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Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland departs after a meeting at the U.S. Trade Representative's office for talks on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade, on Nov. 27, 2019, in Washington.Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press

The appointment of Chrystia Freeland as deputy prime minister grabbed the spotlight at the recent cabinet announcement and raised questions about the role she will play in a reconfigured government. It’s uncertain how this will evolve, but the possibilities for future federal leadership can help us to understand sharing power in our own offices.

Donald Savoie, the political scientist who has written extensively about public administration, noted in a 1999 paper that “effective power rests with the prime minister and a small group of carefully selected courtiers” rather than his elected cabinet colleagues, who have become little more than a focus group for testing ideas. The word “courtiers” is flamboyant, catching the imagination. It’s accurate, but subtly denigrating.

Most Canadian prime ministers have had close advisers, sometimes in cabinet, sometimes not, who help develop and execute their ideas. We effectively had a deputy prime minister in the past term, Gerald Butts, the long-time friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as his testimony and text messages on the breakdown of the relationship with Jody Wilson-Raybould showed.

He was trusted to deal with her on critical issues and advise the Prime Minister on shuffling her. Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre, had senator Keith Davey, not an elected cabinet minister, and various advisers in his office, perhaps most notably Jim Coutts, who was not only not an elected cabinet minister, but also twice lost in bids for Parliament.

Most top leaders have a kitchen cabinet of advisers drawn from their formal team and sometimes elsewhere, as well as special assistants to help drive action. When those aides are young and overly officious, they can be detested. But they are not an illegitimate way of administering and can be very effective if carefully selected, to use Prof. Savoie’s phrase.

Brian Mulroney gave us another model, viewed as reflecting his corporate background, when he named Don Mazankowski as deputy prime minister and gave him leeway like a chief operating officer to get things done while the prime minister oversaw government strategy and represented it, like a chief executive officer. Some deputy prime ministers have been window dressing, but Mr. Mazankowski had significant authority, perhaps not unlike Mr. Butts.

The best look at corporate No. 2s came in the research for Riding Shotgun: The Role of The COO, by Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles. They found it a bespoke executive position, customized to the needs of the company, as well as those of the specific CEO and the chief operating officer. Seven patterns are common:

  • The executor, someone who runs the day-to-day operations: a very disciplined, operationally oriented executive who gets things done.
  • The change agent, needed when the company hits a stage in its life cycle when it needs to transform.
  • The mentor, as when Mort Topfer, a 25-year veteran of Motorola, was brought in to help Michael Dell, the young leader of the computer company he founded.
  • The other half, which occurs when the two act almost as one person. Their capabilities or responsibilities don’t overlap very much and each carries out a distinct function.
  • The partner, which Reuben Mark exemplified as CEO at Colgate-Palmolive, focusing on external matters while various COOs focused internally.
  • The heir apparent, where the COO is being trained (and tested) for top billing.
  • The MVP, the rarest, where the title is kept to retain a highly talented executive.

Some of those roles intermingle and many might apply to the Trudeau-Freeland team if they choose. Common to all is that there can be no confusion as to who is boss. When that happens, the deputy loses.

So although some of the discussion on Ms. Freeland’s appointment suggested, or carried the hope, she was donning a superwoman cloak and would save us from Mr. Trudeau (and the Prime Minister from himself), that isn’t the intention.

In Co-leaders, Warren Bennis and David Heenan looked at “great partnerships” – from chairman Bob Eaton and his long-time president Bob Lutz at General Motors, to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – and found both must be able to subordinate ego to attain a common goal. Loyalty is central to the bargain. So is courage.

They say leaders must be willing to hire deputies talented enough to replace them. In turn, those deputies have to be strong enough to speak truth to power, even when it may jeopardize their job. In the United States, I’ve found if the president and the vice-president have lunch together weekly, that can be a sign of a true partnership.

“In organizational life, those at the top need exceptional deputies as much as they need fresh air,” Mr. Bennis and Mr. Heenan write. Ms. Freeland is that new burst of fresh air.


  • Great leaders give direction, not directions, says consultant Scott Eblin.
  • Hugo, a San Francisco-based meeting note software company, has a 10-per-cent meeting rule. Staff are only allowed to spend four hours in meetings within their 40-hour workweek.
  • Research suggests that companies are judged more harshly for their ethical failures if the CEO is a woman. Interestingly, in an experiment where male CEOs were described as “helpful” and “sensitive” and female CEOs as “independent” and “strong,” the tendency was reversed, with more people being willing to buy from companies led by those women.

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