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Éminence Grise or Consigliere
The wisdom of our counselors and advisors
“An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?”
[“Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”] — Axel Oxenstierna, 1648
This week has been like a mini-course in Latin here at Timeless & Timely. We began the theme with advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) and now we’re concluding with an Oxenstierna quote.
Thankfully, like my undergraduate degree in classics, this will be in translation.
It’s appropriate that I mention my experience at Boston University, as I learned last week that Jon Westling, president of BU from 1996–2002, passed away on January 15. Not only was he adept at Latin, but he was an academic diplomat of sorts and a leader in his own right.
For years, he toiled in the administration of John Silber, president of Boston University from 1971–1996. Silber was a force to be reckoned with—one who had great vision but occasionally lacked finesse in achieving his goals. He hired Westling and put him in a number of roles in the administration, eventually making him provost.
In this role, Jon Westling was a quiet influence behind the scenes. While didn’t hold power himself, he understood the internal politics of the institution and work with interested parties to achieve an acceptable outcome.
Silber grew and built the infrastructure of the university and Westling focused his efforts on growing and building a world-renowned faculty.
For those not close to the situation, the forceful Silber paired with the polite and patient Westling seemed like a real-life version of Montgomery Burns and Wayland Smithers from The Simpsons.
[The problem with that comparison is Smithers is a toady (I wouldn’t place him in the category of sycophant, as he never seemed to aspire to power), while Westling was a capable and intelligent leader.]
A recent tribute to Westling by Peter Wood summed up the difference in personalities:
“Silber found in Westling a man of exceptional intellectual talent who was also an expert administrative tactician. Where Silber was impetuous and irascible, Westling was deliberative and cool-headed. Westling also had a capacious memory, filled not just with history but also with poetry and literature, and he could write with precision, subtlety, and grace. He was a skilled Latinist, and a remarkable public speaker, with a rich baritone, equally adept at ex tempore speaking and bringing a prepared text to life. He knew how to listen carefully to what others said without giving away his own thoughts, and he had immense reserves of patience.”
I’m tempted to call Westling an éminence grise, thanks solely to his abilities. He was an brilliant historian, an eminent intellect, a deep thinker, and an even deeper listener. But the term indicates a level of nefariousness that he just didn’t (or couldn’t) consider.
The term éminence grise goes back to the 16th century, when Cardinal Richelieu installed François Leclerc du Tremblay as his right-hand man. Tremblay’s robes were of 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 William de la Pole.
So, no. Not quite the descriptor I was hoping for.
Then there’s consigliere. It’s Italian for “counselor,” and the role is a trusted advisor or counselor . The most famous consigliere you’re familiar with is Tom Hagen from The Godfather, which makes sense, as the role is typically associated with a crime boss.
But 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 consigliere.
The Common Demoninator
Whether you are an advisor or seek the counsel of others, it’s a role based on trust.
And yet what stands out to me in this week’s exploration of the advocatus diaboli, éminence grise, and consigliere is the negative connotations of each.
Associated with the devil, the lust for power, or the association with the crime underworld, we get a feeling that to be involved in any of these situations—on the giving or receiving end—is ethically questionable.
But 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 to subordinates.
I write here about the need for leaders to be better communicators, but the fact is leaders first need to be great listeners, just like Jon Westling.
Listening—particularly to those we trust—can give us the wisdom we need to become better leaders.
“No man will take counsel, but every man will take money: therefore money is better than counsel.” —Jonathan Swift, 1702
Advisors are always looking for clients, but sometimes diplomacy is needed in selection. What can an advisor do with a referral they don't want to work with? (TravelMarket Report)
Leaders need to create an atmosphere where truth-telling is safe. Here are six ways to make truth-telling a norm for your team. (SmartBrief)
We all have to make decisions every day, whether we’re leaders or not. And the world is filled with nuance, so very few of these decisions are binary. Susan Liautaud explores how to use the power of ethics to make good choices in a complex world. (Next Big Idea Club)
“We hate those who take our advise, and despise those who do.” — Josh Billings, 1866
People judge our worthiness by the decisions we make. If you regularly use these five words, you’ll demonstrate your goodness as a leader. (Inc.)
A reminiscence of Jon Westling, former president of Boston University, that captures many of his attributes. (BU Today)
Talleyrand was an indispensable advisor to five successive French regimes. He was considered a master statesman, but also an opportunist—something that flew in the face of his devout faith earlier in his life. So on his deathbed, he wrote his final peace treaty: a treaty with God. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and advise them to do it.” — Harry S. Truman, 1955
🎧 As part of the Revolutions podcast, this supplemental episode on Talleyrand covers the advisor's early life and times that led to the stateman's later success.
📖 In Be Like the Fox, Erica Benner sets the record straight: far from the ruthless “Machiavellian” henchman that people think he was, Machiavelli emerges here as a profound ethical thinker who fought to uphold high moral standards and restore the democratic freedoms of his beloved Florence.
Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate link.
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