And I am not talking about riding on someone’s coattails, I am talking about achieving your full potential. When your very best is in service.
There is no #1 without a #2—one has wings and the other makes the air loft beneath them
This has been a really challenging post for me. It is proving hard to articulate, but ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be number 2. And that was a conscious feeling. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t like winning. I do. But there is something else going on here, and what is so hard to describe is how I think I do my absolute best when there is someone in front of me. I try harder, push myself more, truly give it everything. When you are in front, it is hard to know if that is still true.
The Idea of Being Number Two
And the hard part of putting this into words? Because the concept I am trying to articulate is how this applies to work, to my own work. I am not talking about the office as a competitive environment, but rather that when I am the boss of all, I come unstuck, but when I am number two, we do great things…perhaps even greater things as a number two for me personally than I ever would have done as a number one.
I am not tooting my horn—just trying to figure it out. Every time I become number one, I get fired. Each time I am number two, we do great work, I get promoted to number one, and then I get fired. And I think that I realise that I just need that tempering influence of a boss. And no, I don’t think that is defeatist. And no, I am not sure I can overcome this, and even if I want to. I just want more women at the top!
I listen to my wife. I ask her advice incessantly, and always follow it: how to word a letter, whether to send an email or not, how to conduct myself in a meeting, who to schmooze with, what to do in certain situations. I try really hard to seek out her advice because I know her head is screwed on straight, and I know that mine isn’t. She is always as surprised as I am when I get fired. But we both know that I have a tendency to latch onto things and not let go soon enough [for this and other ADD traits, take a look at the review of the Gabor Maté book Scattered Minds]. I am not making excuses, but even a wife can’t kick me back on track always…but a boss can. Especially a certain kind of boss.
And I totally reject this idea that being number 2 and preferring it, is making me a beta and not an alpha, which I think is a silly concept anyway. [Written about here].
When I was little there was this Japanese manga cartoon on TV called Speed Racer. The plot of most shows was invariably the same, but it held the attention of a child. The plot line was a car race and Speed, an androgynous teen-seeming racer boy, always managed to win the race. But sometimes, things might get really tough for him, things might go wrong, and all seemed lost. It was at these moments that my favourite character, one who appeared only rarely, showed up, Racer X. Racer X was his older brother, scarred by some trauma, but always looking out for Speed…and never wanting to find the limelight, or win himself. Racer X would help just enough, in whatever way was needed, to ensure that Speed could once again stand on his feet and set out and win. Speed Racer always seemed kind of wimpy and effete to me.
You always had the sense that Racer X could win, but he had something inside him that held him back. The whole point of the show was for the viewer to cheer on Speed, to love Speed, indeed, all of Japan was festooned with Speed love. But it was Racer X that I had the spiritual hots for. Racer X was cool. Racer X was the one I wanted to be. Because in Racer X I saw me. Whatever it was that held him back I found parallels in my own life—self destructive, internal trauma, whatever. I knew it even then.
Quick aside. I am most definitely not implying that I am better than my bosses or that I think I can do better than them. Sometimes yes, but mostly, that isn’t where my head is. Let me explain, because who the boss is makes a big difference.
As I shifted from childhood and began my working life, I found that there was one formula that really worked for me—working for powerful women. The best times I had in my career were the times that I worked for a powerful woman.
I remember a conversation at the dinner table when at home one time, and my parents were saying about one sibling who had just gotten a job working for a powerful woman, and were saying, “he doesn’t do well working for women.” I was flabbergasted at the thought that my sibling was missing out on the bliss of working for women. Or at least that is how I felt about it. It had never occurred to me to regard the women I worked for in any way other than as great business leaders. His boss was even more famous than mine, and he really struggled under her, whereas I flirted shamelessly with my boss and did anything and everything for her at all hours all the way until she got onto the cover of Business Week as one of the most influential women in business. The day the magazine came out there was a copy on my desk with “Thanks” and some hearts and X’s on it.
Did I put her there? Of course not. But she got the best out of me, better than anything I would have ever gotten out of myself. She knew how to lead me, to guide me, to handle me. She was a great boss. I’ve never had a great male boss. That might be my fault. But I have had other great female bosses. Okay, I did have one very good male boss, but still, given the numbers, what gives?
What did I like so much about working for these women? They were different bosses for sure. What was different? They were playful, demanding, had high standards, were articulate and well educated…and when it wasn’t good enough, or they knew I had more in me, they asked for it…Showing to them just how much I could do for them was a source of tremendous pride. And they knew how powerful a compliment was, recognition was, and they laid it on beautifully. And for each one of them, I went way beyond the call of duty, day in and day out. And I’ve never felt this motivation in me for any other kind of boss. And no man seems to manage people in this way.
