To play the role of sidekick, to accept the status of second banana, however substantial the rewards, nonetheless requires certain gifts of temperament: one must be prepared to subsume one’s interest to those of another, to settle for less in the way of attention and glory and other of those prizes that men and women, in their well-advertised vanity, have always striven for. One must, in short, be ready to let go one’s ego.
— Joseph Epstein, “You Probably Don’t Know Me,” A Line Out for a Walk
It was a mild shock to me when I finally admitted to myself one day that I was born to play the role of second-in-command at most. The shock was in the admission, not the knowledge, and it was more stimulating than jarring. From a starting position deep inside the hole of taciturn introversion, I had climbed up to the level ground of basic sociability by my teens, but I was always inescapably aware that I generally wanted nothing more than to be left alone, overlooked and ignored. At work, I was never happier than being set to a clearly-defined task and left to do my thing; I was like a bloodhound with a fresh trail to follow. Being a satellite technician was one of the most grueling, maddening jobs I’ve ever had, but the best times were those where my boss and I teamed up on installations. We joked about being buddy cops, and when time permitted, he preferred to have me along on his job sites as his partner. If it had been possible to maintain that arrangement, who knows, I might still be doing that work today.
Making order out of chaos is its own reward. But there are a million books about every facet of leadership and becoming a leader; there are none that I’m aware of that examine the strategies and pleasures associated with being the reliable right-hand-man that every leader depends upon. Cultural narratives emphasize ambition and renown; steady, unglamorous work is necessary, of course, but it’s something left for, you know, other people.
Roger Kimball wrote about P.G. Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, that
Ethel was not the brains of the family, exactly, but she was clearly its senior management: treasurer, executive secretary, and CEO. She took entire charge of Wodehouse’s affairs, and, Donaldson observes, “stood between him and the rest of the world in all things, except those which most immediately concerned his work.”
…Wodehouse himself was the opposite of mercenary. As long as he had some pipe tobacco and could be left alone with his typewriter he was happy.
I count myself blessed to have a similar situation with the Lady of the House. We both look at the other with awe and gratitude for doing what we would each find intolerable. She does the senior management, I do the grunt work. We fill gaps. Perhaps that particular context of love and trust is the only one in which egos can be symbiotically intertwined.