Batman and Robin were the original dynamic duo. Batman was the leader, older, wiser and stronger, but he could not have defeated his wicked and often devious opponents without his loyal side kick Robin.
So it is with many successful leaders that they work best with a deputy. Look at Brian Clough and Peter Taylor: brilliantly successful together managing Derby City and Nottingham Forest football clubs, but on their own, well, just ordinary.
The post of deputy is in the news due to the coalition government but in local government and other parts of the public sector deputies are no longer fashionable. The harsh financial climate in the public sector has led to a cull of management posts and deputies were early casualties of management restructuring.
In many authorities the post of deputy has been replaced by a rotating deputising role. In other words people take it in turns to deputise for the boss in their absence. This devalues the role to just covering whereas a deputy does so much more. A deputy is part of a double act - good cop bad cop, one is good with the politicians the other is good with the troops, one has all the ideas the other knows how to turn them into reality. In short, complementary skills.
One characteristic common to all deputies is loyalty whatever happens the deputy and boss must appear to be united. The deputy can listen to criticism of the boss but never appear to agree with it.
But sooner or later every deputy wonders if they couldn’t step up. Maybe they will be tempted to apply for the top job elsewhere, occasionally they decide to go for the top job where they are even if the post isn’t vacant!
This is one of the risks in having a deputy: if things aren’t going too well and the members are unhappy with you and they have a ready-made replacement in your deputy they might decide they can afford to let you go.
I can understand why a recently appointed chief executive might want to bring their deputy with them and possibly other members of their successful team. This happens in sport and may be acceptable in the private sector but it’s not the way thing are done in local government.
Members are not prepared to give up their power to appoint all senior officers especially as this often involves some horse trading behind the scenes between the leader and cabinet members along the lines that I will let you have your way on this one on the understanding I get my way when it comes to my area of responsibility.
Of course all chief executives want to recruit their own senior management team and a high turnover of senior managers following the appointment on a new chief executive is not uncommon. Members wish to retain the power and the organisations equal opportunities policy may mean the new chief executive can’t bring their team with them but that doesn’t meant they can’t get in touch to encourage them to apply for the up and coming vacancy. You might not be surprised how often they are successful.
Heroes and villains
The actor who played Dr Who a few years back, Christopher Eccleston, was asked whether he preferred playing heroes rather than villains. He replied that acting was all about finding the hero in the villain and the villain in the hero.
Management is also about heroes and villains. The manager cutting services, increasing workloads and making people redundant is often seen as a villain. The same manager champions equal opportunities, upholds professional values, challenges bad practice and inspires staff.
So if you are a manager who is asked to play the villain then the bad guy you will be but you need to find the hero within the role. You may be carrying out unpopular decisions but only a pantomime villain would judge success by the volume of boos.
Being a hero doesn’t involve a big dramatic show of defiance - “the manager who resigned rather than cut services” - it involves struggling on day in day out just trying to make a difference in a thousand little ways that go unnoticed by the majority.