Hypercompetent Sidekick / Real Life

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     Politics 
  • Historians of Nazi Germany note, that Adolf Hitler enjoyed cultivating this trope to his benefit. He enjoyed playing the charismatic leader whose patronage and support was the sure, and accessible, path for lower-level and ambitious generals to reach to the top. This was codified by Ian Kershaw as "Working Towards the Führer" after a memo put forth by a low-level underling:
    "It is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the , to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Führer along his lines and towards his aim will in future as previously have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work."
    Werner Willikins State Secretary of the Prussian Agriculture Ministry, 21/2/1934
    • Heinrich Himmler (himself the pretty incompetent sidekick to Adolf Hitler), the man who supposedly carried out the Holocaust, had Reinhard Heydrich who carried out and created many of the ideas of the Holocaust. He was so vicious, it is said some of the Nazi officials who were his subordinates were more afraid of him than Hitler. This makes sense, as he created the concentration camps and the rest of the Final Solution.
    • Heydrich had a general tendency to be this - Hitler used him for literally everything. Olympics? Hitler put Heydrich in charge of preparing for them. Governing Moravia? Heydrich was made the governor of a territory with a vibrant resistance movement and compromised the resistance entirely. Running Interpol? Heydrich perverted it into being a vehicle of Nazi policy.
    • Hitler had several of these, something which was not hard to accomplish. The most notable examples would be Erich von Manstein, Erwin Rommel, and Gerd von Rundstedt. Manstein was the general who masterminded the Fall of France, a command he achieved by butt-kissing and buttering up Hitler in a personal meeting, which allowed him to leapfrog several rungs over the pre-established chain of command.
  • Vice Presidents was originally a ceremonial and even place-holding title. It's more active and busy in recent American history:
    • Vice President Walter Mondale was this to Jimmy Carter, serving as Carter's troubleshooter (particularly in foreign affairs).note  Richard Nixon filled the same role for Eisenhower. Prior to Mondale and Nixon the vice-presidency was little more than a ceremonial posting, and usually a dead end for a political career.
    • Vice President Dick Cheney was widely lampooned as The Man Behind the Man to President George W. Bush and is thought to have been the architect of a lot of his foreign policy. It was even common among Americans who did not think well of the Bush Administration to insinuate that it was, in fact, the Cheney Administration.
    • Joe Biden as VP to President Barack Obama personally oversaw the Stimulus Package, which was carried out with remarkable competence and efficiency, with funds directed towards investment in multiple parts of the economy and towards renewable energy. Biden also jumped-the-gun on the White House's open support of gay marriage and LGBT equality, which Obama had previously taken a cautious wait-and-see approach before finally committing himself to. In the 2012 Election Debate, after an initial weak showing in the debate against Mitt Romney, Biden was widely credited for rescuing the campaign back on the advance in a much-praised performance against Paul Ryan.
    • It's believed that some of Nixon's achievements in policy were put forth mainly by his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help him opening relations with China, negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, and masterminding the coup of Salvador Allende. Of course some historians have qualified this, since much of the information comes from Kissinger or his associates.
  • Australian deputy Prime Minister Paul Keating was arguably this to Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Despite bring a high school drop out, he was the architect of far reaching economic reforms that changed the entire way the economy functioned. He did all this while the Rhodes scholar Hawke acted as the lovable, yard glass chugging head of the Labor party.
  • Alexander Hamilton served as this to George Washington during his Presidency and the early part of Post-Revolutionary America. Washington wanting to cultivate a non-partisan reputation often had Hamilton promulgate his policies and views, being that he was a much better political street-fighter, with a way for words, and knowledge of political science than Washington did. Historians often note that his career rose and fell with his association and patronage of Washington, and that he never entirely managed to step out of his mentor's shadow, since without Washington backing him, Hamilton's great personal flaws came to bit him badly, and he ended up burning all his bridges, torching his few friendships (such as with Aaron Burr) and then triggering a duel which got him killed.
