Why Second In Command Can Have More Influence Than The CEO

Being at the top doesn’t necessarily mean being the one in charge.

Why Second In Command Can Have More Influence Than The CEO
[Photo: Flickr user Fraser Mummery]

What if second became the new first in leadership?


Society today is obsessed with the limelight and CEO superstars, including Mark Zuckerberg, IBM’s Virginia Rometty and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. This focus on the top dogs devalues the crucial role of countless counselors, coaches, and deputies who lead throughout organizations. The implication is if you’re not striving to be number one, then you must lack ambition or the guts to give it a go. “He’s a good number two” is often a deliberate, damning assessment of someone’s unsuitability for the hot seat.

Being second in command need not be a step down, or a step back. Actually, it may be your first choice. Times have changed. New generations of aspiring leaders, for whom career ladders do not exist, see lateral moves as opportunities to progress. Each new job is a chance to test a different leadership muscle, whether as project or team leader or as a quiet contributor to the collective leadership endeavor.

Leadership As A Lateral Adventure

In fact, millennials see opportunities for growth and leadership in new ways that extend beyond the hierarchy. Their evolving attitude and appetite for multiple jobs in their lifetime is supported by data from the Emerging Leaders Program at London Business School. Leadership today should be viewed as a lateral adventure–not a linear journey.

Every organization needs its ultimately accountable leader–its A to make final decisions on core elements of strategy and execution, but every A needs a powerful and diverse team of C leaders beside them: legitimate consiglieri who act as lodestones, educators, anchors, and deliverers. These consiglieri are ambitious, talented leaders in their own right: happy to be accountable yet driven by motivations that are fundamentally different from A leaders. They crave:

  • The time and space to think
  • The opportunity to create and shape outcomes
  • The satisfaction of helping others

All of the above is more energizing to them than the A’s thrill of having to make the final call.

We need to end some of the unhelpful conventions of hierarchy and instead divide responsibilities more sensibly with A and C leadership. The more I have shared this idea with leaders in business, sport, politics, the military, education and the arts, the more relief I sense from many of them. Even the most ambitious, serial A leaders confess–at least in private–coveting a C role at some stage in their future.


What It Takes To Be A C Leader

If you’re an aspiring leader, the key is to determine what kind of leadership role best suits your personality, your immediate and long-term career development, and your sense of adventure. It is easy to want the top job. It’s much more complicated to know whether being the ultimate decision-maker is right for you. Deciding how much you agree with the following assertions may help to guide you:

1. “First The Worst, Second The Best.”

Being the all-singing, all-dancing, all-powerful number one may be the worst position for some leaders to play. Management books may obsess about the number one and our culture may continue to perpetuate the “winner takes all” myth. In reality, unless you want the adrenalin of always-on action and thrive in the brutal glare of the limelight, you may get more joy from and have more impact leading from the shadows.

2. A Defining Characteristic Of The Great C Leader Is Their EQ, Not Just Their IQ

All leaders–whether they be A or C types–must be credible, competent, and inspire confidence. Cs, like As, also make things happen. The distinctive characteristic about Cs who operate behind the scenes, such as counselors, coaches, advisors, and fixers, is their depth of emotional intelligence. They can read a room and a situation. They can read people. They are able to influence and persuade their peers without needing overt authority. They also take immense pleasure in seeing other people succeed.

3. Lucky Leaders Are Those Given The Time To Reflect And To Be Creative

Leaders in the top spot face a relentless, “always-on” pace that demands decisions be made on the spot. Those who lead beyond the limelight should be “often-off,” with opportunities to flex their intellectual, creative, and operational muscles. They take pride in their ability to counsel, enlighten, and anchor others. They are afforded that rare indulgence–time–for these pursuits.

If any of the above tips appeal to you, then a C leadership role should be in your sights. Even if you think you would wither on the vine without the chance to wield power, do not rule out a C role. We are conditioned to believe from an early age that you’ve got to be the team captain, but the captain doesn’t win games alone and the best teams are full of leaders. Are you one of them?

Life is short. Everybody owes it to themselves, as the chief executive officer of their own development, to make sure they operate from a position at which they’re good and effective, but also one which brings them real energy, enthusiasm, and passion. You can be part of the C change in leadership.


Richard Hytner is deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi and an adjunct professor of marketing at London Business School, where he graduated as a Sloan Fellow in 2003. His new book is Consiglieri: Leading From The Shadows.