Leading When You're Not in Charge


This post originally was written for Distant Mentor blog at www.distantmentor.com.

As long as I can remember I’ve always been a second chair leader. I feel at home giving my creative best while leading from the second chair, which compelled me to launch a podcast dedicated to celebrating creative and courageous second chair leaders called The Second Chair Leadership Podcast. A listener once asked, “Is second chair leadership a thing or did you make that up?” 

It’s a fair question that deserves some attention.

Like this listener, most people I know imagine leadership as an either/or scenario where a choice must be made. There are leaders and there are followers; you’re the boss or you’re the subordinate. Gwen Moran communicates this sentiment well, “The relationship between leaders and followers seems pretty straightforward: Leaders lead. Followers follow.” The idea behind this is if you are in charge, then you are a leader. It follows then, if you’re not in charge, then you’re not a leader. This, I believe, is a false dilemma.

Second chair leadership begins with the understanding anyone can lead right where they are. It truly does not matter what title is behind your name or where you stand on the organizational chart, you can lead even if you’re not in charge.

To lead well when you’re not in charge requires effective stewardship of many qualities, but here are three worth highlighting.


It’s been noted that influence is the currency of leadership, and trust is the currency of influence. So, how does a leader build trust?

The short answer: care.

Care builds trust. Care means to show “interest or concern” for something or someone. A second chair leader’s capacity to influence is directly related to their ability to care for co-workers, customers, teammates, and the broader organizational mission. When a leader consistently puts the needs of others above their own agendas, they demonstrate care.


A second chair leader shares a common purpose with the first chair. Second chair leaders believe in the mission of the organization, want the leader and organization to succeed, and does her part to fulfill the mission. This means that second chair leaders do not necessarily expect the first chair to provide for their security or growth or wait for permission to act. Second chair leaders assume responsibility and act accordingly.


Creativity isn’t reserved for artists, poets, musicians, writers, or people you know who have “the gift” as if creativity is bestowed upon a few. Even though you might not necessarily identify yourself as a creative person doesn’t mean you’ aren’t creative. To paraphrase Jesus’ teaching on the parable of the talents, we all possess unique giftings to be used for the benefit of someone else. Having a better understanding of your own creative wiring strategically positions you to add value to your organization.

Leading when you’re not in charge are means being fully present in your current role and executing your responsibilities with excellence regardless of whether or not anyone is paying attention. You do not need to wait to be a first chair leader to lead.

Start leading right where you are by caring, assuming responsibility, and using your creativity for the greater good of your organization.