Should a Leader’s Spouse Stay Out of the Limelight?

Guest post from Richard Hytner:

Great leaders, the As who are ultimately accountable – surround themselves with a wide circle of Cs – counsellors, coaches, and consiglieri- and listen to their advice as if their lives might depend on it, as often it can. One of the most underrated sources of wisdom on which the A can depend is that of the spouse.

Spouses or partners have a unique ability to keep their leaders anchored in truth. But should they go beyond the role of silent witness at home and take a role close to centre stage? And, if they do, should they stay out of shot to the same extent as the leader’s other counsellors?

When spouses enter the fray, committed to the cause as well as wedded to the person, expect unintended consequences. The British public is currently being re-treated to an unsporting exchange of tweets between the spouses of Britain’s two most celebrated cyclists, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Wiggin’s alleged lack of appreciation for Froome, the man who helped him win the Tour de France, is in stark contrast to Froome’s recognition of Richie Porte’s secondary role in his own win a year later. The unseemly spat between Mrs Wiggins and Froome’s girlfriend Michelle Cound, repeated in the wake of Froome’s recent book publication, should discourage partners from too swift an embrace of social media to air their dirty laundry.

Eleanor Roosevelt, an early archetype of active political participation for unelected spouses, arguably became the first First Lady to be in the frame. Dennis Thatcher had significantly less influence on his wife’s policy than Eleanor Roosevelt had on FDR’s. Raisa Gorbachev had more of an influence still on Mikhail Gorbachev’s thinking. Their intensely close partnership represented a total break with Soviet practice with Raisa accompanying Gorbachev everywhere – on visits both to the Russian provinces and on all his foreign trips. It caused a sensation in the Soviet Union when quite early in the perestroika period Gorbachev was interviewed on NBC and asked by Tom Brokaw what issues he discussed with his wife. Gorbachev’s answer, ‘We discuss everything’, was a great break with tradition and was broadcast on Soviet TV and radio and published in Pravda. Brokaw’s follow-up question and Gorbachev’s answer was too much for even the changing Soviet mass media and was not broadcast by them. Brokaw inquired ‘Including Soviet affairs, at the highest level?’ to which Gorbachev responded, ‘I think I have answered your question in toto. We discuss everything’.

Advisor Ira Magaziner’s recently released 1995 memo to President Bill Clinton about his ‘ultraliberal’ wife’s perceived influence on health-care reform hints at Hillary Clinton’s real influence as a spouse. She has since played an even greater role in shaping the deliberations of President Obama, and in acquitting herself of accountability for the State Department. Should she take up the role of ultimate A for the USA, not only could we assess her complete leadership – all leaders should be experience leadership as both an A and a C – but we could also study Bill Clinton’s ability to stay out of shot. Past leaders become more admired the longer they are removed from the leadership hot seat, but Mrs Clinton has no need for any further increase in her husband’s esteem. Her greater wish, should she run and win, will be that her husband can lose himself in the White House. Can he cease – ever- to be part of the story, and can our own appetite to see him centre stage ever be sated?

It is not just the spousal C that should leave the limelight to the A leader. Recently, Fiona Cunningham, special advisor to British Home Secretary Theresa May, overstepped the mark, published confidential cabinet documents and earned herself some unwelcome column inches in the continuing narrative of internecine strife between her boss at the Home Office and Michael Gove, Minister for Education. A brief moment in the fast lane for Miss Cunningham will now be followed by a lengthier spell on the hard shoulder.

On the other side of the English Channel, the end awaited another adviser. Jerome Lavrilleux, Mr Sarkozy’s former deputy campaign manager and loyal lieutenant of Jean-François Copé, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement, tearfully confessed that bills for the former president’s re-election campaign were false.

Both advisors paid the price not just for their gross misjudgement but for becoming an unwanted part of an unwelcome story. Just as most ultimately accountable decision-makers – A leaders – thrive in the limelight, most consiglieri who advise, coach and cajole them – C leaders – have an aversion to it. Those that do not should develop one fast.

Unless you are asked by your leader to be the front man or the spokeswoman, management’s elected mouthpiece for the media, you must reside in the shadows and your contribution should be largely anonymous. Could Thomas Cromwell or Cardinal Richelieu have operated as effectively in the dark if their spies had all been on LinkedIn? Our curiosity to glimpse behind the curtain is amplified by technology’s ability to circumvent even the most hawkish privacy–seekers. Anonymity is not as easy as it once was.

Beyond behaving with integrity and above reproach, are there ways to stay out of the story? The best Cs remember that they are there to serve, they only ever act on the A’s authority, and they never to usurp it for themselves. Once the C thinks that he belongs even a millimetre over the boundary agreed with the A, he can start counting his days in post. Observing lane discipline preserves one’s tenure as a C.

Too often the C- assistant, special adviser or coach – is tempted into A territory: the caddie who claims even marginal responsibility for their golfer’s triumphs ends up in a bunker of his own making; the spin doctor so in thrall to his own mastery that, like the worst magician, he invites his audience to see how he performed his tricks.

During the World Cup, pay special attention to the coach who pumps the air as if his tactical genius alone accounted for his striker’s goal and watch out for the resentment this may deservedly breed in the midfielder responsible for the extraordinary ‘assist’. Hoovering up the credit is best left for the A.

If you wish to be more central to the published story, or even the story itself, own up and search for an A position. For his wife to succeed as President, Bill Clinton will have to learn to walk more than a few paces behind his wife and we will have to learn to stop looking out for him. Alternatively expect an unhappy ending.

About the author:

Richard Hytner is Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School, and Deputy Chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide. His book, 
Consiglieri: Leading From The Shadows, is published on 4th June by Profile Books.