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Second Best is Not Even Close to the Brass Ring

by Leslie Ungar

There is a difference between first place and the rest of the field.

After the Cleveland Browns drafted Johnny Football, Johnny Manziel, the owner made a lot of noise about Johnny having to earn his way to the top spot. Good try, but it doesn’t really work like that. Cream rises to the top. And not only does cream rise, it separates from the milk. This is part of the homogenization process of milk, and it doesn’t change in the process of leaders.

Vice Presidents rarely become president, and back-up quarterbacks rarely rise to permanent status as starting QB. Did you ever think about why?

What are the skills of a back-up and what are the skills of a starting QB? Former NFL player Cliff Stoudt spent his entire NFL career as a back-up. In 1982 when Terry Bradshaw went down with injury, Stoudt stepped in. Although the Steelers limped to the playoffs he was boo’ed more than he was embraced.

Stoudt said that from a physical standpoint, being back up is the best job in the league.

Because you rarely play, you rarely get hurt. This is another way of looking at success. But from the standpoint of results, at best back-ups are expected to keep the team competitive until the “real” quarterback gets back.

In the 2013 season, the Cleveland Browns skipped over the back-up quarterback and anointed the third string as starting QB. With a brief announcement, Brian Hoyer went from the cellar to the penthouse, from third string to starter. The sports world seemed surprised.

If you could see what I see you would not be so surprised.

It seems to me that it is a different skill set to be second in command than to be the guy in charge.

Both skill sets are important, but they are different skill sets. The problem is when decision makers don’t recognize that these are different skill sets. Think about it, to be the back-up, to be second, the invisible one, requires a mindset that shies from the spotlight. To be THE GUY requires a mindset that gravitates to the spotlight.

When a commentator on ESPN was asked why the Browns catapulted over the second stringer, the answer spoke more to leadership than to sports. The commentator said sometimes a second stringer develops the mindset of a back-up and that can’t be changed. When you see yourself as #2, the team will see you as #2 also.

Whether it is your own career you want to catapult, or catapult your company by selecting the right leader, you have to identify the qualities of the second in command as juxtaposed to the qualities of the leader.

To increase your chances of finding a leader who will serve long and well, companies must do three things.

First, they need to have available a deep pool of internal candidates and keep the pool well stocked. The “big fish” in this pond need to be fed by a leadership development process that reaches from the bottom to the top.

Second, create, then continually update and refine, a succession plan.

Finally, have in place a thoughtful process for making decisions about candidates. Keep in mind that outside candidates are not necessarily better than internal candidates.

Make sure you don’t assume your second in command should move to starting quarterback. The cream has a window of opportunity to rise to the top before the whole jug of milk is spoiled. Too long in the role of back-up, might keep anyone a back-up.

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