Review of Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, Leading from the Second Chair: Serving your Church, Fulfilling your Role, and Realizing your Dreams (Jossey-Bass, 2005).
I had heard much about this book before I read it, and it did not disappoint. This is a common sense and helpful approach to being a leader when you are not in the position of power and control in an institution. As an account of leadership, it recognises the leadership of an individual, is responsible in terms of the needs of the organisation and intentional in helping people to own what they are doing. As a second chair leader in two different roles within the Church, and as a former first chair leader, I found this helpful. As someone responsible for the development of clergy, I will often turn to this as a resource.
Bonem and Patterson organise their reflections around three paradoxes. Each reflects some of the tension of being a leader but not being in charge. The first hits this head on; it is the paradox of ‘Subordinate – Leader’. Here they point to the importance of the relationship between the first-chair and second chair leaders. Trust and respect are important. Time spent (by both first and second chair leaders) in building this relationship is important. The other feature of this paradox is that of living with ‘the line’. ‘The line’ is how responsibilities and authority are defined in the relationship between first and second chairs. It needs to be found, because it is not simply written in a role description. It should not be crossed, and when it is there is an erosion of trust between first and second chair. The line can be moved, but only with time and trust. ‘The line’ is essential the boundaries of the relationship between first and second chair. Some of this is based on role, but much is based on the personal needs of the individuals.
The second paradox is that of ‘deep – wide’. It defines the nature of a second chair leader. Those in the second chair need to be spread widely through the organisation, offering leadership throughout. But they (unlike the first chair) will have specific areas that they need to know in depth. This is, simply, hard work. It means seeing the big picture and always working in that light. It means detailed attention to specific areas for which the second chair leader is responsible. Priority must be given to supporting the first chair leader and to thinking of the whole organisation ahead of any specific tasks. Bonem and Patterson offer some concrete examples of how to be deep and wide. They suggest building teams and valuing diversity is important. The second chair leader needs to be able to speak into the whole organisation. That means building relationships across the team, not to impose authority but to support, help and affirm. Four practices are at the heart of working in this paradox: taking the pulse of the organisation; amplifying the vision of the first chair leader; identifying and recruiting new leaders; and filling gaps. As I said, hard work!
Finally, second chair leaders must work with the paradox of contentment and dreaming. This speaks to the internal struggles of second chair leaders. They need to hold contentment in where they are and what they are doing together with their aspirations about what might come in the future. Rather than a romantic and unreal picture of contentment, Bonem and Patterson speak of contentment as “your choice to stay and grow and excel, for a season, regardless of current circumstances” (p. 124). Recognising that some situations are unbearable and call for resignation or departure, they nonetheless see contentment in owning the decision to occupy a particular role (or chair). There is a vocational aspect to this paradox, a calling to the current role and a calling that need not end at the current role.
Alongside these three paradoxes, Bonem and Patterson weave two things. One is immensely helpful – a series of ‘words to first chairs’ on each of the paradoxes. These encourage first chair leaders to work with their second chairs to enable them to develop and grow. They helpfully identify points of tension between the chairs and remind first chairs that they too have been and are second chair leaders. These are really valuable sections. Less valuable is the use of the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) which is referred to throughout the book. This is offered as a Biblical grounding of a second chair leader. It feels a bit bolted on, and the story made to fit the conclusions. I was particularly worried by the way Joseph taking Egyptians into slavery for Pharaoh ( Genesis 47.51) is offered as an example of Joseph turning the famine into “a tremendous opportunity for Pharaoh” (p. 68). Perhaps an example of leadership losing its moral compass would have been better drawn from this!