Jayashantha Jayawardhana presents a set of skills for the second-in-command

When General Geor­ge Patton was proposed for an independent command, the US Chief of Staff at the time General George Marshall noted: “Patton is the best subordinate the American army has ever produced but he would be the worst commander.”

Marshall’s observation is applicable even today to leadership in every imaginable sphere of operations ranging from the military and business, to nonprofits, sports and politics. It goes without saying that some executives who perform remarkably well as second-in-command fail dismally in the top spot. This is because the two positions generally demand different sets of skills.

The man or woman at the top should possess strong decision-making skills. In fact, it’s not so much about making decisions as assuming total responsibility for them. Even if you may have come to regard decision making as something of a cliché, making sound decisions promptly – especially when the stakes are high – is a tough call.

Even the strongest decision maker needs a reliable adviser and sounding board – someone who has a command of the organisation’s operations. And more often than not, the executive who sits in the seat of No. 2 fits best into this role.

In his book titled Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker says that “a great many people perform best as advisers but cannot take the burden and pressure of making the decision. A good many other people by contrast need an adviser to force themselves to think; then they can make decisions, and act on them with speed, self-confidence and courage.”

Before Bob Iger took command of the Walt Disney empire, it was Michael Eisner who ran the show. While Eisner is well-known and highly respected for his remarkable turnaround of The Walt Disney Company, his second-in-command Frank Wells was somewhat unknown outside entertainment circles.

But it’s a fact that Eisner operated in close partnership with Wells and the two men jointly shared the credit for engineering one of the biggest turnarounds in corporate history.

In 1984, Disney’s nephew Roy Disney brought Frank Wells on board in order to rescue the ailing ‘mouse house.’ Wells was an old college friend with a reputation for being a shrewd entertainment lawyer and tough deal maker. They then invited Eisner to join The Walt Disney Company as its CEO – from Paramount Pictures where he was serving as its president.

In an obituary in The Independent for Wells following his tragic demise in a helicopter crash, American actor and screenwriter Phil Reeves wrote: “What followed was one of the most stable partnerships in an industry notorious for its quicksand alliances and speedy management divorces. Annual revenues went up in a decade from US$ 1.5 billion to 8.5 billion dollars and the company’s stock value rose by 1,500 percent.”

Wells gained a reputation for having a command of the Disney empire’s huge and expanding array of activities – including theme parks, television, publishing, records, retailing, hotels and of course, movies.

During Wells’ tenure, the Disney studio enjoyed a series of box office hits including Pretty Woman (1990) and Sister Act (1992). Perhaps more significantly, he revived Disney’s reputation for world-class animated movies including Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1993).

It’s also said that Eisner’s performance declined after Wells’ demise. He stepped down as Disney’s Chairman and Chief Executive in 2005 – a year before his contract ended.

At Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his second-in-command Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg make a formidable pair.

Though Sandberg is a widely respected and experienced executive with global influence, she has hardly any chance of becoming the CEO of Facebook. Yet, she has chosen to occupy the number two position. Sandberg does all the things Zuckerberg doesn’t want to do so that he can focus on what he likes doing: products and engineering.

The second-in-command has to play the role of an adviser who serves as a lodestone, an educator, an anchor and a deliverer. While this person is a talented and ambitious leader in his or her own right, the motivation comes from fundamentally different goals to those of the boss.

In the case of both Eisner and Wells, as well as Zuckerberg and Sandberg, it’s clear that the No. 2 executive longs for time and space to think, an opportunity to create and shape outcomes, and satisfaction in helping others.

It’s not easy to be a good second-in-command. For some of the best of them, having served a lifetime in that position, succeeding in the top spot could be immensely challenging. And in many ways, this is a steep price to pay.

In contrast, those who prefer being the boss and enjoy hogging the limelight will fail miserably if they’re the second-in-command.