Why Leaders Need a Second-In-Command

Maybe you’re working 70, 80, or even 90 hours a week. Maybe you’re overstressed or overwhelmed. Things that should be quick take longer than they ought, or you're drowning in minutiae rather than leading strategically. Worst of all, maybe people don't enjoy being around you anymore. Maybe you don't enjoy being around you anymore.

When you're running a business, it's easy to let yourself become overworked. But you're not a pack mule. You're a leader, and it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge that there's a problem.

The solution? You need a second-in-command.

Why you need a second-in-command

All effective leaders have a second-in-command—someone they trust who they can call their “Number Two"—because the bottom line is, you simply can’t do everything. And you shouldn't try to.

Former Navy SEAL Team commander and trainer Jocko Willink says it best: “If you want to really be in charge of everything, what you should strive to do is be in charge of nothing.”

He explains, “When you're in charge of something, you're focused on that one thing, and then you're not looking up and out. That focus on the one thing means you’re not really in charge of everything. You're in charge of that one project.”

To be effective, leaders need to keep their eye on the big picture. And that’s challenging to do when you’re focusing on all the smaller things in front of you. 

Let’s say you have 12 projects. Right now, you've got your fingers in all aspects of each project: ordering supplies, hiring workers, talking to clients and vendors, setting goals for your foremen, monitoring the budget and schedule, and so on. Times 12. 

That's way too much for one person to do. Things are going to start falling through the cracks—if they haven't already. So how do you lead 12 projects at the same time?

Don’t put yourself in charge of any of them. Instead, delegate. Put your second-in-command in charge of the projects, and give them the freedom to delegate specific tasks to the right people on each project (more on that in a minute). 

Now that your second-in-command is running the projects, you're free to keep your focus where it belongs: on the big picture. You can keep your eye on how all those projects are coming together to reach the goals you set for the business.

Decentralizing command

You don't want to swamp your second-in-command or put them in the same situation that you're trying to get yourself out of. That's why decentralized command is so important.

With decentralized command, everyone on the team leads. So your Number Two can delegate tasks to people who are trained to do those things, and they can put guardrails in place to make sure each project stays on track. This lets your Number Two oversee all 12 projects without micromanaging them.

Decentralized command is good for you, too. 

Letting go of your smaller responsibilities can be difficult. After all, you know how you want things to run. But as Jocko points out, when you start delegating and decentralizing command, you can stay laser-focused on the big picture because you're not over-focused on other, smaller things anymore.

When you look at successful leaders, you’ll see that they’re good at decentralizing their command. They're more relaxed and more strategic because they have someone they trust whose role complements their own. They’re not pushing 90 hour weeks; they don't have to.

And before you say "I like working this many hours," just stop. Overworking yourself is bad for your health and relationships.1 For instance, the World Health Organization found that working more than 55 hours a week can kill you by increasing your chance of heart attack and stroke.2 You can love your work, and you can have a healthy, fun life with family and friends outside of that.

You need balance to maintain good mental health—and decentralized command helps you get it. 

Finding your second-in-command

Okay, you're ready to stop working like a dog and start delegating tasks to your second-in-command. There's just one problem: how do you find someone you trust to be your second-in-command?

According to Jocko, it’s really pretty simple. You don't even have to go outside your company. In all likelihood, your second-in-command is already right in front of you.

Let’s say you’ve got 100 people in your company. "So you’ve probably got between seven and 10 direct reports. One of them is going to step up," Jocko says. But he adds that you don’t have to figure it out right away.

Instead, you start handing out responsibilities slowly: “You don't have to say, 'Okay, you're now promoted.' You can say, 'Hey, Fred, I want you to run this thing. Hey Bill, I want you to run this. Hey Jessica, I want you to do this.' You start to give them tasks and start to see who steps up and who can take these things off your plate. Then you can end up with a Number Two.”

This process lets you see who steps up, who does the job well, and who’s trustworthy. Once someone shows they're capable in this role, you can make it official and backfill their old position with someone below them, and so on down the line.


Trying to be in charge of everything in your company is not only stressful but also ineffective. That's why Jocko teaches leaders to be in charge of nothing. When you're not bogged down in the details, you can see the big picture.

You need a second-in-command so you can delegate those details to them. To recap, here's how you find your Number Two:

  • Start delegating small things to your direct reports.
  • Watch who steps up and takes things off your plate.
  • Choose your second-in-command based on the what you see.
  • Backfill their old position the same way, with someone who worked under them. 

Remember, your second-in-command probably already works in your company and would love to step up to greater responsbiility. When you let them do that, you decentralize command so you can keep your focus where it belongs: on the big picture.

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