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Leading When You’re Not in Charge

The unique challenges of being a “second-chair” leader.

I’ve spent much of my leadership life sitting in the second chair. I’ve served as a program director, who reported to the clinical director; an executive pastor, who reported to the senior pastor; and a church-planting coach, who reported to the organization’s founder. In those decades of experience, I’ve discovered that being a second-chair leader is a unique role that a lot of people don't understand.

You must lead, but you also must follow. You must vision, but you also must submit your vision to the senior leader’s. You must move boldly, but you also must check in to make sure you haven’t overstepped.

In sorting out what it means to be a second-chair leader, I’ve found the most help from Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson's classic book, Leading from the Second Chair. It is the only leadership book I have read three times. The authors write that leading from the second chair is the ultimate leadership paradox: you are a leader and a subordinate, you have a deep role and a wide one, and you must be content with the present while continuing to dream about the future.

More recently, Mike Bonem brought out a shorter summary, and I like it even better: Thriving in the Second Chair. Here I answer some questions you may have about this unique role.

What qualities does it take to succeed in the second chair?

1. Chemistry with the senior leader

As executive pastor, my first role was to free the senior pastor to use his greatest gifts—leadership, vision, prayer, and preaching. I made sure he could focus. Sometimes I served as a brainstorming partner for him. This kind of close interaction works only if you and your first-chair leader enjoy working together, if you respect each other, and your gifts complement each other’s.

Sometimes the temptation for leaders is to just work on the nuts and bolts of daily work and not take time to get to know each other. We’re too busy. Or working together we feel insecurities and competition with each other. Jenni Catron in her book, Clout, states that “envy and jealousy splinter trust and cause us to live guarded lives.” It’s important for the first-chair and second-chair leaders to develop a healthy chemistry.

I encourage second-chair leaders, “Know yourself and know your senior leader.” Learn each other’s Meyers-Briggs temperament, your StrengthsFinder results, and more. Become a student of your senior leader; read what he or she is reading.

2. Courage to deal with conflict

As a second-chair leader, you need to be willing to deal with conflict. If you don’t want to do that, you probably don’t want to be a second-chair leader. That’s because I always represent my senior leader, but I also have people reporting to me who may want something quite different. Sometimes I feel like a shock absorber.

Growing up, my role in our alcoholic family system was the lost child. When everything starts to blow up or get hard, the lost child disappears. I would go play with my Barbies on my bed. I've since learned I can't just escape conflict. I have to press in to learning and using good conflict-resolution skills.

3. Competence in administration

In the second chair, you need to be administrate, build systems, and see what needs to be done--it's the gift of administration, organization. For years, my major role was to oversee the staff. I did not directly supervise everyone, but I was always involved in hiring and firing; and I made sure the staff stayed healthy. The second-chair leader must work with all kinds of people and solve problems so they don’t have to reach the senior leader’s desk. Sometimes people would ask me, “What do you do all day?” I’d say, “Solve problems.”

4. Confidentiality

As a second-chair leader, you carry information that can’t be shared because it's highly confidential--for example, information about salaries or the performance problems of a staff member. Sometimes you feel frustration with your boss, but you can’t talk about that with other people in the organization. Friends might say to me, “You seem really upset,” but I couldn’t share why. I made a commitment to my senior pastor: “If I’m frustrated with you, there are only two people I will talk about that with: my husband and my spiritual director.” I used to hate the saying, “Leadership can be lonely,” and I wanted to prove it wrong, but second-chair leadership has proven it right.

What does the second-chair leader actually do?

1. Take the pulse--know what others are thinking and feeling.

2. Amplify the vision--repeat, clarify and amplify the vision.

3. Multiply leaders—recruit and raise up people.

4. Fill gaps--if no other leader can serve in a critical role, fill in.

What is the growth edge for most second-chair leaders?

To develop resilience. As a second-chair leader, you have to do what is best for the whole. This is really hard. When something comes along and wants to crush me, I want to have a will that won't give into that pressure or just say, "Well, I'll just quit." My professional goal is to be what Jim Collins calls a Level 5 leader—someone who combines personal humility with a strong professional will.

Another growth edge for most second-chair leaders is to develop confidence. Growing up, I felt like I didn't have a mind of my own, I couldn't make a decision. When I got married, I couldn’t decide whether to make peas or beans for dinner. Fortunately, my husband was healthy enough to say, “I'm not going to make that decision for you.” I began to grow to the point where now every day I'm making decisions that affect people's lives.

What are the joys of serving as a second-chair leader?

Do you love to lead leaders? I do, and a second-chair leader is in a great position to do that. I come home energized when I've sat with my key leaders, pouring into their growth and stretching them. On one staff retreat, people were answering the question, “How do you keep growing?” One guy said, “I feel like I have a transformational conversation every week in supervision with Karen.” A young woman I hired a few months earlier said, “I grow every time I meet with Karen.” That's what I want to do: give leadership away so others can grow.

--Karen L. Miller, LCSW, is a leadership coach, and founder of

© 2017 Karen L. Miller

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