The dangers of appointing a “second-in-charge”

The dangers of appointing a “second-in-charge”

Leaders often appoint a “second-in-charge” (2IC); from a human instincts perspective, this is not a clever thing, as it distorts power.

Power is a natural dimension of life for social species. Communities of complex animals such as humans, apes and monkeys are able to function through hierarchical pecking orders. While the order is dynamic, every individual in the community has a relative position to all others. For a social group to operate well, the leader needs to clearly be the most powerful.

In organisational life, appointing a powerful 2IC disturbs the desired power dynamics. The 2IC might be a COO to the CEO. They might be an offsider to a CFO or a HR Director. There are a number of predictable traps of a powerful 2IC. Let’s take the COO to the CEO.

First, having a powerful other person reduces the CEO’s power. The CEO has ceded their power to the COO and weakened their own position. Sometimes this unfolds against the CEO’s interests.  

Second, the power dynamic creates confusion and uncertainty for others down the hierarchy. People have to attend to the signals of two power players. Decision-making will be slowed and people are less confident as they read the power signals of now two power players and not just the CEO.

Third, with a powerful COO the leadership style of the CEO is diluted, so the organisational culture – set by the behaviour of the most powerful person – is less clear.

Fourth, the harmony of the leadership team is compromised with one of the peers having clearly more power than the rest. The powerful COO will tend to throw their weight around, generally leading to cliques in the team as people need to choose if they are part of the in-group of the COO or the out-group.

The guiding principles are that the team leader should clearly be the most dominant and that power is reasonably equally distributed across direct reports to a leader.

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