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On two-man teams (and on the current travails of Mr Brown)

For most of my life I have been fascinated by two-man teams. Much is written in the management books about the decision making and leadership skills of individuals. Much is made of teams, of about six to a dozen or so people (a dozen being reckoned by most to be about the upper limit before factionalism sets in), and about the skill of building effective teams. But less, it seems to me, is made of the partnership of two, despite the fact that everywhere you look in the world of human accomplishment, you see two-man teams, often famously named: Rolls Royce, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, Powell and Pressberger, Pratt and Whitney, Rogers and Hammerstein, Flanders and Swan… trust me, the game of naming two man teams goes on for as long as you have time to devote to it. I could have machine-gunned this posting with links, but Google is Google – another now famously accomplished two-man team runs that, I believe – and I could not be bothered. Partly this is because this is, be warned now, a rather long posting, and doing proper links would have taken me the whole day.

Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man. Time and again, the famous period of apparently individual creativity coincides precisely with the time when that anonymous partner was also but less obtrusively beavering away, contributing crucially to the outcome, and often crucially saying boo to the goose when the goose laid a duff egg. If deprived, for some reason, of his back-up man, the Lone Genius falls silent, or mysteriously fails at everything else he attempts. Think Elizabeth the First and … damn, I can not remember his name, but he was crucial, and Elizabeth was never the same after he had died. Cecil, that was him.

That literature and showbiz are so full of two-man teams is evidence of the enormous emotional importance that we all attach to these partnerships. Every TV detective, for instance, seems to have his Dr Watson figure, less inspired, but perhaps emotionally more adult, who buys the pint afterwards, soothes the frazzled nerves of the great detective, and who generally carries the can and tidies up after. For every Holmes there is a Watson, for every Morse, a Lewis. And for every Regan, a Carter. Major kudos to the late John Thaw for having participated in – having lead, actually – two very different but equally famous two-man teams of British TV coppers. Sport is full of two man teams, often because there actually are two men in the team, as with tennis doubles or two man rowing teams. But equally fascinating are the famous two-man teams that flourish within bigger teams, like striking partnerships in soccer, half-back or centre three-quarter pairings in rugby (Sella and Charvet), or opening batting (Hobbes and Sutcliffe) or bowling partnerships (Trueman and Statham, Lillee and Thompson, Ambrose and Walsh) in cricket. England’s cricket team has never quite been the same since Trescothick and Strauss were numbers one and two in the batting order, as they were in 2005 when the Ashes were last won. Trescothick left the side, and Strauss went from being a huge force to a huge disappointment. In cricket see also the Middlesex “twins”, Compton and Edrich.

Comedians often come in pairs: Martin and Lewis, French and Saunders, Morecambe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy I have already mentioned, and many more that you are no doubt astonished that I have neglected to mention. Comic duos are able to explore the endless conundra involved in being part of a more or less functional or dysfunctional partnership. Because, as most of us know, partners often do not especially like each other. Simply, they both need each other for either of them to accomplish anything. Gilbert and Sullivan could hardly stand the sight of each other by the end, and had a long period when they each tried to make a go of it separately. Only the need for money, and the less well remembered crutch to their two legs, Richard d’Oyly Carte, brought them together again.

In my own line of business two-man teams abound. In the free market activism, think-tank trade, it is noticeable that success and successful partnership have a habit of going hand in hand, if you will pardon that mostly very inappropriate way of putting it. IEA: Harris and Seldon. Rumour had it that they never really liked each other that much, but the IEA has never been the same since age put an end to their partnership. ASI: Pirie and Butler…still going quite strong, but are their glory days over? And, though I say it myself, Libertarian Alliance: Tame and Micklethwait. This latter two-man team got under way in the early 1980s and lasted for somewhat more than a decade. Much of what I know about two-man teams – what they are, how to become part of one, how to operate within one, how they end – I learned from being half of that dynamic (at any rate as I tell it) duo.