These women also did something else. They trimmed my excesses. I digress slightly. Alluded to above, one of the sidebars of being ADD is being intense, not self-regulating well. I am intense. I latch onto things and run with them, and will keep running with them, unless someone helps me course correct. These women all managed that part of me, naturally, without confrontation—but possibly it is just that I listen to women—but it is true that their approach was always different—no less tough, but it was mixed with empathy. They got me off my wicket—if there was any unproductive energy or lack of focus on their needs, they quickly saw it and addressed it. Strictly business. And they never let anything fester. Very helpful.
Yes, my wife helps with this, but she isn’t in the room. And with her it is advice, not boss-talk.
It is my good fortune that three of my bosses went on to truly great heights. It wasn’t me that got them there, but the work that they coaxed out of me surely helped. Leaving me out, they would certainly have coaxed similar or better things out of someone else. They were destined to make it. I got to ride their coat tails, but not as a freeloader, because I was enlisted to help make their coattails—and they acknowledged it, encouraged it. Each one of them opened doors for me, got me promoted, got me raises, provided references and recommendations for me…Over time, I have come to realise, however, that I was better with them than I am on my own. Is there anything wrong with that?
No, I don’t think so.
No matter how great I aspire to be, or how lofty the achievements I fantasise about, I know that in service to a female leader, I find my greatest self-expression. And I don’t mean great in absolute terms—I just mean in relation to what I am capable of. What I mean is simply being my best. I understand it perfectly. I know where it comes from. I know why it is in me. And yes, I love being number 2. I begin to understand that I don’t want to be number one. Is that okay? I feel as if I might be chided for not relentlessly pursuing the top slot.
The women I have served are vanilla great and being their aide-de-camp was deeply fulfilling. One of them became a Dame, another was lauded as one of the most influential women in business, and another became Chair of one of the leading companies in the industry we worked in. Each one of them is still a friend, a reference, a champion. And please don’t tell me that I should demand more of myself. Please tell me instead that to aspire to be someone’s number 2 is more than enough. You just need to find the right one to serve.
I have had enough chances to try my luck at the summit. But it didn’t work. I became unstuck despite my best efforts, even despite results delivered. And I begin to conclude that I am not meant to be number one. We all want to go as far as we can. I think everyone wants to be number one. To make it. But I also understand that maybe I am better served by serving someone else. And what if that person has a dream or a vision that is shared? At least in work, the women I served, were all inspirational in this regard.
Please don’t tell me that this isn’t enough.
Going back to the Racer X metaphor. I am happy to be the one who stands in back. Don’t get me wrong. I am a peacock. I love to be seen. But I am also happiest in service. And it is enough for me to be seen by One, not by everyone. When she sees me, it is enough.
Lot’s of women have it. Confidence, vision, strength. It is made all the more powerful by vulnerability. The women I have served in life all had this combination, this complexity, they were not the caricature of a driven, corporate woman, though I also worked for those…and funnily enough, I may be one of the few men in the world who has spent most of his career working for women. And they have all been relentless in helping me reach for more. It gives me chills to be around people like that. And maybe they saw something they wanted in me, this eager boy-man. All three of the ones I am thinking of snatched me from other bosses.
Only one made me beg. I had been recommended to her, she interviewed me, and she chose someone else. He was more a bubbly, enthusiastic salesy type. That’s not me. Quiet, efficient, devoted with a burning hunger to please. He sat next to me. He didn’t like working for her. He said so. He kept saying how I was perfect for her, to me and to her. One day she summoned me to her office and told me that she thought I was a cold fish. She took me on. Later, she told me that I was anything but a cold fish, but that I didn’t express my passion. Working for her transformed my life.
There are most definitely parallels between this real vanilla life and me discovering my nature as a submissive. I don’t believe in submission as weak. I see it as a safe way to flex my muscles, to push myself, and to do so by serving the interests of another person. In the modern world, and as a submissive man, there are some very real social, economic and other constraints put on that, but the point remains. I don’t believe that these women were not all already destined for greatness…but I do believe that my service to them helped to coax it out of them. I know that the devotion through work and service is one that gives confidence to a leader, no matter who they are. Knowing that someone is literally giving you their shoulders to stand on gives the leader wings to fly. Knowing that you will be there through thick and thin does the same.
That old expression, “behind every great man is an even greater woman.” You know where this is going right? Well?! I don’t have the temerity to suggest the g-word applies here, at least not to me, but I can say that I’ll try and never give up trying…and yeah, standing behind her is where I want to be.