What if more of us were like these 3 amazing #2s?

I have been exclusively coaching pairs, almost always the top two in their organizations. Typically I begin by “onboarding” them in the sense that the two will retreat with me for a couple days – after they have been working together for just a few months, or sometimes right from the get-go.  I help them align, talk openly about their hopes and concerns, and strategize on how they can bring out each other’s best (and manage their not-so-best tendencies).  They have been teaching me so much about the power of pairs, as well as the art that goes into unlocking that power of two.

Three #2s have amazed me. (Please note, as my colleague John Gillis reminds me: #2 is intended purely as descriptive of a hierachical structure, while the whole point of leading by two is that the pair treat each other as fundamentally equals, two #1’s.)  All three represent two phenomena. First, a fairly common reality that unfolds in organizations. Second, a rather uncommon form of leadership.  I offer them as models for both phenomena.

All 3 of the amazing #2s “happen” to be women. In each case, they were the #2 or, in one case, one of the key direct reports of the CEO or ED, and all had over a decade (one had over 20 years) experience at the organization.  The #1 at their organizations retired, and they each put in for the top job. In each case, they became one of the two finalists but were passed over in favor of an outsider. Their boards and former #1’s lobbied hard to retain them (with money, title changes, etc.).

Oh, did I mention that all three were women? And all three were passed over in favor of men. This is not some open-shut PC sexism case. These three men were and are excellent leaders. I admire them. Each has a “visionary” and “strategic” aspect to them which I’m sure their boards found attractive. Still, the situations are troubling. So often this #2 COO type has neither been asked nor even allowed to be visionary, is placed in a role that demands that they break some eggs inside the organization, and are then demerited for one thing they weren’t asked to do, and for one thing that only they had the courage and discipline to do. This reality, especially as it relates to women, needs to be questioned by every head-hunter, board, and succession planning group.

The second phenomenon I have witnessed in these three women is what Jim Collins called “fifth level leaders” in his renowned Good to Great.  Collins famously told his researchers, who were looking into companies that “made the leap from good to great,” that he didn’t want them to come back and say it was “leadership.” He thought that answer was trite, unscientific, subjective. But when he and his researchers found leadership did undeniably matter, they were able to focus in on just what kind of leadership it was. And Collins described these level 5 leaders as having “personal humility and fierce resolve.”

That is what I have seen these women bring as I have coached the pairs over the past couple years. After being passed over, they accepted, adjusted, and now continue to advance.*  There is a dynamic with their partner. For in our onboarding sessions, each of the three men evinced that same “personal humility,” readily acknowledging their #2s experience, skills, and then actively looking for ways to promote the #2 (one of which ways is to openly say to others that “she and I are leading together.”)

Four things are most fascinating about this dynamic, and they apply well beyond these top-two’s, giving insight into how we all relate in so-called vertical, or top-down relationships:

  1. These women have fully made the shift to being #2 when it is important for the organization.  I am wary of sweeping gender generalizations, but I think women have much to teach men about this humility.
  2. When and as they are empowered – and this must begin with the “boss” in such dyads – their voices are fully heard.  These three men knew there was something arbitrary about their getting the #1 job, and that the roles could have been flipped.  Their humility-in-practice allows these women /#2s to fully spread their wings, including pushing back very openly with the #1. (Our clearing the air of the unspoken truth that “he got the job she wanted” is no small part of generating this open communication.)
  3. These three women profoundly understand that there are symbolic roles the top dog plays and they support this role-playing he is involved in. In these organization, both leaders know both: It’s just a role AND it’s an important role.
  4. It’s as tough – perhaps tougher in many ways – to be #2, as it is to be #1.  One of the greatest benefits of leading by two is access to a sounding board for ideas, and kindness for the soul. I am struck by how these pairs are reciprocally generous.  That makes work so much better, as they

Lead with their best self.



*I attribute this line, “accept, adjust, advance” to Joe Caruso, leadership coach.

  • Dan, I’ve been in 2 different situations: one in which I was hired from the outside as CEO of a small non-profit organization, instead of the existing #2…and who I retained as my #2, because I valued him; the other in which I was the #2 (COO) of a larger non-profit organization, someone else from the outside was hired as CEO, and he and I had a very productive relationship. In both cases, the #1 and #2 people had very different personalities and played off each other in ways that benefited the organizations.

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