I have been calling these teams two-man teams, but of course by man I really only mean person. Many a showbiz team has consisted of a man and a woman, often portraying a romantic magic that was singularly lacking in their real relationship, or which faded far faster than they pretended in public. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were never romantically involved for real. And I often read, although I have never dug into the details, that the real-life relationship between Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn was a whole lot more, er, convenient than it looked on the screen.

Okay, two man teams are very important, but so what? Well, that is it really, they are very important. If you can have a good one in the centre of your life, lucky you, because your life will work a whole lot better and, with further luck, will be a whole lot more fun. But a little more than that can be said, and in this posting, I will end by saying how you can analyse the future prospects of an enterprise by asking a few two-man-team-related questions. Questions like: Is there a two man team at the top at all, or is the boss up there on his own? And, if there is a two man team bossing the enterprise, what sort of two man team is it?

Actually, those two questions merge into one. I recall reading something by the late great management thinker and writer Peter Drucker, to the effect that the only current measurement of the working of a big business enterprise that had any predictive power was the ratio of the top two salaries. The closer that ratio is to one, Drucker said, the better. The absolute level is unimportant. What matters is whether the top two guys are paid roughly the same, or amounts that are seriously different. If the top salary is way above the number two salary, watch out. The top guy probably thinks he is God, and there is no one around to tell him different. Expect hubristic catastrophe. If, on the other hand, the number two man gets three quarters of what the number one man gets, that probably means that number two man can look number one man in the eye and tell him, as and when, that he thinks whatever it is is daft. There is a degree of mutual respect in place. The load is being shared, and each tells the other the truth as he sees it.

Many books have been written that emphasise the similarities between Hitler and Stalin, but during the war, there was, I recall reading recently, one huge difference. Hitler never had a single respected number two figure, but Stalin did. Once again, I do not recall the name. Something-ishitskty or -ishinsky or whatever, but maybe quite different. He was the military chief of staff or some such thing, and Stalin talked everything through with him behind the scenes, and never at any point in the relationship had him shot. Churchill had his Alan Brooke, who, when push came to shove, he allowed to keep him on the rails. Roosevelt? I do not know, but I bet there was someone. Harry Hopkins was it? But the point is: Hitler had only insignificant flunkeys – Keitel, known as “Lackeitel”, lackey, was one of these creatures, I believe – who dared not tell him any truths at all.

To switch to our own time and our own excitements, and on the clear understanding that I am not calling either of them Adolf Hitler, is it too fanciful to speculate that the fortunes of the New Labour regime have moved from the Blair-Brown era, which, for all its faults and oddities, basically worked, to the Brown era, when the whole box of tricks caves in on top of everyone?

The first half of that equation will be very controversial here at Samizdata. If that Blair-Brown relationship “worked”, it did so in the sense that it achieved things that most of us here loathe. It presided over a relentless degradation of the quality of the public sector and an equally relentless increase in its cost. Between them, these two put in place, as Sean Gabb has been saying for a decade, the machinery of a police state. But, for as long as the two of them were in office, they got away with it, more or less. Politically, that means that their relationship worked. Meanwhile, an equally unlovely two-man team of another kind, involving Blair and Campbell, also worked successfully.

Now, politically, the Brown era is a disaster. And I think it entirely reasonable (a) to speculate that Brown’s basic problem is that he has no one beside him whose judgment he respects and who is doing anything resembling half the job, and (b) to predict that if Brown does manage to pull it together again and survive his current travails, it will be because he acquires someone to stand next to him who is able to look him in the eye and tell it like it is, and to share the load and the big decisions, not just about the country, but about how Brown conducts himself in his day-to-day politicking.

Maybe Brown’s understanding of his current place in the world will make such a relationship impossible, in which case, politically, he is now doomed.

Much more could be said about two-man teams, indeed I have a whole new gob of two-man-teamery already written, but I will leave that to another posting.

16 comments to On two-man teams (and on the current travails of Mr Brown)

  • “Every Prime Minister needs a Willy.”

  • Nick M

    Roosevelt had George Marshall. He prevented Marshall from becoming SCAFE because he was just too damn useful in DC. Instead Eisenhower got the job.

