The Importance of Being Second.

In a world driven by being the best, it takes a hell of a lot of resilience to be second. To be second best, but not give up. To be second in command, advising on big decisions but not aim for the top rung. To be the backing vocalist, never sing the lead and still sing, anyway.

The Importance Of Being Second
Business leaders talk often about the power of cohesive and supportive relationship between a Number One and a Number Two. Just the other day, I had this conversation with a Managing Director who talked about the value of his Number Two. Cohesive, supportive and encouraging relationships that are also commercially successful require shared mutual outlook, mutual benefit and a clear understanding of mutual strength and weakness. Both have unique responsibilities required for wise decision-making and management. Very few great leaders exist without one or many Number Twos. We make critical errors if we forget that Number Ones need Number Twos, or that Number Twos are as important as Number Ones.

I’ve had a chance to be a Number Two several times. They have been enriching, rewarding experiences and once, it was harrowing and soul-destroying. It’s not just how you think of yourself, or how a Number One thinks of you – but it’s also how the World perceives the value of the Kingmaker, versus the King. Yet, kingmakers are sought after by the wisest of those in positions of power. These leaders who surround themselves with other talented people empower and enjoy the success of the cohesive whole.

But how do you become a great Second?
I remember being 20 years old and driving home from a band practice with a girlfriend. It had been a particularly rough session where I wasn’t on top of my game. I asked her, being a musician and vocalist I really respected, if she thought I was actually talented at all. She said bravely, ‘Well, I think you’re good at what you do but you’ll never record an album or anything.’

Fifteen years later and I remember it clearly – the crisp smell of a cold Spring night creeping into the car and trying not to let the pain show. If I’d had a dream to record any songs of my own, it was stripped in that moment and took years to return. It’s the same feeling I had when I missed out on creative writing awards at school. Always good, but never the best – therefore unrecognized and out of mind.

The thing is, I didn’t want to be better than anybody else, I just wanted to be myself. But we see people and ourselves through the lens of talent competitions that determine talent and ability in ever decreasing circles, competing against one another instead of ourselves.

It takes a lot of resilience to live as second, without being to feel ‘not good enough’. To live as Second is not Second-Best. Second is a role, second is a position that has it’s own unique requirements. It’s not a judgement. The self-awareness required to understand yourself and your ability to be confident in your own talent is typically not nurtured early in our development, rather left to emerge as a result of character-building experiences. Those experiences might teach you your place in the natural order of things, but they don’t always result in a stronger sense of your own voice.

It takes a lot of courage to accept that success is not a pre-determined set of factors. In the same way we must do the work of establishing our unique voice, we must also define success in ways that are meaningful to us.

The challenge of our schooling structures is a substantial focus on identifying what students are best at by means of defining possible vocational choices. Rather than honing and developing ways for young people to establish expressions of their own talent and voice, we throw them into ranking examinations, grading and fierce competition often before we’ve helped them do the work of identity formation.

The more competitive your work environment, the harder it will be to do the work required to establish strong, healthy identity. People love stars, as long as they are delivering big wins. To be good at anything requires a consistent effort in a series of habits that are grounded in your unique talents. You might call this finding your voice.

Why is it so hard?
Because our culture does not understand what talent really is. It confuses talent with being the best of many versus being the best of one. On who can beat out the competition. Embracing your talent and your unique identity is embracing the strength to be second to some or even many but to be entirely yourself.

To know your voice and speak out loud, clearly. Philosophers have expressed this as ‘Know Thyself’. But we need to find spaces to do this work without a cultural demand for competition and a hierarchy of winners overtaking.

So become resiliant. Become sure of your voice, become sure of yourself and what you are capable of achieving from any position.

Second Is Not For Always.
There are some who thrive as Second, forming unique partnerships that deliver success in an ongoing way. But Second is not for always – as with so many things, position is a strategic choice. A healthy Number One/Number Two relationship might thrive and provide deep satisfaction commercially and in life but there may be times where you choose to take on a different kind of role. The resilience to be Number Two, alongside a constructive awareness of the different requirements gives you ample fuel to adapt and achieve in a variety of different roles.

Practical Advice:

  1. Get to grips with your unique abilities and strengths. Be sure of what you are really competent in.
  2. Practice working in teams and learn how you do that best.
  3. Find a great partner or Number One. Someone you have great chemistry with, trust and who increases your capability and influence. Someone who has different strengths than you.
  4. Define your strategy and goals – both achieving professional success by working together and supplementing the abilities of the other. Identify a goal you want to achieve.
  5. Work hard on a variety of projects and challenges, even side projects to flex your ability to support, encourage and enhance the capability of your twosome team.
  6. Check your ego on a regular basis – critical self-assessment, let your teammate observe and give constructive feedback and vice versa. Analyse and look for ways to improve your team communciation and outputs.
  7. Read and gather insights on personal development, leadership and strategy. Discuss with your teammate regularly. I’d suggest subscribing here for regular short bursts on the subject.

As someone who works with people in a leadership role, I am convinced that our job should be refinement of talent, not establishing talent. Those who encourage and lead others should give significant portions of their time and effort to helping people find their voice and unique expression. Our investment in people’s voice should be a commitment to fostering identity formation and growth. In giving people the resilience, confidence and self-awareness to be Second.

What do you think?

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