Wolf Hall and how to be a fixer for a king

First published in the Financial Times on 1st July 2014.

The second-in-command is an important role but under appreciated

The best drama to be found on the London stage right now is a pair of connected plays about Henry VIII: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, from Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning novels. And the reason I liked them so much, apart from the fact that I’m a backer, is that they tell the semi-imagined story of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s fixer.

Cromwell was a fascinating individual. He was self-made, rising from obscurity as the son of a blacksmith in Putney, eventually becoming the second most powerful man in the land. His ascent was remarkable considering society was then wholly dominated by the nobility.

He led the charge against the Catholic Church in England and was a key figure in the Reformation. Cromwell was also a classic deputy, enabling his boss to rule as royal whim saw fit.

Such second-in-command figures are the subject of a book by Richard Hytner called Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows . It is a comprehensive analysis of their importance in business and public life, written by a seasoned practitioner of the art.

He argues convincingly that a great team of a chief executive and a number two is a more successful proposition than a solitary leader. Mr Hytner describes the various types of consiglieri – lodestones, educators, anchors and deliverers, according to his segmentation. Some might act more like coaches, others like Svengalis, roadies or even philosophers.

While I am not sure real people fit quite so easily into the book’s neat definitions, I do think the role is a very important one, and under appreciated. Few if any high achieving leaders can function effectively without a senior aide-de-camp. The best of the breed are like turbocharged versions of Jeeves: utterly reliable, completely loyal, wise, supportive and indefatigable. And of course quite often, like Jeeves, they are really the ones in charge.

Frequently the boss is so busy running meetings, making decisions and dealing with stakeholder relations that they do not have time to read, research, consult and reflect. The Number Two can fill in the gaps and advise, deal with detail and follow up.

Moreover, the best right hand man or woman will tell their boss the truth: they can because they are too trusted and important to be cast into the wilderness, even if they present bad news.

In my early twenties I served as executive assistant to a grandee for a while, but was “let go” because I just was not suited to the job. I was too selfish, impetuous and ambitious. But generally I think able twentysomethings on the way up are a good source of such consiglieri.

Of course, they probably lack experience, connections and political savvy: but the right ones see the task as a wonderful opportunity to learn at first-hand how the top dog operates.

Quite a few head honchos have been assistants in their early careers – including David Cameron, the UK prime minister, who once acted as adjunct to media mogul Michael Green.

I think there are two vital talents a boss must possess which deputies typically lack: the ability to motivate; and the confidence to take major decisions. To an extent they stem from the archetypal charismatic, extrovert, egotistical personality which defines many leaders. Most of the best Number Twos do not have those traits.

As Robespierre, the “sea green incorruptible” of the French Revolution, said: “A leader has two important characteristics; first, he is going somewhere; second, he is able to persuade other people to go with him.” Perhaps the most useful sections in Mr Hytner’s book are the chapters providing counsel for leaders and their shadows, showing how to manage the relationship between Numbers One and Two.

Shakespeare wrote: “We cannot all be masters.” For those who want influence and proximity to power – but do not need to be in control – then seeking a post as a deputy may well convey rewards. Such a plan is less likely to bring the disappointment which visits those who reach for the top, but fail to make it.

Mind you, Cromwell does not set a good example: he fell out of favour with the court and was beheaded – a thankless end for an able servant.