Keep calm and listen to your consigliere

I have spent the last 25 years giving advice as a Consigliere (Counselor) to many Executives and various organizations. The conversations I had with them were often conversations they had with no one else. In many cases, these were the most important conversations of their lives and career.

When you hear the term Consigliere, you automatically think of Tom Hagen in the movie The Godfather. While everyone tends to identify with the Godfather, the role that I found the most fascinating was that of the relationship between the Godfather and Tom Hagen, his Consigliere (counselor). It is an analogy to imitate the court of the medieval Italian principality Venice, which was then led by a Doge (Duke) and a Consigliere Ducale (Advisor Doge).

But the role of a Consigliere is as old as mankind and behind every greatness in our human history there is a Consigliere role. For me, a Consigliere is an advisor, a confidant who supports an Executive and an organization in setting their course, taking turns and decisions, holds up a mirror to them and guides them through changes. In addition, a Consigliere is a person you can trust 100%, who supports you, challenges you and helps you think out of the box.

In my research, I found many examples of great leaders, moral leaders, who had a powerful partnership with a Consigliere who not only elevated their vision and values, but also, in many cases, helped them accumulate power: Aristotle to Alexander the Great, who inspired him to spread the ideals of Greek Civilization and to conquer the barbarian world; Sir William Marshall to King John of England and the signing of the Magna Carta of 1215 and the restoration of his power with the English Barons; or Thomas Wythe to Jefferson, his rise in the Virginia State legislature and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. There was also Edward House to Woodrow Wilson. It was House who not only got the New Jersey Governor elected, but urged him to compromise on his stand for the League of Nations, sensing the isolationist mood of the country.

I was struck by the absolute ONENESS between the Executive and his Consigliere, based on advancing the companies interests and many shared understandings built up over the years.

Perhaps the place where the Executive – Consigliere relationship is best revealed is as a thinking partner in making decisions. Executive Leaders almost always have a wise counselor, because they realize that decisions often present many right answers and are, in fact, judgment calls. They also realize that no one person has all the complex patterns of information that need to be taken into account.

Leaders need to augment their judgment, and one way to do that is to have a Consigliere whose views are not clouded by emotions, who can help to integrate all the complex pieces of information that go into making good decision.

US President Obama, for example, did run all his decisions by his Consigliere Valerie Jarret, who he knew from his days in Chicago and who he says helps him to see the “whole basketball court.”

The Consigliere: a powerful new rol in the business world

One of the fascinating things is that CEOs, Executives and Organizations, and leaders of companies have often overlooked the importance of this. “It’s good to have trusted advisors. A second reason is that the CEOs of the past did not run such large, complex organizations in a global environment or face decisions of mind boggling complexity. A third reason is that they may not distinguish this powerful and unique role from the vast array of leadership advisors available to them.

What we are talking about is a powerful and distinct role, NOT to confused with an executive coach who comes at you with a list of homogenized corporate leadership competencies, NOT to be confused with a consultant who is good at one thing—business models, operation excellence, or personnel management, and NOT to be confused with the human resource managers who now and again is asked to offer a word of advice on personnel matters that the CEO doesn’t really think are that important to begin with.

Today, however, an increasing number of CEOs are working closely with a Consigliere. CEOs are beginning to see the value of having someone on their team who is not only a friend they can let down their hair with, but also a trusted advisor they can use as a sounding board on major decisions and judgment calls in their personal and professional life. CEOs are increasingly seeing the great benefit of having a Consigliere, someone who is a great business generalist versus a great specialist, and who has the depth and breadth of background, combined with the basic human wisdom and emotional intelligence to bring massive value to the table.

The strange world of the Consigliere

The Consigliere is often well described by the term “eminence gris.” The phrase originally referred to Cardinal Richelieu’s right hand man François Leclerc du Tremblay. It is difficult for one person—Executive or Consigliere—to stand for inspiring vision and empowering values and, at the same time, do what is necessary to accumulate power to bring them to pass, something which may require continually crushing enemies. This is why the CEO Consigliere relationship is so important, and so structurally coupled throughout the history of politics, business, and many other fields.

 The Executives Consigliere is without doubt a trusted advisor who operates in a low-key, non-public way. Yet occasionally, the Executives Consigliere raises his/ her voice in a meeting with powerful decision makers, or becomes a powerful actor, one who alters the course of history. To define the Executives Consigliere role with some granularity I came up with what I call the Executives Consigliere’s Seven Key Roles.

The Consigliere’s seven roles

  1. Being a first friend you can let your hair down with.
  2. Being an Executives Mentor.  
  3. Helping the Executives find the path to power.  
  4. Making great decisions and judgment calls. 
  5. Right hand person who does whatever. 
  6. Minister without portfolio who negotiates a deal.  
  7. Master psychologist who returns the Executive to him/ herself.