  • Nick M

    Actually, just like General Melchett, Brown has his Darling.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    That is a great post, Brian, lots of food for thought. Couple of quick points:

    Business. Look at the current messes at places like Merrill Lynch, Citi, Northern Rock, etc. I would be interested to use Peter Drucker’s point about salaries for the top folk at any of these firms to see if your point holds – I bet it does. The other problem here is what with such firms, the pool of talent among those who can take over if the top man cocks up is surprisingly shallow. There is something seriously broken in how banks, etc, get people into the senior positions where they can run the show if Mr Big screws up.

    You talk about teams of two but the most obvious one surely is marriage. Take Gordon Brown: I wonder if his wife, who on the face of it is no idiot, has had the mettle to say to her hubby that he is making a horlicks of things? The late Denis Thatcher was one of the few people who could ever tell Maggie if she was in the wrong and get away with it.

    Other sporting duos: Matt Busby and Joe Murphy (Man United manager and deputy); Brian Clough and Peter Taylor (Nottingham Forest in the European Cup years); Bobby Robson and Bobby Ferguson (Ipswich Town, winners of FA Cup and UEFA Cup); Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Aussie bowlers.

  • Wrong analogy,this lot is Curly ,Larry and Mo,in any combination.

  • Johnathan

    Thanks for the kind words.

    That great further gob I mentioned, of two-man team stuff that I have held back for another posting, is all about marriage.

    Plus, I might attempt another posting about the importance of two-man teams for the Ancient Romans. Romulus and Remus, TWO Consuls, etc. Trouble is I don’t know enough. Paul Marks?

  • Tedd McHenry

    There is a book about Colin Chapman that traces the success of the Lotus F1 team and correlates it to the eras of the various men that served as the number two person on the team (after Chapman) — the thesis being that Chapman’s creative genius needed a feet-on-the ground engineer to turn it into racing success.

    I wasn’t successful googling the book. I can’t remember the author’s name, either, but I think it might have been Alan something-or-other.

  • Paul Marks

    Your own two man team was very good Brian.

    As for the Romans – well you know what Romulas did to his brother.

    Generally having two commanders in charge of an army was not done to improve military performance, it was done to prevent one man having the total loyality of the army and turing in against the Republic.

    The policy was stopped because the poorer of the two Generals would tend to something really stupid on his “day of command” – for example Varro.

    But the old principle was seen to make political sense when first Marius and then Sulla (and then…..) turned an army into their personal property.

    In war there tends to be ONE commander if things are going to go well – “unity of command” is a central principle.

  • Bernie

    Very interesting post Brian. There is a book in there if you care to write it.

  • Sam Duncan

    Good point, Tedd. And you only have to look at this season’s championship to see what happens when the two-driver partnership in an F1 team turns sour.

  • The visionary + fixer arrangement is described in Fred Brooks’ 1974 classic on software engineering management, The Missing Man-Month, by quoting several pages from Heinlein’s The Man who Sold the Moon (the bit where Harriman arranges for Berkely to take over all the engineer Coster’s administration tasks)

  • Sparta was governed by two kings at the same time, and was very successful (in its psychotic way) in terms of longevity and maintaining its political power.

  • Paul Marks

    There were indeed two Kings in Sparta – although, I seem to remember, only one was sent out with an army at a time.

    The Royal families were also NOT put through education system that other full Spartan Citizens were put through – apart from the last King of Sparta (before its fall from greatness) who was, and he had the narrowness of vision that one might expect.

    However, real power in Sparta lay with the five Ephors.

    Five is a good number for a governing council

    Unlike in the civil activities that Brian mentioned, two equals in politics or war will plot against each other.

    That was the point of having two Kings or two Consuls – so they would act as a check on each other (and inform on each other).

    Remember it is not a President and a Vice President – they are two equals.

    Even three rulers plot against each other – normally two will gang up on one and then turn on each other (this happened several times in the dying years of the Roman Republic).

    A council of four can lead to deadlock.

    A big council leads to endless debate and confusion.

    Five seems to be exactly the right number.

    Still American experience is mixed.

    New Hampshire is well governed – and it has a Executive Council of five.

