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Sidecar Leadership and the Need to Build Your Leadership Bench

According to a recent 2014 report from DDI and The Conference Board’s Global Leadership Forecast, the challenges CEOs see as most critical in the near future are human capital, customer relationships, innovation, and operational excellence. However, when asked if they feel prepared for these challenges 55%, more than half, indicated that they did not feel prepared.

In our work we have the opportunity to partner and collaborate with top leaders in various organizations and when we ask them what they lose sleep about they go a bit deeper and more candid.  One of the top challenges that leaders indicated when we asked them was the lack of having other leaders to leverage and address the above concerns.  They indicated a lack of ‘leadership bench strength.’ If there is an all-star leader in a certain department, building or area of a company, we find rarely is there a great team of leaders able to come alongside and help.

What most leaders lack is sidecar leadership.

Sidecar leadership is the idea that much like a motorcycle and its sidecar, leadership can happen both as the main driver and as the passenger coming along for the ride.  The sidecar passenger might be as equally talented, dedicated, smart and competent, but takes a less public role in being the leader.  They might be able to drive if needed, but sidecar leaders also content at navigating, fueling up when necessary and being a soundboard for the driver.  It’s not that sidecar leaders aren’t leaders in their own function, but when strategic and/or company-wide crises occur they shift into a lower gear to come alongside the primary leader and offer help.  It’s servanthood leadership at its best.

Leadership is not only about being the leader out-front exhibiting all the great leadership qualities we admire; it’s also about doing the less-than-shiny leadership work that comes alongside and helps move projects, missions, and tasks forward.  Sidecar leaders use their strengths (organizing, task completion, charisma, influencing, decision making, etc.) to move the ball down the field.  Ask any winning quarterback what his greatest advantage is and he will talk about the leadership and help of his linemen.  You cannot throw touchdown passes if you’re being sacked all the time.

One leader we worked with in the past was one of the best we had ever seen.  She had all the qualities of great, Level 5 Leadership, but she knew, as well as we did, that her biggest challenge was the lack of sidecar leadership to her left and right.  She would work all day, into the night, over the weekend.  She would show up for 5am team huddles alone to encourage and hear from shift workers, she’d try to facilitate and scribe and make decisions at meetings.  At the end of the meetings she had assigned most of the workload back to herself.  She lacked sidecar leadership in her organization.  People revered her and thought she was an amazing leader, but when asked to emulate the traits they so loved in her, her leadership team couldn’t (or wouldn’t).  I’m not sure if they lacked the ‘hutzpah’ of the senior leader or what – but she was burning the wick at both ends with little to no support.

In the beginning of this year commit to looking at your biggest challenges facing you.  Is one of those challenges that you don’t have any equally strong leadership to your right and left?  Do you lack sidecar leaders who aren’t in it for glory or for advancing their own career, but in it for the survival of the whole hive? How might you start to cultivate a set of sidecar leaders so that by next year, you’re in a much different place?

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