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How to be a successful special adviser: five tips

Political advice is the topic of the moment. Added to periodic quarrels about the pay and influence of special advisers, a new US President is putting the final touches to his team of advisers while the British Prime Minister faces an array of conflicting recommendations about Brexit. Advice itself seems to have become politicised. Yet there have been plenty of arguments down the centuries about who appoints advisers and what types of people they should choose, what the role of such counsellors ought to be, and to whom they are accountable if things go wrong. Life as an adviser seems to offer the chance of power and influence, but at the risk of one’s reputation if things go wrong. So what might be the knack of successful counsel? Perhaps history can offer some help to budding advisers. Here are five tips:

Getting noticed

Style matters as much as substance. Good advice has often been associated with frank plain speaking. The oily words of a Wormtongue constitute the type of poisonous flattery—telling rulers what they want to hear—that earns you a bad reputation. But bold bluntness can come just a little too close to brusque impertinence. A touch of deference—public respect (perhaps an apologetic excuse for being thought to speak out of turn)—nicely combines compliment and criticism. Ancient rhetoricians called it “blaming through praising.” It still comes in handy.

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD. Photo by Glauco92. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD. Photo by Glauco92. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Policy making or paper pushing?

Access to power has always mattered, but should one seek it by way of informal routes that might not involve much public recognition? Having an official position on a fairly formal council might appear to be the way to wield influence. But is it just a place for routine admin? The formation of policy strategy has often taken place more informally—in the bedchambers and hunting lodges, the corridors and closets of palaces—rather than in the council chamber. Tension between the cabinet table and sofa government is hardly new. Henry VIII’s chief strategist Thomas Cromwell was careful to keep up contacts in the privy chamber as well as in the king’s council. So don’t be fobbed off with an empty title that actually detaches you from the real scene of power.

Keeping a record

Institutions like paper trails. But rulers and advisers find secrecy very useful. Small-group based, informal, fluid ways of giving and receiving advice helpfully allow flexibility. “Secret” and “private” have often been used to condemn “evil counsellors”. But blabbing ideas round the court, or leaking them to the press, isn’t very helpful either. Paper trails do still have their uses. If only William Davison, the secretary blamed by Elizabeth I for dispatching Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant without royal permission, had had one. She said she told him to keep it secret. He said he thought that meant only telling privy councillors. Don’t be caught out by such ambiguities, even if a spell in the Tower of London is fairly unlikely, these days.

Does friendship come into it?

In the best cases, yes. This might run counter to notions of impartial advice; and it’s true that earlier ages had a sense of conflicts of interest. But for most of history the idea of friendship was associated with giving honest advice for the recipient’s benefit—exactly what a counsellor ought to be doing. Again, the classical world had a lot to say on the subject—ideas still around in the age of the Tudors and the Civil Wars. Cicero’s view of friendship wasn’t quite the same as Facebook’s. Instead it fostered a vital bond of trust between ruler and adviser. Hard to know how much to rely on this, if a scapegoat is needed in an emergency. “Bad” or “evil” advice is still all too easy an excuse for a leader to use in a tight spot. And well-meaning friends or relatives tend to be the ones suspected of meddling, even by rulers. Beware of becoming the Glencora Palliser to your prime ministerial duke.

Don’t despair

All the above probably sounds a bit cynical or—at best—impossible. How can you be courteous and frank, straddle formal and informal power structures, maintain secrecy and keep a record, trust and be cautious? The answer is you can’t do all these things all of the time. The problem is that, down the centuries, governments and citizens have wanted advisers to be able to do just that. But that’s not a reason to give up. Even if you fail to get your policy suggestion adopted, the exchange of advice will probably have been beneficial. Awareness of different views, a sense of inclusion and consultation, renewing the links between governments and citizens — advice not followed still does all these things. Having your advice accepted might better be seen as a bonus extra. If it works, that’s even better. Just don’t expect any credit for it; except, perhaps, from the historians.

Featured image credit: Princes and other statesmen: twenty portraits. (Left to right: Lorenzo de Medici, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell Earl of Essex.) Engraving by J.W. Cook, 1825. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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