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7 Ways to Attract First Chair Leaders to a Second Chair Position

By September 10, 2019July 9th, 2020Call to Ministry, Church, Leadership

I always advise young leaders, if they can, to sit under a seasoned leader for a while, learning all they can, before they venture out on their own.

Of course, that’s not always the advice a young, ready-to-go leader type wants to hear. I get it, since I was one of those younger leaders. And we learn mostly by failure, so there is something to be said for jumping out on your own, “getting both feet wet”, and starting something new.

Once I was visiting with a group of leadership students talking about this issue. Most were studying for ministerial positions within the church. They had been studying the concept of first chair and second chair leadership, so this prompted a good, obvious question.

How do you attract (and keep) “first chair” type leaders into a “second chair” position?

(If needed for clarity, the first chair leader usually has a title such as C.E.O., President, Senior Pastor. Second chair leaders have a title such as C.O.O., Vice President, Associate Pastor.)

The group followed that question with another equally good question.

They asked if I felt I could ever again be a second chair leader. At this point, they knew my history. I’d been a first chair leader for well over 20 years.

My answer to the second question first. Yes. I could be a second chair leader. My answer to the second question is the point of this post.

Here are 7 ways to attract (and keep) first chair leaders in a second chair position:

Remove the lids

The real reason most people resist the second chair is they don’t want to be limited in how much they can achieve. Good first chair leaders are willing to get out of the way and let people around them lead. And that’s even if the second chair person’s success gains more notoriety than the first chair.

Empower individual dreams

If a second chair person feels the freedom to dream big dreams – even individual dreams – they’ll be fueled to continue in the role. They may have to be empowered to work on dreams which are even outside the vision of their current organization. Of course, they still need to meet all the requirements of a good second chair leader, so there should be loyalty to the place where they are currently serving in the second chair.

Let the leader build a team

Second chair leaders, who are qualified to be first chair leaders, need to have the freedom to build their own teams. They should be able to recruit and lead their own people.

Of course, an overall vision must be maintained and ultimately the vision holder is the first chair leader. But if the second chair leader is on board with the vision – give them room to build and lead their team.

Invite their input into larger decisions

This is huge. Second chair leaders who could be first chair leaders want to play a part in the overall strategy and implementation of the organization. They have ideas, energy and want to make a difference. If you want to keep them you have to give them a seat at the lead table.

Give them a voice

This goes with the last one, but not only should they have a seat at the table,  their input should matter. Their opinion must make a difference in the overall direction of the organization. The weight of their suggestions must be valuable in making final decisions. Hyper-controlling leaders will have a very hard time with this one, but it’s critical to retaining the best “first chair minded” – second chair leaders.

Don’t Micromanage

This one probably goes without saying, but many senior leaders I know need to hear it again. The best first chair leaders don’t micromanage anyone. This is especially true if you want to attract the first chair leader types into the second chair. Again, they should be working for the same overall vision of the entire organization, but if you want to keep them, get out of their way and let them do their work.

Extend recognition

Don’t hog the credit for all the wins. Celebrate and let them be celebrated by others.

Closing thought: 

Let me be clear, as I tried to be with the leadership students, there are exceptional second chair leaders who never desire to be first chair leaders.  I’ll be transparent enough to say without some of them I am very ineffective as a first chair leader. You don’t want me in the first chair unless I have some good second chair people around me.

If you want to attract and keep first chair leaders in a second chair position – I hope this post helps.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • todayslead says:

    great great stuff – thank you for sending this out!

  • todayslead says:

    This is a great list! What if you flipped it? A few areas that could lose a 2nd chair leader?
    Being a 2nd chair leader for 8 years I've found that many of us face the same issues with our senior leaders. I have also found that only in extreme cases does this lead to a departure, but understanding what a 2nd chair "needs" could avoid miscommunication and a feeling of frustration.

    1- not give honest feedback – I know that we all want to say that we “want” honest feedback, but I truly do. You want to show me that you value me, then be honest when I ask how I am doing. I like to ask these three questions; 1 – Am I doing anything you don’t want me doing? 2 – Am I doing anything you want me to do more of? 3 – Is there anything I am not doing that you want me to start doing?

    2- not support their decisions – We all know the horror stories of people going around you to the top in order to get what they want. Being a 1st chair leader in a 2nd chair that screams “I won’t stick up for you” to me. It is my job to make sure that I deflect anything negative, protect my senior leader, even take the “hit” sometimes for decisions that he may decide in order to protect him as the pastor. However, every once in a while there will be an opportunity to either support the authority of your 2nd chair leader or protect yourself. Please, return the favor.

    3- allow backdoors – on the same path, don't have relationships that go around the authority of your 2nd chair leader. It is one of the quickest ways to make a 2nd chair leader feel like they are not valued, and not a critical part of the organization.

    4- not listen to their needs – we are unique people. Believe it or not, as second chair leaders we are having put aside a lot of personal ambition in order to see the senior leader’s vision become successful. Its in this place that sometimes there will be needs that we will voice to our senior leaders. Please listen to those needs. Most 1st chair leaders serving in a 2nd chair role are rarely complainers, rarely asking for anything for themselves – so when they do, pay attention.

    5- assume their loyalty – this sounds bad, but it speaks of a lack of gratitude when a leader begins to assume loyalty. Spend the time and the investment to keep up with the relationship. It is an investment that will return many times more than the time it takes to be grateful.

  • ZimChristian says:

    Africans need this………….

  • ronedmondson says:

    I'm working on a post for next week on how to know you're a first chair leader — or ready to be. There isn't a time I don't think, but there is a certain maturity I would look for. I think we often know if we are ready, but sometimes need someone to affirm is in it. But, think of it like this. You're leader of your own home now. Chances are you don't have it all figured out yet either — some days you may even feel overwhelmed with the pressure, but you're far more prepared than when you were in high school or just graduated. Aren't you glad you waited? Hope you are well Dan. 

  • Hey Ron, I loved this post. I had a couple of follow up questions. How long do you typically recommend a young first chair leader sit in the second chair? Obviously it depends on the individual and the leader, but in general there is always more to learn. What process would you go through to evaluate when the young leader seems ready to branch out? Thanks! Miss sitting in the chair under you!

  • Over the last two years I've been blessed to have two high capacity leaders step up to lead each of my classes as the 2nd in command. Far more ministry has gotten done, and it's removed an enormous weight off my shoulders. Like you said, by giving them a voice, freedom and not micro-managing has empowered them to do great things.

  • John Armstrong says:

    Really great post, you nailed the details!!

  • Brian Jones says:

    Ron this is a strong list. Just about every person on my team could be leading in a first chair elsewhere. The lessons here don't come easily for those of us in the first chair though. Thankfully second chair leaders, if they are strong leaders, recognize that, and help open up doors gracefully.

  • Keith says:

    Thank you.

    Unfortunately in 40 years I have seen this happen correctly and effectively only once.