By Mike Bonem
If you ask a second chair leader what he or she “does,” you might hear a long list of tasks. These include managing and developing staff, creating systems for more effective ministry, and working with leadership teams, along with a variety of special projects.
But if you ask about their greatest contribution to the organization, and give them a minute to reflect, their answer will typically point to their ability to think and act strategically.
Effective second chair leaders operate with a time horizon that is longer than today. They are making decisions based on the bigger picture. They are looking ahead, trying to prepare for the future and anticipate obstacles that could impede the organization’s progress.
If you are not a born strategist, this description might be too vague or philosophical. You might know that someone on your leadership team needs to think and act strategically, but you are looking for a more concrete understanding of how to do this.
Let me offer four phrases to paint that picture
#1: Thinking strategically means adding value throughout the organization. This is what separates the second chair leader from other roles that are more narrowly focused on a specific area of ministry. Strategic thinking asks the question, “How can we best make progress toward our God-given vision?”
To effectively answer this question, you must consider the bigger picture that spans the entire church or ministry and that looks over the next several months or even years. “Adding value throughout” is a mindset, not a specific job title. Even someone who has functional responsibility for an individual department can have organization-wide impact by thinking strategically.
#2: When second chair leaders are thinking strategically, they act as leaders, not managers. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus coined this often-repeated distinction, explaining: “Managers are people who do things right, and leaders are people who do the right things” (Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge). A manager, in this framework, tends to stay within the boundaries and follow established procedures.
Leaders, on the other hand, will challenge those boundaries and procedures if they believe that there is a better way to accomplish the mission. Leaders are not content with the status quo. But, effective leaders don’t make change just for the sake of shaking things up. They do so with the long-term mission in mind. An organization needs both, and second chairs often must function as managers, but strategic thinking calls for them to wear a leader’s hat at least some of the time.
#3: This kind of thinking requires a second chair to spend time above the weeds and below the clouds. Most second chair leaders spend at least part of their time working on detailed, short-term issues. But if all of your time is spent in these “weeds,” it’s impossible to be strategic.
It is equally unproductive to spend all of your time “in the clouds,” thinking about the highest level of vision. This might happen because it’s where a visionary leader likes to live or because a leadership team has developed a habit of pontificating but not making practical decisions. High-level vision is important, but you can’t be effective if you stay in the clouds.
The space between clouds and weeds is the realm of strategy. A church might have a vision to be the resource of choice for families in its community. But, what kind of family or need do they have in mind? What specific programs will they offer? Will they partner with other churches or agencies? These are the kinds of strategic questions that must be answered to move toward the vision. They should not be confused with “weedy,” tactical questions such as space requirements for one of the programs or job descriptions for the person leading the ministry.
#4: That leads to the final phrase: giving feet to the vision. One of the hallmarks of second chairs that think strategically is that their churches and ministries are not stagnant. They are moving toward a vision with intentionality. They are setting priorities and allocating resources based on their understanding of how they can best achieve the vision.
Having “too many chiefs” can cause problems in any organization, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that suffered from being too strategic. Thinking and acting strategically is an opportunity for second chair leaders to thrive, and for their churches or ministries to soar.
Mike Bonem is a consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father, who loves to help ministries and leaders reach their God-given potential. He is the author of Thriving in the Second Chair and 3 other books on ministry leadership.
This article is an excerpt from Bonem’s new book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge).