Consiglieri: Odd Title—Stellar Followership…and Leadership

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him. -Machiavelli

Having several near back to back command jobs and two serving as a “vice”, I have spent a great deal of time contemplating, studying, and reading about how to be the best #2 possible.

I’ve blogged on second seat leadershipfollowership—creative followership, and received a myriad of questions on how to be a good follower.  As a culture, our focus usually falls to the leader with the title.  Well, we all follow someone…or as Bob Dylan says, “We gotta serve somebody”. 


What about the leaders behind the leader?  Think deep—think the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, or Steve Wozniak to Steve Jobs. Think Darth Vader to Emperor Palpatine, or in the now “classic” television series The Sopranos, Silvio Dante as the consigliere to Tony Soprano.

What is a Consiglieri?

Lorenzo_de_Medici2In Italian, Consiglieri means “adviser” or “counselor” and is still a common title for members of city councils in Italy and Switzerland.  It is derived from Latin consiliarius (advisor) and consilium (advice). The consigliere terminology is common in the U.S. Mafia and is taken from that of the Sicilian Mafia and suggests that an analogy is intended to imitate the court of a medieval Italian principality. For example, Venice was led by a doge (duke) and a consigliere ducale (advisor to the doge).

An underboss will normally move up to boss when the position becomes vacant, so his position is equivalent to that of heir to the throne. Consiglieri, meanwhile, is analogous to chief minister or chancellor. In Joe Bonanno‘s book A Man of Honor, he explains that a consigliere is more of the voice or rep for the soldiers of the family and may help solve and mediate disputes for the lower echelon of the family..

The consiglieri was popularized by the novel The Godfather (1969), and its film adaptation. In the novel, a consigliere is an adviser or counselor to the boss, with the additional responsibility of representing the boss in important meetings both within the boss’s crime family and with other crime families.

the-godfather-gangster-moviesThe consiglieri is a close, trusted friend and confidant; the mob’s version of an elder statesman. In some depictions, he is devoid of ambition and dispenses disinterested advice. In fact, by the very nature of the job, a consiglieri is one of the few in the family who can argue with the boss, and is often tasked with challenging the boss when needed to ensure subsequent plans are foolproof.

When a boss gives orders, he issues them in private either to the consiglieri or directly to his caporegimes as part of the insulation between himself and operational acts.

I’ve always been fascinated by the existence of the consiglieri in stories about the Mafia. The consiglieri is full of wisdom, with the interests of the family at heart and without an ambitious bone in his body, or so it would seem.

Having intelligent advisers matters since no ruler or leader can last long if the people they depend on for guidance are foolish or are not to be trusted.

I was listening to a podcast discussing Richard Hytner’s book Consiglieri:  Leading from the Shadows.  Hytner is deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and adjunct associate professor of marketing at London Business School.

Consiglieri-Leading-from-theThe point of the book—not everyone can be a No. 1, and more importantly not everyone wants to be. This doesn’t mean that everyone else has failed. This doesn’t mean you lack ambition or that you cannot find success or fulfillment from other leadership roles. What Hytner illustrates is that there is great strength in being a number two, and that much can be achieved from what some dismiss as the side lines.

I know that this concept seems to go against everything that we’ve been taught. So, does he make a good case for being the second in command?

Hytner examines the roles of the leader and the second in command and dubs the leader as the A (the person who is Accountable) and vice as the C (the Consiglieri).  His examination of the role of each and the competencies each requires is extensive, particularly with regard to the interaction between the two positions.

It could be that there are many people struggling in leadership roles for which they have no aptitude and also provides them little enjoyment.  Perhaps they may find the “C” role much more to their liking.

One of the most important benefits of being a C, Hytner writes, is the preservation of privacy: “A life in the lens is not worth the flash of the bulb.” This is certainly true in leadership, where the right-hand men and women tend to avoid public view.

Each kind of consiglieri comes in a variety of guises:

Caddies—telling the leader about the course, supplying the right clubs and providing an atmosphere of calm confidence and focused attention.

Roadies – providing organization, emotional support and sanity; under-men who take part of the A-leader’s load; cornermen who give direction.

Sherpas—having an intimate acquaintance with the mountains to be climbed.

Philosophers—providing an independent point of view – and may sometimes explain the processes whereby A-leaders make their decisions better than A-leaders can themselves.

Coaches—inculcating practical and social skills.

Anchors—acting as fearless skeptics.

Truth-speaking friends—protecting their leaders from dogmatism and hubris.

Seekers—encouraging leaders to let go of their self-image and pet projects.

Deliverers—creating an ambience in which the leader can thrive

Fixers—defusing danger and simply get the job done.

Gamers—seeing several moves ahead and can act for successive leaders.

The attributes that enabled these consiglieri to be so effective are byproducts of their lives and histories, not skills they could have been taught. Choosing them as advisers illustrate stellar judgment on the part of their leaders, but the fact that these gifted advisers exist at the right time and in the right place, was what Machiavelli called fortuna – in other words, luck.

Consiglieri enjoy spending a lifetime learning, bringing other people on, and from time to time making crucial interventions that have a deep bearing on what the A is doing. To get the most out of everybody, consiglieri need to be at ease, reliable in their actions, driving new ideas, and brave enough at all times to tell the A what’s what. They are content, constant, catalytic and courageous. The consiglieri message:  Never forget the power of lieutenants, the men in the shadows…

7 Replies to “Consiglieri: Odd Title—Stellar Followership…and Leadership”

  1. Thank you for the post. I will be getting the book. As I progressed in my career, I was always asked to become the team lead but I never wanted “the big chair.” I wanted to be the one who made the work happen, the one who rallied the troops and built consensus to get projects off the ground and continue momentum. Now I understand why, I am an excellent lieutenant. Great post and thanks again for the information!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Stef: WE really do spend a lot of time focusing on the A… but the C is key… and I am proud to say–“I am second…” Resonates health on so many different levels.

  2. Thanks for the great words and history lesson! As I read it…it reminded me more of the responsibilities of the Chief rather than that of the Vice. It’s the exact position I’d like to establish with Upper Limit Aviation. Now I have to work on a way to sell it. Thanks again!!

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