Leading from the Second Chair

I have been reading Leading from the Second Chair1 by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson. The book is designed primarily for those who will lead in a church context as executive pastors; yet, the insights within the book are valuable for anyone who leads or serves in any organization. This post will not be a review of the book but rather a description of concepts which I have found helpful.

The main premise of the book is that second chair leaders live within three apparent paradoxes: subordinate-leader, deep-wide, and contentment-dreaming. They suggest that a great second chair leader will get good at both ends of each continuum and will live within the tension of the two extremes. They say that the greatest second chair leader of the Bible was Joseph, in Genesis 37-47, who rose to be second in command of all of Egypt by living within these paradoxes.

The essence of the task is that of servant-leadership. They compare it to waiting tables.

Leading from the second chair is like waiting tables. We must strive to give our senior leaders great service. Yet sometimes in haste, aggression, or inexperience, we run ahead of our first chair and become an annoyance – or worse. Instead of receiving excellent service, the first chair ends up washing dishes, so to speak, in some sort of damage control situation. As a subordinate, learn to take note of how your leader wants to be served. Strike the balance that allows you to excel in your service to your first chair and to the rest of the organization. Be the kind of waiter whose customers are delighted to reward with a large tip. Preston Mitchell said it well: “Every great leader has to have leaders supporting him or her. They can’t do it alone.” We must strive to be servant leaders, putting others’ needs, wants, and desires ahead of our own.2

Bonem and Patterson quote J. Oswald Sanders who said, “The spiritual leader of today is the one who gladly works as an assistant and associate, humbly helping another achieve great things.”3 That could be the goal of every coach, manager, and leader. We serve by helping others to become all that God is calling them to be.

The book emphasises that good leaders are good followers. “If a leader can’t be a follower, he can’t be an effective leader. . . [and] Great leaders are ultimately great followers.”4 The authors make the point that great leaders create space for others to become leaders.5  As leaders, we must not feel threatened when others become greater and we become lesser.

They ask an important question that gets to the heart of our working relationships: “Would I rather have the right answer or the right relationship?”6 The answer to the question will not always be simple but it is always the right question to ask and the bias must always be toward relationship whenever possible.

Toward the end of the book they go on to speak of dreams. They ask a series of questions.

What are your dreams? In your heart of hearts, what do you long to see God do in and through your life? How has God challenged you to reach your fullest potential to accomplish those dreams? These questions lie at the heart of your leadership journey. They drive your sense of destiny and purpose in life.7

In coaching others, I have often queried my clients with the similar question, “What is it that God is calling you toward?” These questions are important questions to ask ourselves as we serve and lead others. Whether or not you take the time to read this book, I hope that you might at least pause to ask yourself a few of these questions so that your life of service may be in greater focus.

1 Bonem, Mike, and Roger Patterson. Leading from the Second Chair. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
2 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 41)
3 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 28)
4 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 29)
5 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 106)
6 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 34)
7 (Bonem and Patterson 2005, 136)

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