In 2020, Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets National Basketball Association (NBA) team was elected a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association in the hope that he would embrace his number-two position willingly and allow time and circumstances to elevate him to number one.
In the same way, church leaders in number-one positions should affirm their number-two persons by educating, developing, equipping, and empowering them to become “gold medal” champions. In the book Leading From the Second Chair, coauthor Mike Bonem defines a second-chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization.” He adds, “Those who thrive . . . find much of their success through influence and relationships.”1
When church leaders affirm the number two in others, organizations become more effective witnessing and evangelistic bodies. Most people, however, dislike their “silver medal” labels. This dislike may not be entirely their fault. Just ask Kyrie Irving.
A shining star, but . . .
Kyrie Irving entered the NBA as its first draft pick in 2011 and earned the Rookie of the Year award that season. In 2016, he shot the winning three-pointer that gave his Cleveland Cavaliers the NBA championship, ending that city’s 52-year championship drought in professional sports. LeBron James, his Cavaliers teammate, was named the Associated Press’s “Male Athlete of the Decade.” Irving had to work to prevent the public from believing he disliked being regarded as LeBron’s number two.
We know of someone else who despised the number-two position. Those of us who study both our Bibles and the sports pages know that Lucifer hated being number two (Isa. 14:12–15), a hatred that forced him to leave heaven. Called “the shining one,” Lucifer, now Satan, came to Earth and polluted us with his hatred of being number two. Fortunately, Jesus changed Satan’s negative stereotype of being number two. He chose to become the ultimate number two being by leaving heaven, coming to Earth, and dying to save us. He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant. . . . He humbled Himself and became obedient.” His Father subsequently elevated Him to the number-one position, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (Phil. 2:7, 8, 10).2 In so doing, He modeled for us how to achieve number one by embracing number two.
As your church's number-one leader, your task as pastor will be to redirect your followers’ Lucifer-originated low esteem, stemming from their number twoness, and, instead, elevate them to mimic Jesus’ role model as the ultimate number-two Being. You teach them to be gold in love and quality yet silver in humility. Also, teach them to forget self, to be silver in relation to others, and to develop others around them to be gold.
The Jesus do-over
For many of us, being in second place is neither inspirational nor aspirational. We do not focus our daily agenda on being number two. We do not teach our children to pursue silver medals, and we may not list becoming an “effective follower” on our job applications. We claim Jesus as our perfect (gold) standard but often fail to adopt the (silver) process that made Jesus our Savior. He
- chose to leave heaven to live with sin-cursed humanity;
- defied “kingly” expectations and was born to an unmarried woman in an animal’s barn;
- included in His “cabinet” hot-tempered, common laborers, egomaniacs, and even a tax gouger; and
- served dutifully as a carpenter’s apprentice throughout His young-adult years, before His three-year public ministry ended in an unfair trial, unjust verdict, and unmerciful death.
Leading like Jesus requires us to follow Jesus by forgetting self and investing in others (v. 3), humbling ourselves, being sacrificially obedient (v. 8), and declaring, “ ‘I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me’ ” (John 5:30).
Was Jesus the ultimate Leader or the ultimate Follower? His earthly résumé shows that He was both. Jesus modeled to us that, as the number-two Being, He had to possess both leadership and followership acumen. As His followers, we must possess both traits too. How does this show itself practically?
How does this play out?
First, like Jesus, we need to humbly identify opportunities where others see obstacles. At the Cana wedding reception, where the wine ran out, Jesus’ silver-medal leadership acknowledged that His “appointed time” had not yet come. But He sensed that this problem presented a great opportunity to showcase God, so He performed His first miracle by turning water into wine.
When Jesus met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asked her for a drink, what His disciples saw as a problem—Jesus talking to this woman from a denounced ethnic group—instead created the opportunity for Him to launch this woman as the first evangelist to the Gentile world. When the disciples sought to dismiss 5,000 men and their families to go home to eat, Jesus initiated a value-added witnessing platform by feeding an estimated 20,000 people instead. Effective followers spot opportunities to witness and serve where others see only problems and difficulties.
Second, Jesus urges us to mimic Him and refrain from self-promotion. Our sin problem and subsequent disdain for number twoness began with Lucifer, who sought unsuccessfully to promote himself in heaven. Judas Iscariot showcased a devious and ultimately fatal attempt at self-exaltation. He sought to force Jesus into setting up an earthly kingdom because he wanted elevation to a higher profile. Just three chapters earlier, Jesus had taught, “ ‘And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’ ” (Matt. 23:12). Judas later went out and hanged himself.
