Leadership Thrives With the Power of Two

by Alli Polin on March 24, 2015

Power of Two

So many people aspire to be top dog, the Big Kahuna, the CEO, that they cease to realize that sometimes it’s more fun, fulfilling, and energizing to be Number Two.  The person who sits on the top of the org chart does not have a monopoly on influence, nor does a box determine your value. 

I often work with clients who want their boss’s job. They want to do everything they can to set themselves up for success. I always suggest that the first thing that they should do is to lean into the relationship with their boss and set the team up for success… good things will follow.

Some refer to it as “Two in a Box” or “co-leading,” I call it the Power of Two.  At one time I wanted to be the leader in my division, but I  already was a leader with influence and opportunity.  Instead of longing for my next promotion, I relished the unique leadership position of Number Two.  

I was the unofficial Number Two in our division and reported in to Number One.  He was more than my boss, I was lucky that he was also a friend and someone who realized that he too needed the Power of Two.  We had complementary skills and backgrounds and I was not in competition with him or gunning for his job.  I was on his team and more importantly, I always felt like he was on mine, we were in it together. 

In truth, there are upsides and downsides to every relationship.  The downside was we were viewed as “a package deal.” (Hello, two in a box) When his reputation took a beating, mine did too.  When his leadership was called into question, mine was too.  I felt the sting while he took the slap.  My corporate identity was closely tied to his, but I had the confidence to know that I was very much my own person and doing meaningful work focused on people, change and innovation.

Yes, there were other senior leaders in our division as well as directors and managers all the way down the line.  Every single person in the operation was critical to our success.  We were not an official team of two, our unique relationship took shape organically, not based on some fancy chart dictating hierarchy and relationships. 

The Power of Two

Number One always speaks first in meetings. 

Number Two is grateful that they have time to reflect. 

Number One stands at the front of the room.

Number Two sits in the audience and hears the whispers of what’s really on their minds.

Number One is frequently told what others think she wants to hear.

Number Two is asked to brainstorm before meetings with Number One. 

Number One has everything they say and do on the record.

Number Two can freely share opinions. 

Number One asks for opinions and is often met with silence. 

Number Two gets an earful of the real deal. 

Number One thinks they’re super funny because everyone laughs at their jokes. 

Number Two smiles knowing Number One isn’t fooled by the laughter. 

Number One has an advisor and partner on the journey.

Number Two is empowered and trusted to speak for the team. 

Number One asks Number Two for thoughts and ideas.

Number Two is called forth to lead and not simply wait for direction. 

It’s good to be Two. 

Two minds focused on solutions and success. 

Two people honest about strengths and challenges.

Two humans where you can both speak your truth.

A team.  Not the leader and the lackey.

Your number doesn’t really matter… the most important thing is to tap into the power and strength of the relationship.  Be role models who lead with integrity and always remember: we are stronger together. 

Have you tapped into the Power of Two?  What was your experience?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

John Thurlbeck March 24, 2015 at 6:57 am

Hi Alli

I loved the post, especially as I have been privileged in my career to be both a Number Two and a Number One.

I found being a Number Two exciting and challenging. Those roles led me to experience some great learning and sharing; and enabled huge personal and professional development, aided by some excellent coaching and mentoring.

I have also worked with some great Number Two people and welcomed the support, diversity and challenge really effective people in those roles can bring. One of the best, though not well regarded by everyone on the staff team, provided a perfect anchor to my tendency to over-exuberance and desire to drive agendas forward without over-thinking them. It proved a perfect working partnership for several years.

Thanks for sharing the Power of Two!

Kind regards

John

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 7:09 am

Thanks for sharing your experience, John! Mine has been similar. I’ve worked with some fabulously talented people who were a compliment to my skills and abilities. I feel privileged to have worked with them, learned from them, co-created with them and led them. It’s magical when a working relationship makes both people stronger.

Appreciate that you shared your learning here!

~ Alli

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Terri Klass March 24, 2015 at 7:38 am

Fantastic post, Alli!

I think of number two’s as the true connectors of a team because they can pull those above them and those below them together. As you so clearly share, number 2’s get to hear the real scoop and yet they know the entire picture. That positions them perfectly to bring all teammates together in a compelling way.

I have worked with great number 1’s who allowed me to lead alongside of them and imperfect number 1’s who only wanted to bark orders at me. I learned to trust my strengths and be forgiving of the number 1’s overreaching.

Thanks Alli and I know just the teams to share this with!

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 7:47 am

Thanks for your comment, Terri. I love how you lead with forgiveness for those leaders who were less than perfect. Nobody likes to be barked at! It’s interesting, while this number one was compassionate and connected with me, I watched him bark orders under stress at others. I was fortunate to be able to call him on it without damaging our relationship.

Love how your story helps to bring this to life. Thanks!

~ Alli

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Cynthia Bazin March 24, 2015 at 8:17 am

Excellent post Alli! You are right on point…. the distinctions between what the #1 and #2 person is. I will be sharing with my community. Thanks for all the amazing content. You are awesome my friend!

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Thanks, Cindy! Always appreciate your support!

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Samantha Hall March 24, 2015 at 10:01 am

Great post Alli!

Over the weekend I watched one of my favorite ‘chic flicks’, The American President, with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. There’s a scene between Michael Douglas (The President) and Martin Sheen (White House Chief of Staff) that captures the essence of this post brilliantly! Now Martin Sheen’s role is NOT Vice President, yet it still illustrates the importance of people who occupy roles other than ‘top dog’ or those that are in the spot light all of the time. In the movie, President Andrew Shepherd and White House Chief of Staff , A.J. were also friends before either of them found themselves in the White House.

