the shape of leadership

Thriving in the Second Chair

Finding the right ways to say “no” and “yes” can help second chair leaders extend their shelf lives.

Mike Bonem on May 2, 2017

Does a second chair leader have a shelf life? Can a person’s effectiveness in a secondary leadership role have an expiration date, like a stale loaf of bread on the grocery store shelf?

Sometimes second chair leaders face a dilemma: stick around despite decreasing impact and satisfaction, or leave. But these are not the only options. In their best-selling book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers Chip and Dan Heath refer to this as “narrow framing.” It’s what happens when someone narrows a decision to a simple yes-or-no question, such as, “Is it time for me to leave?” The Heaths say it’s important to widen your options.

Second chair leaders often find themselves doing all sorts of things that weren’t part of their original job descriptions. New duties pile on, but nothing falls away. It’s like turning on the water to fill the sink. At first, the sink has plenty of capacity for more water. But unless the drain opens, the water eventually overflows, creating a huge mess.

Saying “no” can help extend your shelf life. Of course, it’s rarely that simple. The most obvious — but often the hardest — option is saying “no” to those activities that clearly do not align with your abilities and priorities. It may be an invitation to show up at every event or meeting. Determining when to say “no” requires self-examination, greater awareness and often an accountability partner who will challenge you to establish boundaries.

At other times, the answer isn’t quite as obvious. When a real need exists and you have the ability to meet that need, it is difficult to say “no.” But turning down a worthy cause can also free up time for more significant things. Simply saying, “Let me get back to you” may give you the space you need to make the best decision.

Second chair leaders often find themselves doing all sorts of things that weren’t part of their original job descriptions.

In many cases, you can say “not me” without saying “no.” A willingness to pass the responsibility to another staff member or volunteer is a great way to say “no” without shutting down an idea. Like opening the drain on the sink, it keeps your schedule from overflowing, even as new priorities are coming in. Besides, sharing responsibility develops other leaders and communicates trust in them.

But what about those times when you and the entire team are overloaded, and the new request is from your first chair? Can you say “no” to your boss? In many cases, you can.

The best scenario is to sit down with your supervisor and review all the different things on your plate. Explain how the new request pushes you well beyond 100 percent, and ask for help with setting priorities or taking something off your plate. Even better, propose a solution that preserves organizational priorities and doesn’t burden your first chair.

While many second chair leaders are reluctant to have this conversation, it often produces a positive outcome. It’s not uncommon for a first chair leader to remark, “I didn’t realize you had so much going on” and then to shift some responsibilities.

Even if the outcome isn’t this positive, it is still the right conversation to have. You know your workload better than anyone else, and you should know the point at which workload becomes overload. You know that your family will pay a price if you don’t say “no.” It’s rare for someone else to say “no” on your behalf.

While each person and context is unique, I am confident in saying that second chair leaders often need to say “no” in one way or another, even in respectful or subtle ways, to their first chair. And I am confident that getting clear about when to say “no” creates opportunities for you to say “yes” to things that may be life-giving and mission-critical. Finding the right ways to say “no” — and “yes” — can help second chair leaders extend their shelf lives.

Adapted from Mike Bonem’s book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge), Abingdon Press, 2016.

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