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Can You Really Lead From The Second Chair?

I asked my good friend Greg Smith, Operations Manager at Catalyst Church in Queensland to write a book review on a book he found really helpful, Leading From The Second Chair by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson.

Can You Really Lead From The Second Chair?

Leadership is essential in growing a healthy church, and for that matter, any organisation that is advancing forward.  Much is taught on this topic in the way of books, blogs, mentors and conferences, all dedicated to equipping leaders to diligently develop the skills that will help them lead well.

One of the quandaries that I have often reflected on is that leadership in the second chair is fundamentally different from first chair leadership. Can you really lead from the second chair?

lead from the second chair

Photo courtesy of Manu praba(CC Attribution)

In most of our churches and organisations, there is a key leader, the Senior Pastor or the CEO who carries much of the responsibility for leading the direction and vision of the organisation, yet most of us aren’t called to function in this 1st chair leader position.

Especially in church situations, as a church grows there is an ever-increasing need for other leaders to be empowered, to carry the vision and be part of outworking it, but there are some unique challenges that these leaders face.

In their book, Leading From The Second Chair, Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson address this topic in a refreshing way.

Based on real experiences, they give voice to three common tensions that 2nd chair leaders face that affirm and provide practical help not just to 2nd chair leaders, but also to 1st chair leaders that want their 2nd chair leaders to thrive.

leading from the second chair

Photo courtesy of Thomas Leth-Olsen(CC ShareALike)

They define a second chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization.”

Second chair leadership is not strictly based on the power and authority of positional leadership and isn’t necessarily a linked to an organisational hierarchy, staff role or perceived pecking order, but is more related to their level of influence and ability to work with the senior leader in assisting translate the vision into reality and add value right across the organisation.

There may also be multiple 2nd chair leaders in an organisation.

You will likely be a second chair leader if this describes you:

  1. Your tasks are always changing.
  2. You work in a trust-based relationship with the key leader.
  3. You possess a broad skill set and are resourceful in solving problems.
  4. You see the needs of the organisation and act on them.

The authors express the unique nature of second-chair leadership through a framework of three apparent paradoxes.

“The subordinate-leader paradox recognizes that those in the second chair are called to lead, but they also answer to a supervisor. They learn to lead without being at the top of the organizational pyramid because they understand their authority and effectiveness are dependent on their relationship with their senior pastor.

The deep-wide paradox acknowledges that second chairs have specific roles that are narrower and deeper in scope than those of the first chair, and yet they need to have a broad, organization-wide perspective. They need to be strategic thinkers; and, at the same time, manage a variety of ministry areas with excellence.

The contentment-dreaming paradox calls for second chairs to take a long-term view. They can have dreams even though they are not in the top position; but, they also need to discover contentment as God shapes their lives and guides their paths in the present.”

In my personal journey, I’ve definitely experienced these tensions in both my marketplace and ministry roles.


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The practical insights provided in this book have been a real encouragement to me and articulated these tensions in a way that has helped me process and express these challenges in a way that others can more readily understand.

I would highly recommend this book for any leaders who, like me, want to lead from the second chair.

A final comment from Mike Bonem:

 ‘Senior pastors, if your ministry is to thrive, you need capable and passionate second chairs to serve alongside you. We encourage you to reflect on the gifts and abilities of your subordinates; but, more than that, reflect on the ways you can change the organizational culture to enable second chairs to flourish. Find them, uplift them, and release them to lead to their fullest potential. As you do, God will bless you and them.’

Thanks Greg.

Want to learn more about leading from the second chair?

Check out this post How Second Chair Leadership Played Out In The West Wing

John is a wellspring of information, experience and advice in all things church. His responses were often out of the box of what's been said before.
Ps Christie Blaikie
Oasis Church

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