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What would be a word for a leader who rules from behind the scenes?

The most obvious one to me seems "puppeteer" but I feel like it has this strong implication of "direct control" to it which does not particularly fit what I need.

I'm looking for a word (or phrase), that would describe a leader that from a first glance does not look the part. Perhaps even proactively seeks to conceal his leadership through deceit.

  • Have you googled your idea? – Kris Feb 11 '15 at 7:28
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    How about kingmaker – crowne Feb 11 '15 at 11:19
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    While sounding more like something from a game, but "Shadow ruler" could be a common-day phrase, like for example from this "Time" article: content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,725077,00.html – Allan S. Hansen Feb 11 '15 at 13:42
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    The Pierson's Puppeteers refer to their leader as the "Hindmost." He (/she/it, it's complicated) is selected for showing impeccable brilliant cowardice. – user9383 Feb 11 '15 at 20:59
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    I think "shadow-something" is the most common/generic term (where something is king/president/whatever). – Hot Licks Feb 11 '15 at 22:15
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One phrase: The power behind the throne.

Another: éminence grise, which though French is used in English.

From Wikipedia:

An éminence grise (French for "grey eminence") is a powerful decision-maker or advisor who operates "behind the scenes" or in a non-public or unofficial capacity.

This phrase originally referred to François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Leclerc was a Capuchin friar who was renowned for his beige robe attire (as beige was termed "grey" in that era.) The title "His Eminence" is used to address or refer to a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.1 Although Leclerc never achieved the rank of Cardinal, those around him addressed him as such in deference to the considerable influence this "grey" friar held over "His Eminence the Cardinal".

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I've heard both Shadow government/ruler and Man behind the man to describe what you want to say.

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From the question title, my first inclination was towards notions of "puppeteer" or someone "pulling the strings" of power, but it seems you have rejected that. Here are two more suggestions for a politician who does not have a formal role but who retains power and influence.

Back-seat driver is far more general than the political context; it may be "used allusively for any person who intervenes with advice and instructions". It can have a derogatory sense similar to armchair general, i.e. that the person may lack relevant experience and is unqualified to make their suggestions. However, it can be applied to experienced, veteran politicians who are keen to make their influence felt.

"I shan't be pulling the levers but I shall be a very good back-seat driver." (Margaret Thatcher, 27 November 1990, following her succession by John Major as British Prime Minister)

Alex Salmond was accused of being a “backseat driver” yesterday – by dictating SNP policy weeks after he quit as the party’s leader. The former first minister demanded Westminster hand Scotland all powers short of foreign affairs and defence. (Daily Record, 16 December 2014)

More akin to éminence grise is backroom operative. Here "backroom" is being used in the sense "marked by the exercise of inconspicuous control and maneuvering". Note that while éminence grise has a second sense of "an eldery ("grey-haired") personage who is renowned for past accomplishments, and now acts as an advisor rather than a principal actor", and even in the sense of a powerful decision-maker is, I think, generally applied to an elder statesman, a backroom operative might be a younger and lesser-known figure. It seems to span a range of meanings from a shrewd negotiator and political wheeler-dealer, to someone whose power stems from control of internal party procedures:

Silver is one of Albany’s most storied political figures, a consummate backroom operator with the power to single-handedly decide the fate of legislation. Along with the Senate majority leader and the governor, he plays a major role in creating state budgets, laws and policies in a system long criticized in Albany as “three men in a room.” He controls, for example, which lawmakers sit on which committees and decides whether a bill gets a vote. (Associated Press, 23 January 2015)

Mitch McConnell may soon be one of the most powerful people in America ... He is a formidable fund-raiser, strategist and backroom operator. He is unafraid of being disliked (he once referred to himself as Darth Vader, although he more closely resembles a retired librarian). (The Economist, 1 November 2014)

Inside the Brotherhood, Morsi has long been a backroom operator who dealt with security – often liaising discreetly with the Mubarak regime – and internal discipline. Little-known to the wider public, Morsi is a famously boring speaker who reduces Egyptian journalists to teeth-gnashing frustration as he rarely says anything remotely quotable. (The Guardian, 25 May 2012)

These examples all suggest political power greater than their formal position alone would indicate, that the exercise of their power is discreet or shadowy, and (as the question requires) they need not "look the part" of a traditional political frontman. I'm not sure that "éminence grise" would apply, except perhaps for Silver.

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One who

  • calls the shots
  • pulls the strings

describes what you're after but although they are frequently used when talking about someone who rules behind the scenes, they don't automatically imply that.

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    They do if you put the word really before them. – Mazura Feb 12 '15 at 3:58
  • Yes that's a good point - it didn't occur to me at the time. – mungflesh Feb 12 '15 at 14:11
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Svengali?

I've heard this word use to describe a power behind the throne. It was used in the press to describe Steve Hilton, a one-time advisor to David Cameron.

Until looking it up just now, I hadn't taken there to be any anti-semitic connotation, and certainly none was intended in the article I read about Hilton. Perhaps on these grounds the word is best avoided, but it is certainly used by some to mean a figure who controls things from behind the scenes...

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Vizier

Although this word doesn't directly mean this (it just means advisor), it has strong connotations in fictional settings of someone secretly manipulating literal authority figures.

The examples that most readily jump to mind for me are Jafar from Aladdin and the Vizier from Prince of Persia.

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    Jafar came to mind while reading the question. – Mazura Feb 12 '15 at 3:53
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This I believe this was also the role of "The Man Behind the Curtain" in the movie The Wizard of Oz

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    This answer cries out for a little bit more explanation. Especially to those who have actually managed to sit through the movie all the way to the end. – Andrew Leach Feb 11 '15 at 11:20

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