The most successful deputies in history

Thursday 09 April 2020
Throughout history, we've witnessed how successors can successfully fill the shoes left behind - sometimes they've even surpassed their predecessor...
a person's legs taking a step from the shade to sunlight

With the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson in intensive care in hospital receiving treatment for Coronavirus, the foreign secretary Dominic Raab will temporarily take his place.

Raab is the latest entry in a long tradition of outriders having to take the reins. Indeed across the world, many deputies will be stepping into the shoes of bosses who are either ill or focused elsewhere during the COVID-19 crisis.

So if you want to be a stand-out deputy – or if you’re a leader who wants to keep a close eye on your number two – here are some of the most successful deputies who’ve stepped up to the plate...

Plato and Socrates

Having to find replacements for vital roles goes back as far as Ancient Greece. In 399 BC, Socrates, the originator of Western philosophy, was convicted of corrupting the young men he was teaching. Ultimately, he was forced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. In his absence, one of his pupils, Plato, had to step up - and did so with exceptional results. He recorded most of what we know about Socrates, founded the first academy and taught Aristotle, who wrote the Poetics, and even tutored Alexander the Great who went on to conquer the known world… Which just goes to show how inspiring your team can have far-reaching consequences for the future of your profession.

Julius Caesar and Mark Antony

Throughout history and its representation on screen or in books, we usually see number twos seize their chance when something very tragic befalls number one. Nowhere is this more evident than when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the Ides of March - an event that played a critical role in the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Caesar was replaced - and avenged - by Mark Antony. This didn’t just change the course of civilization but inspired two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays – Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Both Caesar and his successor were genius communicators. Lockdown could be the perfect time to brush up on your speech-making skills as well as your leadership parables.

Edward VIII and George VI

Life in Britain took an unexpected turn when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. As any lover of the Netflix show The Crown will tell you, George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) had been brought up as ‘the spare’ and not ‘the heir’ and was reluctant to take the role. But when he did so, he excelled. He became, alongside Winston Churchill, a vital national figurehead in World War Two and delivered iconic speeches after overcoming a speech impediment. All this neatly illustrates how you can thrive in a leadership role even if you doubt your skills at first – it’s all about rising to the challenge.

Shirley MacLaine and Carol Haney

Of course, when it comes to replacements, it’s not all about the grand events in history but matters of culture too. In the theatre, the most famous number two role is that of the understudy waiting impatiently in the wings. Oscar-winning Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine famously got her big break this way: she was talent-spotted after the actress Carol Haney suffered a broken ankle while acting in The Pajama Game. A scout in the audience spotted her, which led to a screen test. MacLaine went on to star in classic Hollywood films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. This illustrates how important it is to be noticed - fortunately, unlike MacLaine, you don’t have to wait for your big chance. Emailing out your bright ideas is possible even in the age of Covid-19.

Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins

In the world of music, few stars have been as successful as Phil Collins. His songs soundtracked the 1980s as he became one of the biggest selling solo artists of that decade. Yet, originally, he was supposed to play second fiddle (or, more accurately, the drum kit) for lead singer Peter Gabriel in the band Genesis. In the 1970s, Phil Collins dutifully crashed his cymbals while Gabriel was lead singer and only in 1975 - when Gabriel left the group - did the unlikely heartthrob seize the microphone. This goes to show: you shouldn’t underestimate the people in the background. If Peter Gabriel hadn’t stepped out of the spotlight, Phil Collins may never have stepped into it.

Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola

In sport, too, the second in command often gets their day in the sun… Take Pep Guardiola - considered by some the greatest football manager in the world. In 2008, it was announced that Barcelona would replace their coach, Frank Rijkaard, with Guardiola who was the then-coach of Barcelona's B side. Under Rijkaard the Spanish team had failed to win any silverware over the previous two seasons. Arguably, Pep Guardiola's first season in charge was Barcelona's best in its entire history as they became the first-ever side to win the Spanish treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League. Even as his Manchester City team observes social distancing rules you can bet Pep Guardiola will be focused on how to do even better in future - ambition and dedication are key to successful leadership.

So as the country wishes a speedy recovery to Boris Johnson, we hope his stand-in takes inspiration from some of these stories…

To see more exceptional examples of leadership, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub, dedicated to finding the resources you need to manage through the Covid-19 crisis.

Image: Unsplash