  • In Red October, there is Leon Trotsky, a Menshevik and critic of Vladimir Lenin who finally supported the latter during the Russian Civil War. Trotsky was Lenin's second, and the founder and leader of the Red Army which Lenin was proud to note was more or less willed into being in a short-span by Trotsky after the Bolsheviks had originally disbanded the army following their seizure of power and signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky was incredibly intelligent, incorruptible, and capable, but he was also proud, haughty, and unwilling to suffer fools (and of course he was Jewish, which despite Lenin's best efforts, would not quite be forgotten). Upon Lenin's death, Trotsky's personal unpopularity, and general lack of political skills (which Lenin had) left him vulnerable to Josef Stalin, and got him chased out of USSR. Even in exile, Trotsky while attracting a number of admirers and well-wishers, generally failed to show the same organizational elan that Lenin did when he created the underground movement that eventually took power, and while he's considered by some a more complete intellectual than Lenin, others lament that he lacked the particular knack for daring, improvisation, and luck that defined his patron's career.
  • Che Guevara was this to Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution. In the guerilla war, he was a good strategist, fierce disciplinarian, and a good tactician. As a bureaucrat and manager in the post-revolutionary regime, he had his moments at least in organization, but made errors. As a revolutionary leader in his own right, he failed utterly, with aborted and half-hearted campaigns in the Congo, and Bolivia to his name, with the only thing to speak of being a romantic "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner against a CIA-Bolivian Firing Squad.
  • In the modern history of China, you have Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In the early '30s, Mao and Zhou were equals and if anything Zhou was the senior to Mao, being a major leader of the Shanghai Communist Cell (which was purged by Chang Kai Shek and was in fact the first Communist cell started in China), leading several counter-purges against the nationalists in the late '20s and early '30s. Then Mao triggered the Long March and became the senior Communist leader of China, drawing Zhou into his orbit. Nobody knows for sure how close their friendship was, or if their relationship was ever more than professional (on account of the stone wall in China on this period of history), but both of them were the foundations of the modern Chinese state, with Zhou somehow still being respected (cited by Deng Xiaoping as a mentor and genius) even if he more or less washed his hands clean of the Cultural Revolution and led Mao's excesses continue unfettered. Zhou Enlai was considered in The '50s and The '60s the great diplomat of Communist China, and considered by Henry Kissinger to be one of the most intelligent and impressive men he has ever met.
     Military 
  • To a degree, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and J. E. B. Stuart were this to Robert E. Lee. Lee was certainly no slouch, but at Gettysburg, with Jackson dead and Longstreet at odds with him, Lee made some major tactical blunders that are often interpreted as his having become dependent on a team of Hyper Competent Sidekicks he could trust with the details of carrying out his orders.
  • This happened a lot during the later parts of The Roman Empire, especially in the 5th Century West, where ineffectual emperors were backed by military strongmen. Not all of them were constructive, but a few of them pretty much kept the West from falling apart immediately, most notably Aetius and Stilicho. Their deaths didn't bode well for Rome. Even the East had this. Flavius Belisarius was the famed general of Justinian the Great and a fantastic commander.
  • Claudius was this to Caligula. At least for the first six months, when Caligula was sane. The jury's still out on after that; but it was only by accident that Claudius became emperor at all.
  • Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was this for Octavian, later Emperor Augustus. While Octavian was a highly competent administrator, he needed someone who could match wits with Mark Antony on the battlefield and come out on top. That was Agrippa. He managed to absolutely crush not only the remnants of the conservative resistance to the Second Triumvirate, but also obliterate Antony's forces both at sea and on land. It is widely accepted that Octavian may never have become emperor if he did not have Agrippa handling the military side of things. After he became Emperor, Agrippa successfully parlayed his skills into civilian endeavours, becoming a major sponsor of infrastructure and public works, and other buildings.
  • A frequent occurrence in Prussia/Imperial Germany from 1812-1918. Field commands were traditionally given to high-ranking nobles, who were raised for the task but nevertheless had varying levels of competence. After Prussia's crushing defeat to Napoleon at the Battle of Jena (1806), Gerhard von Scharnhorst was put in charge of reforming the Prussian military, and came up with the idea of retaining the contemporary social structure, while cleverly undermining it by forcing the Field Marshals to co-operate with their Chiefs of Staff, who were appointed on Scharnhorst's advice. The most notable example of this was Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who became a national hero and public icon during World War I, even though most of his decisions were made by the obscure no-name Erich Ludendorff.
    • In practice, Hindenburg had never been a very competent officer, and he had already been retired in 1911. The master strategist behind him and true brain behind the victory at Tannenberg was Colonel (future General) Max Hoffmann. Both had been decorated for the battle, Hoffmann promoted to General and Chief of Staff for Eastern Front Armies, yet the propaganda system gave the full credit to the old Prussian General and turned him into a national hero.
