgrace.” – Richelieu

Every C should choose their A carefully. Do your research and due diligence, since there are many different variants of ‘A leaders’ and consiglieri – not all are a good match.

Continually moving up in the organization might not be for every ‘C’, especially if you’re a better doer than a manager. This will be exposed very sharply at the top.

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