The Power of the #2 Person – Dealing with Loneliness in Leadership


For ten years I lead a startup organization.  I was the president and CEO.  They called me “Pastor.”  I had a board and before it was all done I had paid staff.  We had offices, utility bills, insurance policies and payroll.  We were a legitimate business, a going concern and I was leader of it.

Did I like being the leader?  Yes.  But it was far from glorious.

For those who have never been “the leader” before let me let you in on a little secret.  It’s not always a barrel of laughs.  As a matter of fact – sometimes – many times it’s downright hard.  And as crazy as it may sound – it can be lonely – very lonely.

Think about it –

  • Who are you going to talk with about your personnel issues on your management team?
  • Who’s going to help you process your organizations financial issues?
  • Who’s going to ask you – “are you sure you want to do that?”
  • Who’s going to encourage you? – “This is going to work. Keep going!”
  • Who’s always going to be candid and honest – “You really blew that one.”
  • Who’s going to be available enough, safe enough and trustworthy enough to process the things that are mentally distracting you – even when it means that you have to admit that you’ve had about all you can take?

In my last year of Pastoring I met another church leader that was also entrepreneuring a church.  By that time I was burning out.  I shared with him that I was tired and felt alone.  I’ll never forget his response.  “So – who’s your number 2 guy?”

Number 2 guy?  What is that?

He went on to explain.  Your number 2 guy is your right arm.  That guy (or gal) that not only has the gifts and skills to be a great part of your team but has a trust and commitment to you and the organization that sets them apart from the rest.   They are more than an employee – they’ve become a confidant – might I say – even a brother (or sister).

I remember saying, “I can’t afford a #2 guy.”  His response was quick and clear… “You can’t afford NOT to have a #2 guy.”

Since my days as a point leader (a #1 guy) I’ve talked to several other #1’s.  Let me assure you – they all understand this concept.  Those that I speak with, that have a working #2, tell me that the support, the encouragement and the comradery that comes with that relationship is synergistic.  They virtually gush about how much better life is now that they are working with a solid #2.

For those that don’t have one – sometimes there can be resistance to moving in that direction.  On the surface the idea can come off too “emotional” and “touchy-feely”.  It can appear as a luxury reserved only for leadership wimps.  Surely real leaders don’t need this kind of BFF thing.  That’s for sissies.  They just need to grow a pair and get some self-confidence.

If that is true then why have I found even the most gifted and confident leaders hungering for support – deep support.  Not just a pat on the back.  Not just a “you can do it” – but a present person who is safe to process tough issues with.  Someone who will listen.  Someone who will shoot straight with them and still have their back?  Someone that will be faithful to them (not necessarily agree – but be “FOR” them) when the season is rocky or great.

For those who are sure they can do it on their own – this rant is not for you.  I wish you all the best.

But for those who are doing it on their own – and they are dreadfully tired of it – and are sure that if something doesn’t change soon – no matter how good their ideas are or important their mission is – they are not going to make it – this IS for you.  Get over the idea that with another leadership conference, inspirational book or a few more hours of hard work that all your challenges will emerge into sunshine and roses.  They won’t.

Solid support is essential for the mind and heart of every leader.  For the vast majority of us it is foundational to not only staying healthy but allowing us to function out of our best gifts.  Take it from someone who’s been there.  It deserves to be taken seriously.

So how do you find a good number 2?  Here are some ideas to get you started…

  1. Declare it – Say it out loud…“I need a #2!” You don’t have to say it to anyone else – as a matter of fact, I don’t recommend it.  But you do need to admit it to yourself.  Put it on your “to-do” list.  If you don’t – it won’t get done.
  2. Budget for it – Yes, this is going to cost you – and not just a few bucks. Get over it.  You may be in a position to pull someone in that is already on your team.  For those with enough cash flow, a new hire might even be possible.  But for those on a lower budget or who are wondering if all this is really worth it – consider starting with a professional coach (see #9).
  3. Look around you – If you are in an organization that already has several quality people in it you may already have a sense of a possible #2. If so, keep reading.
  4. Go slow – Never declare a number 2 quickly. This position emerges over time.  It can only happen at the rate of trust and that is a slow process.
  5. Experiment – If you are wondering if someone on your present team has the potential to be a number 2 – invite them into processing a safer issue with you. See how it goes.
  6. Don’t force it – Not everyone is cut out to be a #2. Be honest with yourself and keep your standards high.  If your experimental conversations don’t feel productive – move on.
  7. Resist the “YES-MAN” (or woman) – If someone just agrees with everything you say, they are probably not going to be a good #2 guy/gal. This isn’t about agreement.  This is about support, authenticity and honesty.
  8. Create and observe boundaries – The interaction between a #1 and a #2 can be confidential and close. If confidences can’t be observed or if boundaries in a relationship can’t remain professional – steer clear.
  9. Find a Coach* – Not everyone has the luxury of finding a #2 on their current team. When expenses are tight or you’re just not sure if this is for you – one of the best ways to experiment with this concept is to hire a coach.  It’s a whole lot cheaper than hiring a new employee and you can try it for several months as a way to test it.  If it flops – then you can blame me and chalk it up to an experiment that didn’t pan out.  But if it works – and I wouldn’t have quacked this long if I didn’t feel it would – you will find your leadership noticeably stronger than when you started.

I totally get how easy it is for driven leaders to downplay the concept of needing a #2.  Remember – I was you.  I know what a full schedule looks like.  I know what feeling like I can do it myself feels like.  I know what limited funds look like too.  But I also know what frustration and loneliness feel like.  They suck.  And the price for staying there for too long is high.  Very high.

So who is your number 2?

*If you’d like to process the possibility of working with a Professional Coach…contact me.

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