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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 29-Sep-19


Sunday 29-September-19

The Boss Whisperer

Power is, for some, so attractive they are driven to endlessly climb the tree. The greatest pleasure for them is the acquisition of power, followed by the exercise of it. Like an ardent lover, they relentlessly seek to possess their goal.

There are two routes to this. One is to be the boss, the person out front, the visible face of power. The other is to be the power behind the throne. Which one the person takes depends on personal preferences. If they are extraverted and enjoy the limelight, then they will likely seek the leading role. If they are more introverted thinkers, then quietly pulling strings may be more their style.

A common problem is that while the extravert, the public face, can hold an audience in thrall, they may lack ideas or execution and so need additional support. This is where the backroom leaders come in.

The whisperer role, the svengali, is the thinker. They come up with ideas to feed the front person, who often presents these as their own. They also watch from the shadows, noticing the detail of who says and does what, and advising the boss on what to say and do next. There are several traditional positions that can take the whisperer role, including the grand vizir, the fool or the spouse. Each may use a different style, but the role is largely the same.

There can also be a third role, of the implementer, the person who gets things done. The whisperer can take on this mantle too, but not necessarily so. Whether they do depends on their skill and preferences, as well as the boss's concern about investing too much power in one person.

This partnership can serve positive or negative purpose. Positively, their combined skills can transform communities and countries for the better. Negatively, they can do much harm as power corrupts. At the extremes of this negative frame, the front person may be a narcissist who basks in all the glory they can get, while the whisperer may be a psychopath, not needing admiration as ultimate control fulfils their deep needs.

Positively, I held this role a number of times across my career. I specialized in research, insight, business methods and psychology, but had no desire to lead. Indeed, I hated the idea even as I found it fascinating. And so I found leaders who appreciated my discoveries and together we pushed the envelope for a while.

In recent times, Steve Bannon in the USA played whisperer to Donald Trump, though he paid the price of becoming too visible and stealing too much of Trump's thunder. In the UK, Dominic Cummings has gained this role as chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Cummings is a shadowy figure about whom little is known, yet played a central role in the 2016 Brexit referendum, including coming up with the powerful clincher 'Taking back control'. Whether Cummings survives the brighter spotlight depends on his ability to steer Johnson and avoid the limelight.

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