In Praise of “Second Banana” Leadership

Note: For the benefit of our overseas readers, "second banana" is American slang for someone whose authority position is second to the person in charge.

If you were to read every book on leadership, few would even mention the role of one pivotal leader. I call these people "second-banana leaders." They are the "number two" people on whom "the top banana" depends to get things done.

I struck on that phrase after a conversation with my good friends Linus and Joyce Wright. Linus served as Undersecretary of Education in the Reagan administration, the number two man to Bill Bennett.

Soon after arriving in Washington, Joyce realized that invitations to many prestigious events went only to cabinet members, not their deputies. Refusing to be up-staged, she and others formed the Second Bananas Club.

Membership was exclusive. To join, you or your spouse had to be a Washington "second banana." That is, one of you had to hold a title one tier below a cabinet position. Whenever the "first bananas" had an exclusive gala, the Second Banana Club staged an event of its own.

This started me thinking about the extraordinary but uncelebrated contribution of leaders in number two positions. Their role is indispensable in any successful organization.

To this day I get credit for many achievements that were really the work of an extraordinary second banana on my team. Looking back, I realize how often I failed to pay proper tribute to their contribution. Sadly, second bananas rarely get much honor and glory.

Perhaps that's because we tend to see them as merely apprentices for the number one job. We don't see them as the leaders they are. After all, who celebrates the work of an apprentice?

While they would obviously appreciate greater recognition, many second bananas are not driven to seek honor and glory. As far as they are concerned, someone else can have center stage. They themselves relish the number two slot. It gives them a chance to make a telling impact without the distractions of the limelight.

As a result, capable second bananas often have little aspiration to become the top banana themselves. They thrill at being behind the scenes, putting things together and making them work. They find their fulfillment in making the number one person look great.

Yet, if they ever confess disinterest in being number one, our achievement-and-status culture looks at them askance, as though they are missing some vital chromosome in their DNA. What a shame. Corporate and institutional fortunes commonly rise and fall on how much the second bananas love their role and play it well.

No one has developed an enthralling video on how to lead from the number two position. We are yet to build a hall of fame to enshrine second bananas and their accomplishments. And no one looks for their picture on the cover of Forbes or Fortune. But we are long overdue in giving their leadership the recognition it deserves.

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