There’s a point in the movie where Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has made some unwise decisions as President and his friend and Chief of Staff doesn’t waste any time blowing smoke up his backside…. he knows his role, his is also loyal, and yet he takes his position seriously and understands his plays a critical role in the success of his friend who also happens to be the President of the United States.

In a heated moment when they are alone playing pool together in the White House, the following dialog transpires:

President Andrew Shepherd: Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats, A.J.?

A.J.: I beg your pardon?

President Andrew Shepherd: Because it occurs to me that in twenty five years I’ve never seen YOUR name on a ballot. Now why is that? Why are you always one step behind ME?

A.J.: Because if I wasn’t, you’d be the most popular history teacher at the University of Wisconsin!

I’ll leave out the President’s response! (grins)

A.J. put his FRIEND and ‘President’ back in his ‘place’ and also reminded him that Andrew Shepherd couldn’t do HIS job as President WITHOUT many other people HELPING him to be ‘successful’. Especially in the eyes of the public. Now the dialog above doesn’t give any indication to the deep friendship and loyalty between the two, so you’ll just have to trust me if you haven’t seen the movie, that it’s really there. A.J. wasn’t trying to ‘diss’ the President. But he certainly didn’t appreciate his FRIEND accusing him of being ‘weak’ or lacking courage because he was NOT in a ‘top dog’ position. And the reason why he wasn’t is because he KNEW WHO HE WAS. He knew what he was called to do in life and in his heart and mind, he was DOING that. He didn’t NEED to be the President or any other ‘role’ in the world. He was the White House Chief of Staff. That was his role. That was where he was SUPPOSED to be to have the greatest impact and influence according to his unique voice, gifts, and talents.

And we are similar. Not EVERYONE is ‘designed’ or called to be the President of a country or of a company. Some people are designed and equipped to be in the SUPPORTING ROLE of 2nd in command. It has nothing to do with being LESS THAN those in the top dog position. It has nothing to do with not being ‘good enough’. It’s a ROLE. That is all.

We all have a part to play in our organizations and communities. Not everyone is going to be the entrepreneur or the innovator. People in those roles still require other people who are gifted to bring those ideas to life and support their vision to do so.

No one does it alone. Nor is that even possible.

GREAT post Alli!

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 11:26 pm

Samantha,

I have never seen The American President but now I really want to find it on Netflix! LOVE that you included the scene here. I did not think that AJ’s line was arrogant or meant to be mean but is a truth that can only be shared between true friends that recognize everyone plays a part in success… even if you’re the President. We all have gifts and talents that are often magnified when we find people who compliment us. We’re not all meant to have the same strengths.

Thank you!!!

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LaRae Quy March 24, 2015 at 11:29 am

This really is a great post, Alli!

It’s hard for a “Number One” personality type to successfully move into a “Number Two” position—leaders who are motivated to perform in front of the room are rarely the same ones who perform well in the back of it.

What I truly appreciate is that every Number One leader has a Number Two watching their back…Number Two’s are loyal and able to see “the big picture” as Number One enters/leaves the room. Their honest feedback and ability to massage the rougher edges of a message from Number One are essential for success.

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 11:29 pm

I appreciate your perspective and have found that is oftentimes true. However, I’ve seen people play dual roles of 1/2 and it was very telling. Our COO was 2 to the CEO and they had a tight relationship. However, she also ran a billion dollar + division, the largest division in the org. She was very much the top dog and was exceptional in the front of the room, with clients… everywhere… and she had a #2. Her #2 was a background woman. Strong, confident and aggressive but she would never have the top position (nor do I think she ever wanted it).

Research shows that co-leading or two-in-a-box is often strengths complimenting each other but in some cases it’s a training ground for heir apparent too. Your comment has me thinking through the many different combinations I’ve seen and reflecting on where their careers went over the years too.

Thanks, LaRae!

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Jon Mertz March 24, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Yes, a tango takes two and your post highlights how this can work well in leading an organization. Being in tempo between the two leaders is vital, along with complete trust and transparency between the two. This is the only way it can work well. Great points, Alli! Thanks. Jon

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Alli Polin March 24, 2015 at 11:31 pm

Without trust and transparency it all falls apart… it’s not a team anymore but two people working in parallel (and probably not all that well). Appreciate your tempo analogy too. Helps envision the dance.

Thanks, Jon!

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Tom Rhodes March 25, 2015 at 7:55 am

Alli,
Your view that success of the individual is tied directly to the success of the team is such an important part of a leadership foundation. No leader is successful without the people around him or her being successful. Leadership is 360° and a successful leader understands they influence in all dirctions. Whether you are #1, #2 or #30 is up to the organizational chart. How much influence you have is up to you.

Thanks for another great post.

Tom

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Alli Polin March 26, 2015 at 3:12 am

Right on, Tom! I agree that leadership is 360. Influence is not wrapped up in your title like a package deal. Each one of us can reach out, develop strong relationships and lead from where we are… not only from one day where we want to be.

Always appreciate your insights and comment, Tom. Thanks!

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Chery Gegelman March 28, 2015 at 1:37 am

Very powerful post Alli! I LOVE the list towards the end of the post – it is insightful, inspiring and filled with truth!

Thank you for sharing!

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Alli Polin March 28, 2015 at 8:22 am

Thanks for your feedback, Chery! Really appreciate that you took the time to read and found and element of truth.

Best,

Alli

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