      • As the chief of staff in the Eastern Front, Hoffmann would pull off another one, masterminding the defeat (and collapse) of the Russian Empire while Prince Leopold of Bavaria was nominally in charge.
    • What Scharnhorst wanted to counteract most was the fact that especially in an army that went to war as infrequently as the Prussian one, high command tended to go to long-serving officers who had proved their bravery and gained some merit and done nothing wrong so bad to diminish their claim to command by virtue of their accumulated seniority. The system also allowed the commander and his chief of staff to complement each other. For instance in the Wars of Liberation General (later Field Marshal) Gehard Leberecht von Blücher supplied the more flashy courage, charisma and a natural talent to hold impromptu speeches to inspire his subordinates - including non-Prussian ones - with the strategic, tactical and administrative know-how of his chiefs of staff Scharnhorst and August Neithard von Gneisenau. There also was an interesting, effective synergy between the impulsive and audacious Blücher (it was an important factor that he was one of the few allied Generals who was not scared of Napoleon) and his somewhat more cautious chiefs of staff.
    • Another notable case was Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian Chief of General Staff in the wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870-1871), when the (nominal) commander-in-chief was Wilhelm I of Prussia. In fact, a number of pundits and experts (including Friedrich Engels) had tipped the Austrians as most likely to win the war of 1866 because the Prussian army was led in the field by its uninspiring and militarily unremarkable king, while the Austrian was led by a general of proven worth. (Another factor that led people to fatally underestimate the Prussian high command was Moltke's age - he was born in 1800).
    • Much the same in Russian Empire also. The nominal commanders-in-chief was either the Tsar himself or one of his close relatives (e.g. Grand Duke Nicholas, a cousin of the Tsar Nicholas II, at the beginning of World War I). The trouble is that Russians often did not have a competent general who would act as the de facto commander. (Soviet Union continued this trend during World War II: Stalin (at least in the latter half of the war, when the Soviets were really winning) was the nominal commander-in-chief. The actual military command was exercised by Zhukov, as the Chief of General Staff.)
      • Ivan Konev was in turn Zhukov's Hypercompetent Sidekick, being just as talented and more intimately involved with the actual fighting.
     Professions 
  • This is the typical situation in many modern militaries when you have wet-behind-the-ears junior officers fresh out of training placed in charge of units with NCOs who sometimes have been serving longer than the officer has been alive. The general wisdom is that while the officer makes the decisions (and bears the responsibility for those decisions) and can overrule the sergeant appointed under him, a good officer will consider the sergeant's advice whenever possible.
  • Sherpas for mountaineers, especially Tenzing Norgay for Sir Edmund Hillary, as noted elsewhere. Small subversion in that Norgay DID become famous, and Hillary gave him all possible credit.
    • It's worth noting that the famous photograph from the summit of Mt. Everest is, in fact, a photo of Norgay since Hillary was the only one who knew how to operate the camera, and standing on a mountain peak at 29,000 feet is not the time or place to try and give photography lessons.
  • This can occur with examples of Ass in Ambassador, since (in the case of the United States) the actual ambassadors to friendly countries like France and England are given the jobs as political favors by the president, while the actual nitty-gritty day-to-day running of the embassies/consulates/what have you are done by career Foreign Service Officers. The career FSOs, i.e. the ones who've made a long life out of doing the job, are often considered equivalent to high-ranking military officers in terms of authority and expertise.
    • Pretty much the entire civil service in the United States operates this way: agencies and departments are nominally run by political appointees but the day-to-day work is done by career professionals, some of whom have served through multiple administrations and even more appointees.
     Arts 
  • The Duke Ellington band was an amicable partnership between the extroverted Duke and Billy Strayhorn, the major songwriter. Ellington was the showman, while Strayhorn was the trained conservatory musician, serving as the band's secondary pianist and Ellington's partner in songwriting. Ellington and Strayhorn had a knack for writing or arranging songs tailored specifically for the strengths of the musicians; it was noted that musicians tended to play better under Duke than on their own. Ellington's work schedule was also affected because he was almost continuously touring, giving him little time to finish many of the things he started, so he'd get Strayhorn to finish them instead, which Strayhorn was happy to do. Strayhorn got more attention after his death, with Duke Ellington giving him a tribute album, ...And His Mother Called Him Bill, and for the fact that he was a rare example of an openly gay Jazz giant, and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr..


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