Who Is Your Éminence Grise?
Leaders at all levels need trusted advisors
“Be courteous to all but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” — George Washington, 1783
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We all need an éminence grise.
I’m not just saying that because I like to say “éminence grise”. You have to admit: it’s a cool-sounding phrase, isn’t it?
No, we need an éminence grise because there are times when we don’t see our challenges or problems with clear eyes. We have too much invested in a project, a team, or a relationship. Or we don’t see outside forces as they’re forming.
Sometimes, it takes outside counsel to advise us and to bring additional perspective to our decision making.
The term éminence grise (literally, “gray eminence”) goes back to the 16th century, when Cardinal Richelieu installed François Leclerc du Tremblay, the Capuchin monk Père Joseph (1577 – 1638), as his right-hand man. Richelieu was Chief Minister under Louis XIII.
Richelieu’s ambition for French domination of Europe aligned perfectly with Tremblay’s hope to convert European Protestants to Roman Catholicism. Tremblay’s nickname came from the color of his robes: a beige or grey color, thus the term grise.
An éminence grise is a powerful decision-maker or adviser who operates behind the scenes, or in a non-public or unofficial capacity. He is often treated with deference or even fear by subordinates, who understand that he has the ear of the leader, and perhaps even the power to steer decisions in a Svengali-like manner.
Famous examples of éminence grise include Rasputin, Dick Cheney, and the 1st Duke of Sussex. Not necessarily the most sympathetic of historic figures. But there are others as well—others upon whom history looks more kindly.
Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, advised him on the New Deal that freed the United States from the Great Depression.
The wise philosopher Seneca advised and tutored the Roman Emperor Nero — until he wasn’t useful anymore. But he left us with books and letters that have formed an essential part of Stoic philosophy.
The role is an important one—a close confidante who acts as an elder statesman, giving a clear-eyed view of the options and counseling the leadership on decisions. The leader still makes the final call, but his actions are guided by the wisdom of the éminence grise.
Whether you seek the counsel of others or are an advisor yourself, it’s a role based on trust.
Leaders rely on others because leadership only works in a team, not as an individual sport. The best leaders have coaches and advisors. They seek out alternative points of view and delegate information-gathering.
I write here about the need for leaders to be better communicators, but the fact is leaders first need to be great listeners, ready to hear what needs to be said.
Listening—particularly to those whom we trust—can give us the wisdom we need to become better leaders.
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