Leading from the Second Chair

In a world where it seems like everyone is clamoring for first place, being second-in-command can feel more like being last-in-importance. But there is a specific calling for those who are in “second chair” positions. Particularly in faith-based organizations, it’s a unique post with unique opportunities to show Biblical leadership and live out faith principles. Much like a second chair violinist or First Mate on a ship, the quality of a No. 2’s performance is crucial to the success or failure of the organization.

Most Biblical heroes are revered as the person who calls the shots, but a commonly overlooked fact about Daniel is that though he did great things, he was not the one in charge at first. He was second-in-command to Nebuchadnezzar, for whom he interpreted dreams. Daniel played a crucial role in Nebuchadnezzar’s rule and decision-making. If it weren’t for him and his loyal service both to the Lord and the king, history may have looked very different.

The Second Chair has an opportunity to affect change in a tangible way. To do so, his or her position must consist of four main characteristics: clarity of the role, leading or managing out of relationship rather than leveraging position, keeping the First Chair maximally informed and minimally involved, and loyalty (not exploiting the position).

 
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The clarity of the role is important because it allows a Second Chair to perform his or her responsibilities to the fullest without worrying about overstepping or underachieving. When the roles of this position as well as the First Chair are clearly defined, it minimizes conflict, particularly when it comes to miscommunication or unmet expectations.

Leading out of relationship rather than leverage fosters a positive work environment and a culture in which employees want to work hard and contribute, as opposed to one built on fear or negative pressure.

Keeping the First Chair maximally informed but minimally involved is essentially the Second Chair’s job in a nutshell. It frees up the First Chair to make well-informed important decisions without wasting time in the trenches, and it allows the Second Chair to have agency in guiding the day-to-day while keeping the First Chair in the loop.

Loyalty is crucial to being an excellent Second Chair leader. A division between First and Second Chairs is essentially a crack in the foundation, which will ultimately lead to bumps in the road for the organization. Sticking to the tasks at hand and helping the First Chair do his or her job well is more important than getting ahead.

Being an effective and extraordinary Second Chair leader also requires four internal character qualities: spiritual integrity, purpose-driven excellence, spiritual discipline, and above all, a servant’s heart.

Spiritual integrity is important for any believer, but especially so for leaders in faith-based organizations. As a leader, one may be asked to make some difficult decisions — ones that call into question Biblical beliefs or may cause friction within the organization. In these situations, one must rely on his or her spiritual convictions and not waver, even when there is no easy answer. Remaining true to one’s beliefs and enduring the results is the mark of a good leader.

Purpose-driven excellence is key to staying the course when advising the First Chair or managing the rest of the team. Keeping the ultimate goal of serving the Lord, and also the company’s professional goals, in mind will fuel the pursuit and achievement of excellence in the day-to-day.

A leader must also cultivate spiritual discipline in his or her own life. If one is not maintaining a personal relationship with the Lord and growing in faith, it will be increasingly easy to stray from the path ahead and increasingly difficult to lead others in faith.

Finally, a servant’s heart. Without a humble attitude toward serving others, even in a leadership role, a tendency to skew towards exploiting power, resentment toward the First Chair, or creating a habit of harsh or distant relationships with those being led may creep in. Any of these qualities would be detrimental to the success of the organization and the success of the Second Chair’s leadership.

Cultivating these characteristics will allow an individual to both lead others and serve the First Chair well.