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How Second Chair Leadership Played Out In The West Wing

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Mike Groves is a good friend of mine who got inspired by a recent post by Greg Smith about second chair leadership. Greg asked (and answered) the question, can you really lead from the second chair?

Mike is an astute marketplace guy who resonated with the post so I asked him to pen a post for me on the exact same topic.

I think you’ll love his work.

How Second Chair Leadership Played Out In The West Wing

There is a scene in The West Wing when the President is preparing deliver his State of the Union address. Traditionally, one Cabinet member must remain in the Oval Office during the speech in case something catastrophic happens and the President (or the rest of Cabinet) doesn’t return.

In an intensely private moment, the President reassures the nervous young Agriculture Secretary about what his first decision should be: to appoint a chief of staff; his second chair.

“Do you have a best friend?”

“Yes.”

“Is he smarter than you?”

“Yes.”

“Would you trust him with your life?”

“Yes.”

“That’s your chief of staff.”

 

Greg Smith’s insightful blog about Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson’s Leading from the Second Chair unlocked a long-held belief I’ve had about leadership: there’s almost too much attention on the big chair.

Don’t get me wrong, training and mentoring leaders is essential. But until now, little has been written to guide, inspire and assure those of us who occupy the second chair.

We’re here for a reason and it isn’t because we aren’t good enough or ambitious enough for the top job.

We simply haven’t been anointed for high office. Success will be limited and the organisation could be at risk if we haven’t had the cloak thrown over our shoulders. (And we don’t get to choose when that happens.)

Leaders receive, refine and reinforce an organisation’s vision and strategy. This is their strength and where their focus should be.

Second chair leadership requires insight and wisdom not always available to the leader.

We see things our leaders cannot.

We respond to situations very differently. We are usually calmer.

We hold a position which allows us to tell our leaders what they don’t want to hear or aren’t being told.

The second chair is a specialist position to be treasured rather than shirked. It should be honoured rather than considered to be a lesser-than, leader-in-training role.

Effective number twos have what it takes to lead up and down the organisation, always with the leader’s vision at the forefront, as well as the leader’s welfare. We know when they’re tired, when they’re not at their best.

We carry a load unique to our role and should be recognised for our loyalty. Our leader tells us their inner most thoughts which they can’t express to the team. We see their vulnerabilities and their faults.

Recently I edified one of our pastoral team to our lead minister, whose response was as gentle as a breath. His heart spoke. Of his number two he said “I’m at my best when he’s around.”

That’s your chief of staff.

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