    But Maine also has an Executive Council – and it is badly governed.

    The lowest but one taxed State (the lowest taxed State being Alaska) next to the highest but one taxed State (the highest taxed State being Vermont).

    Still neiher the New Hamshire system (an E.C. elected by the people) or the Maine one (an E.C. elected by the State Legislature) really produces something like the old Spartan Council of Five.

    The Ephors not only kept the Kings (Governors in New Hampshire and Maine) under control – they kept the Assembly under control as well.

    We snear at the Spartans – and yes the treatment of the Helots was unforgivable. But the system did last for centuries.

    I doubt ours will.

    Of course one of the oldest nations in the world still keeps up the tradition of two chief executives.

    Tiny San Marino.

    Which has had two “Captains-Regent” for….. well I do not know how long for. Both elected for six months – even more exteme than the Roman practice of annual election, or the old American one of State Governors being elected for two years (the switch to four years was a mistake – a mistake the New Hampshire wisely did not make).

    And San Marino does not have Helots. Indeed, as far as I know, people have not been legally “tied to the land” there since the fall of the Roman Empire (if they were then – there are stories of how this out of the way place was self governing even before the fall).

    Zug, one of the oldest Swiss Cantons (and these days the lowest taxed) never had serfdom either.

    Too many old states plundered the peasants to feed the townsfolk at fixed low prices – I do not believe that San Marino or Zug ever did that (Aristotle would have been pleased with them).

    Sadly most places did – even ancient Republics like Lucca.

    Although, I believe, that Venice was not in the habit of plundering the mainland areas she controlled.

    Venice – the Republic that lasted a thousand years (a wonderful mix of checks and balances that still left the government effective enough to defeat threat after threat). And not as a small out of the way place either – but as one of the best known states of Europe.

    1797 was a black year.

  • Roosevelt had his wife, Eleanor.

  • Paul Marks

    Eleanor Roosevelt – with her vastly subsidized socialist town (supposedly applying principles that were to be established all over the nation and the world), and her demands that the Russian section of the State Department be got rid of and its files destroyed (in fact the files survived) so that the lady and her “liberal” friends could pretend that they did not know that the socialists in Russia were murdering millions of people.

    Yes Eleanor made F.D.R. look good in comparison – he could look “pragmatic” in contrast to his dogmatic wife. Shades of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or Slobbo and his hard line (in fact openly Marxist) wife in Serbia.

    Of course now the media are presenting Hillary as a “moderate”. In spite of the F and 0 ratings Senator Clinton gets from the Taxpayers Union and the various government spending watch dog groups, and the near 100% ratings the Senator gets on her voting record from the collectivist groups.

    Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s even the New York Times, which had agents of Stalin on its staff, did not try and present Eleanor as a “moderate” – the modern media is shameless.

    Still – two person teams:

    Bad for command unless one is clearly deputy to the other – but good as two people fighting together.

    Such as two brothers fighting foes – one can “watch the back” of the other.

    This is as true in the criminal world as it is in any other form of combat.

    Even political mental combat – as Chris and Brian showed.

  • Alsadius

    The one that springs to my mind first is Chretien and Martin, who were PM and Finance Minister respectively in Canada from 1993 to 2002. They never got along at all – in fact, they fought an incredibly bitter leadership race in 1990, and Martin spent the next 14 years plotting for Chretien’s job – but they won every election they contested, and did some pretty good things on the financial front for a pair of Liberals. The Chretien government continued until late 2003, but it was never quite the same, and when Martin took over the leadership, he transformed near instantly from a pretty stern, determined finance minister with a tight-ish rein on the public purse into Mr. Dithers, who made a habit of throwing tens of billions at any problem he could find and listing a minimum of 50 issues as his top priority(not an exaggeration – there was a list of something like 58 issues he’d described as such). He was supposed to be the next great hope of the party, the guy who could win the biggest majority in Canadian history, and he proceeded to drop to a minority in his first election and lose outright in his second.

    I don’t keep close enough tabs on British politics to know if the similarity to Blair/Brown is coincidence or real, but it certainly seems similar.