7 Considerations of Whether You’re Ready to be a First Chair Leader

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Recently I wrote a post on how to create environments that attract and retain first chair leaders in a second chair position. Read that post HERE.

The post was well received, but as expected, I received numerous questions after the post. The most common had to do with how to spot a first chair leader — or when a second chair leader should consider being a first chair.

A former intern of mine had a similar question. He’s a great young man, with a bright future ahead of him. I’m so proud to call him friend.

Here’s what he asked:

How long do you typically recommend a young first chair leader sit in the second chair? Obviously it depends on the individual and the leader, but in general there is always more to learn. What process would you go through to evaluate when the young leader seems ready to branch out? Thanks! Miss sitting in the chair under you!

Great question.

I told him I was working on a post. I decided to think through some of my own experiences and some of the observations I’ve made over the years. Frankly, some are based on frustrations I’ve experienced and certainly that I’ve observed or even caused others to feel.

Let me make clear, as if you didn’t know, that this is a subjective post. I couldn’t write a post that would fully answer the question for every person. I can only share some principles I think could help a leader discern if they’re ready or if they need to consider a first chair position. If you were sitting down with me to talk through this issue, I’d probably advise you to think through some of these.

Here are 7 considerations of when you may need to be a first chair leader:

You can’t seem to be satisfied with leadership you are trying to follow. I learned years ago that one way to discern the gift of teaching — I’m always thinking, “I could teach this better” — you may have the gift of teaching waiting to be expressed. The same is often true of potential first chair leaders. I’ve talked with some leaders serving under tremendous first chair leaders who were still continually frustrated. Sometimes it’s not the person they are leading, but an indicator they need to try leading on their own — at least for a season.

You are always pushing past the current limits set for you. You keep hitting a lid. First chair leaders (and many second chair leaders) hate to be capped to a level of achievement. If this is continually happening to you — and frustrating you — it may be time for to move chairs.

You have a different vision than you are being allowed to live. Let’s face it, any healthy organization has a defined vision — one of them — sometimes a few smaller ones that support the one. But, if you have a personal vision that doesn’t fit anywhere in the mix that doesn’t mean any of the visions is wrong. It may just mean you need to go pursue the vision you feel God has given you.

You are dreaming big dreams without an outlet to realize them. Let me be honest, sometimes you have to start something if you want it to be “your” dream. Let me also be clear, I’m a leader, but also a pastor. So the pastor in me says to make sure it’s a God-given dream, but there are times God has something He wants you to do. Not that you will accomplish it on your own, but you may have to be the one to lead the effort. That’s sometimes done from a second chair position, but frequently, if you keep feeling setbacks along the way, it may be you need to change chairs.

You are ready to handle first chair criticism. This is a big one. I chose to mix it here among the others, because it’s a harder one to accept. You often don’t know fully understand this one until you experience life in the first chair, but no first chair doing anything of value is removed from criticism. Leadership involves change — leading people somewhere new. That isn’t always neat, tidy, or even fun. Some days are harder than others. Some days — in fact, some seasons — there appear to be more critics than supporters. And, that, by the way, can be when things are going great overall. Are you ready for that? That requires a gut check honest conversation with yourself, and with others you trust to speak into your life.

You are a self initiator. Do you take the initiative to pursue something new or do you tend to wait until someone spurs you. First chair leaders often need to move forward while everyone else is comfortable sitting still.

You influence others. This is another place where self inspection is important. Do people seem to look to you for direction or insight? Ask yourself, are others following you naturally? In my experience, if people won’t follow you without the first chair position they probably aren’t going to follow you — short of force — if you move into that chair.

This post is intended to help. Actually, I hope it helps the first chair leaders who see people in second chairs around them who may need a little encouragement — even to switch chairs — or to be patient where they are at the time. I hope it encourages some second chair leaders to self-evaluate, ask hard questions, spend some time with God and others and discern their next steps.

There is no guarantee you’re ever ready to be in a first chair position. Again, no post could do that for you, but your response to some of these considerations may help you decide if you fit some of the profile of many first chair leaders I know.

You may recall my former intern asked the question “when”. I closed my reply by telling him I don’t think there is a certain time, but there is a certain maturity for which I would look. And, I think we often know if we are ready, but sometimes need someone to affirm it in us. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to speak into your life.

You’ll never be fully prepared for a first chair position, any more than we are ever prepared for what’s “next” in our life. But, as has been eloquently said so many times before — Where God calls you — He equips you.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “7 Considerations of Whether You’re Ready to be a First Chair Leader

  1. Ron, thanks for the post. It was very confirming to my journey into first chair. I often struggled with thoughts of disloyalty to my leader because I would have many of these same thoughts and tendencies – I would do it this way, do it differently, say it this way, etc. One day one of my mentors said, "A sign of leadership is always evaluating how other leaders do things and how you would do it the same, better or different." Another leader quipped to me that leading me was like leading a mustang (horse). He helped me discover my potential by releasing me, empowering me and giving me more opportunities. I must say he trusted me. I had earned it and proved worth it. The previous post by BH was so insightful to the 2nd chair leadership I was taught. Thanks for all of your insightful posts.

  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that ove again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

  3. There's definitely a fine line when thinking "I could teach that better." It's very easy to become critical and prideful from the second chair.

  4. Thank you for this list, I am very glad to see that your list was not time based but skill attainment and character based.

    Would have loved to be second chair to you for a period of time.

    I quietly grieve the times I have seen first chairs operate from a place of paranoia and micromanagement.

  5. These are not my ideas but an article I read yesterday on how to know if one possesses top leadership qualities …

    1)Learn to be strong but not rude.

    2)Learn to be kind but not weak.

    3)Learn to be bold but not a bully.

    4)You’ve got to learn to be humble, but not timid.

    5)Be proud but not arrogant.

    6)Develop humor without folly.

  6. Great thoughts Ron. You stated, "I hope it helps the first chair leaders who see people in second chairs around them who may need a little encouragement — even to switch chairs — or to be patient where they are at the time." We have to be secure in who we are to allow others to flex their own skills. Leaders have to see they play major role in equipping others to move to their right chair.