The late Maya Angelou had it right when she said, "a leader sees greatness in others: He or she cannot be much of a leader if all she sees is herself".
In over 30 years in corporate, not-for-profit and academic environments, I have observed many women living up to Angelou's definition of a leader. So it remains mystifying that the door to the boardroom still looks uninvitingly closed to women, that the FTSE 100 has only four women in the CEO hot seat and that the playing field for women who love to lead from the front remains dispiritingly unequal.
That is, of course, if we use the No. 1 job as our sole metric of leadership achievement, the only desirable destination for the final decision-maker. Many more women come in at No. 2 (and 3 and 4). Is that such a bad thing? It is, if we brief our boardroom architects to design impenetrable glass ceilings. But what if we trumpeted the importance of our No. 2s as loudly as we do our No. 1s, identified the No.2 roles as fulfilling in their own right, and presented them to aspiring leaders not as meagre compensation for failing to break into the mighty ranks of top dogs, but rather a chance to find meaningful satisfaction leading behind the leader?
Should not more of us, including men, aspire to playing the No. 2 because our personalities – and performance – are better suited to it, and our organisations better served by us in that role? Rather than wait impatiently for the gender imbalance in the top job to work its way through our male-dominated hierarchies, we might act instead on this uncomfortable truth: statistically only one can make it to, and stay at, the very top. So whilst organisations work to eliminate the absurdity of their lack of diversity, we should determine to focus less attention on the firsts and look more hopefully to the possibilities presented by the population of seconds and thirds who make up a far more abundant pool of leaders.
To reassess what this position means, not just in organisations but in life, we need to confront a bias every bit as insidious as the gender bias: regrettably, in the world in which most of us operate, our relationship with hierarchy remains unhealthy and the code for the most part brutally clear: you are a Number One or a Number Who, the supreme leader or a subordinate heeder. Whilst the top dog dressed as indomitable hero now looks distinctly dated with contemporary organisations embracing servant leadership, inward leadership, and collective leadership, doubts still remain in our deputies, advisers, counsellors, assistants, and our redeployed former chiefs. Can we even claim to be leaders?
Our Winner Takes All popular culture fuels a Leader Takes All elitist conceit, at least when it comes to hoovering up all the credit and compensation, and lends dubious credence to the self-doubt in our deputies. Yet in private and in over 100 recent interviews with leaders from business, sport, the arts and politics, I found loud agreement to the idea that coming first may be second best. There was plenty of evidence too, from the safety of the corporate confessional booth, that most second fiddles are not frustrated firsts or leaders who lack ambition. Rather, they have made a conscious choice to operate out of the punitive glare of the media and for reasons that extend well beyond an escape from the downsides associated with the top dog's office.
Whether by circumstance or choice, many women have reached positions in their organisations leading behind the leader. As heads of human resources, finance departments, government departments, and as deputies, managers and counsellors, swathes of women have shown the ambition and motivation to lead from the shadows. When one reflects on what it takes to lead beyond the limelight, it should be no surprise that women are effective in these roles. Women – and men – who succeed as supportive leaders – or consiglieri – share many characteristics with leaders: they engender trust, they transmit confidence and they ooze emotional intelligence. They also have huge appetites for accountability. The unique contribution of these consiglieri – the Cs – comes in many forms, too: they liberate their As, the ultimately accountable leaders, taking the weight of the world off their shoulders; they enlighten them with new ideas and inspiration; they anchor them in the often painful truth; and they deliver for them, making things happen through and for other people.
I agree with Judy Goldberg, an executive director at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who suggests that whilst men and women both have the ability to support the As, many women have an innate sense of caregiving, of looking after others, of ensuring that the leader is 'guarded', stepping in to shield their leader when that leader is too exposed.
Little satisfies consiglieri more than their chance to make others shine. Ellen Miller, former managing director of Lehman Brothers and now head of leadership programmes at London Business School, is one of many consiglieri in my research to point to the unparalleled pleasure of hiring people, spotting their potential and helping them to flourish. From Nicki Chapman, coach, to artists like Annie Lennox and the Spice Girls, to Bruno Demichelis, the sports psychologist described as Carlo Ancelotti's "best piece of business" when the now three-times European Cup winning manager brought him to Chelsea, developing people and unleashing their early potential is one of the contributions to leadership in which the great consiglieri take most pride.
Motivations to lead as a consigliere are abundant. As well as developing people, they include the chance to influence outcomes, the sometimes exquisite enjoyment of proximity to power, as well as providing time and space in which to stretch one's own thinking and learning. So why are so few women – and men – making the positive choice to pursue these roles, instead of rueing the chance to become the rat that wins the rat race?
If there are far too few women in – or aspiring to be in – No. 1 roles, there are too few men in – or aspiring to be in – No.2 roles. Tackle this successfully, and more men may pause before they hold their hand up for the top job, making room for the right leaders, male or female, to occupy the much over-rated seat at the head of the table.
Richard Hytner's 'Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows' is published by Profile (£12.99). He is also adjunct associate professor of marketing at the London Business School. Order his book for £10.99 inc. p&p from the Independent bookshopReuse content