Finally, allow time and circumstances to elevate you to mimic Jesus “in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Never forget that we are enlisted in God’s army. Because this is a spiritual battle, the rules of engagement are different. Paul says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself” (2 Cor. 10:4, 5). Silver- medal leadership may not be our preference and may grate against our nature, but it is God’s modus operandi.
In praise of followership
In our clamor for leadership posts and titles, we often spurn followership and miss Jesus’ object lesson: the best leadership graduates are effective followership disciples.
In her article “Want to Be a Good Leader? Learn to Follow,” executive leadership consultant Terina Allen writes, “There’s real value in followership. Yet, if I offered a workshop on ‘followership’ the response would likely be very poor. Why? Because we don’t put a lot of worth on that skill, and we don’t give a lot of respect to people who excel at ‘following.’ We don’t appreciate its unbreakable connection to leadership.”3
Numerous books, training programs, and courses address top leadership, yet precious few address affirming and equipping number-two persons.4 Because each of us reports to someone, either professionally or personally, we are all followers at some point in our lives. All organizations, whether workplaces, families, churches, or ministries, resemble icebergs where only 10 percent (top leadership) is visible and the remaining 90 percent are silver medalists below the surface.
Joseph, Esther, and Elisha give us sterling examples of silver-medal leadership. Each held a number-two position in spite of possessing number-one qualifications. However, they did not manipulate hierarchies, manufacture circumstances, or maneuver themselves to gain personal advantage. Effective organizations combine top leaders with affirmed followers. Ants, nature’s longest-living insects, function optimally without a leader (Prov. 6:6–8). Yet through Satan’s influence, beginning with Adam and Eve, number-two persons are their organization’s least acknowledged, most invisible, and most disregarded persons.
“How beautiful are the feet . . .”
In 2015, basketball player Steph Curry led the Golden State Warriors to their first NBA championship in 40 years. He was named the league’s most valuable player (MVP), the number-one person on the number-one team. The following year he led his team to the most regular-season victories in NBA history. He led the NBA in scoring, free-throw percentage, and steals. Additionally, he was the first-ever unanimous choice for the league’s MVP.
But in the final two minutes of the 2016 NBA championship, the Golden State Warriors suffered a jarring defeat. The number-one team became number two. So, what did the league’s number-one superstar do?
Curry helped his team recruit a superstar— four-time scoring champion and four-time winner of varied NBA MVPs, Kevin Durant. Curry agreed with the decision, acknowledged Durant’s capabilities, and accepted a number-two position. For many, Curry’s 2016 decision defied human logic, but it worked. The Golden State Warriors regained the championship in 2017 and 2018.
What would make this former number-one player choose to become number two? The answer is not found in his head; it is discovered on his feet! Steph Curry’s signature Under Armour sneakers have “4:13” stamped on the tongue.
“It represents a Bible verse I wear on my shoe. . . . Philippians 4:13. It says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ It’s also my mantra, how I get up for games and why I play the way I do.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of hoopla and fanfare that follows you wherever you go, but I know where my talent comes from. . . . I know why I play the game, and it’s not to score 30 points a night, but it’s to use the stage I’m on. I’ve been put here for a specific purpose: to be a witness and to share my testimony as I go through it.”5
Top leadership will change more frequently than silver medalists—an organization’s most consistent and stable core. Organizations can and occasionally must function without top leaders, but they are doomed without effective followers. Physical and fiscal resources are important, but nothing is more essential than the human resources of which the effective followers—silver medalists—form the majority.
Whether associate pastor, lead pastor, or administrator, recognize that throughout your ministry, God will call you to alternating positions of leadership and followership. Our goal is not to be a medal-winning minister but a faithful follower.
- Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, Leading From the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005) 2, 3; emphasis in the original.
- Scripture is from the New King James Version.
- Terina Allen, “Want to Be a Good Leader? Learn to Follow,” Fast Company, November 28, 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90273002/want-to-be-a-good-leader-learn-to-follow.
- See Becky A. De Oliveira, “Where You Go, I Will Follow,” Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 3, no. 1, 2; S. C. Lundin and L. C. Lancaster, “Beyond Leadership . . . The Importance of Followership,” Futurist, May-June 1990, 18; and, Bill Knott, “Can We Trust Our Leaders? Whom Is It Safe to Follow?,” Adventist Review, June 2021, 18, 19.
- “Steph Curry Carries Scripture on the Court,” Praise 104.1 FM, February 26, 2016, https://praisedc.com/1778608/steph-curry-carries-scripture-on-the-court/.