Side by Side Leadership

by Andy Wood on May 18, 2011

in Exploring the Possibilities, Leadership, Life Currency

If your paychecks came from Ford Motor Company in the 1970s, you lived in an ugly time.  Morale was low.  Sales were taking a beating.  Quality was “job none.”  And the company operated from an entrenched system of rules and regulations.  Into that demoralized environment, Donald Peterson became Ford’s CEO in 1980.

Peterson showed up tossing words around like “teamwork” and “upward communication.”  But words mean nothing to entrenched bureaucracies.  So Peterson tried something radical – he left his office.  He would walk into the offices of designers and ask simple questions like:

  • Do you like these cars?
  • Do you feel proud of them?
  • Would you park one in your driveway?

I think you can guess the answer he received.

Your job, Peterson said, is to come up with the cars you think will sell – cars you can be proud of.  The results were stunning and quick, by auto industry standards.  The first significant product was the 1983 Thunderbird, followed quickly by the wildly successful Taurus, which became the best-selling midsized car in America.

That was just for starters.  During the 1980s, Ford reversed its dismal previous performance to record then-record-breaking profits.  Peterson was chosen by his fellow CEOs as the nation’s most effective leader, surpassing even Lee Iacocca.

What made the difference?  Donald Peterson was a Side-by-Side Leader.   In the words of Robert Richardson and Katherine Thayer, “Peterson didn’t accomplish all this by sitting behind a desk and telling people what he wanted done.  He rolled up his shirt sleeves and jumped in.  He provided a direction and goal and then participated in making them reality.”

Your Worst Skydiving Fear

Imagine you are an inexperienced skydiver.  You’ve been on a few jumps, but still think of yourself as a rookie.  It’s a beautiful day for flying and jumping out of airplanes, so up you go.  You reach the point where it’s time to pull the ripcord, and it malfunctions.  To your horror, so does the backup chute.

Suddenly it’s not such a good day for jumping out of airplanes.

At this point, your trainer, wise and experienced, springs into action.  Sitting in the doorway of the airplane, he starts discussing official policies and procedures for parachute safety.  Right?

Uh, no.

He springs into leadership.  First of all, he’s already diving with you.  Then he maneuvers himself to where you are – not just to conduct his version of Big Brother’s Bailout, but to lead you, side-by-side.

Using this analogy, what makes Side-by-Side leadership different?

1.  Identity

The number one job of the leader is to remind you that you aren’t dead meat, a failure, or a squealing piglet.  You are a skydiver!  SBS leaders are like living mirrors, who are constantly reflecting to people around them the unique identity they carry.  In the words of Disney’s The Lion King, they encourage the people around them to “remember who you are.”

2.  Vision.

Yes, the “vision thing.”  In the crisis, your vision consists of a collision with the ground and your life flashing before your eyes.  The SBS leader has vision, too.  He dreams of teaching more students, growing his business, maybe buying a new plane.  But neither of those versions of vision are useful right now.  The SBS leader doesn’t ask you to leap onto his vision of the future without first engaging in your concerns and vision.  In SBS leadership, vision is seen first form the perspective of the constituents.  Only then can it be called “shared vision.”

3.  Encouragement

In your panic-filled descent, you’re not likely to have a lot of confidence or comfort.  And some dude hollering cheerful platitudes from the plane isn’t likely to change that.  To be sure, SBS leaders use words.  But they also encourage from a position of connection and companionship.  They communicate strength first by being there.  And when they say “We’re all in this together,” they’ve got one arm around you and another on their own ripcord.

4.  Contingency Planning

Imagine your trainer catching up with you and asking, “Well, what do you think we should do?  I’m all out of ideas!”  All good leaders know how to improvise.  The difference that SBS leaders make is that they inform you of what Plan B may actually look like and involve you in the plan.  And even when all contingencies have been exhausted, they are still beside you, working on a disaster plan.

5.  Optimism

I know what you’re praying at this point.  “God, if you will somehow get me back on the ground in one piece, I promise I’ll never jump out of another airplane!”  But even in our darkest moments in organizational life, the SBS leader is the one who shows up with good news.  He or she is a believer in “the cause,” whatever the cause is, and your emergency hasn’t shaken their belief in it.

6.  Conflict Management

Like a trained lifeguard, your skydiving trainer will be prepared to anticipate some panic-laced resistance from you.  Don’t take it personally; he sure won’t!  SBS leaders take the initiative to anticipate or resolve conflicts.  Rather than live in denial, politic around them or steamroll over them, these leaders confront relationships first, then issues.

7.  Priorities

SBS leaders go where policy manuals have never dared.  They understand that when walking beside a constituent, sometimes the first priority is the organization’s vision, and at other times the first priority is the constituent’s problem.  They keep the big picture in mind, and keep people in the big picture.

8.  Service

When your heart rate’s rising and your altitude’s falling, you don’t need lessons or lectures.  You need a parachute.  And it’s the SBS leader who is first to offer his.  In an environment where “superior customer service” is cliché, the SBS leader models customer service by personally getting involved in practicing employee or follower service.

9.  Passion

The last thing you need when your heart is in your throat is a leader who is burned out or bored, just going through the motions.  You need someone who is as passionate about landing as he is about jumping.  Experience is important, but experience void of passion is a recipe for disaster.  SBS leaders influence others out of their renewed passion the aims and values of the group or organization.

10.  Influence Management

Dropping like a rock, the reality is that you may die.  But this is no time to focus on death.  You need to focus on solutions to the problem, or have somebody else who can.  And if your jumping buddies are all hollering, “you ain’t gonna make it!” – they’re not helping either.  SBS leaders have the courage to confront negative influences, even if those influences are taking place in your own head.

11.  Peace

Wanna find the SBS leader in a crowd?  Find the one who can calm anxious people.  Fear and anxiety distort our vision and grasp of the facts.  All good leaders recognize that, and offer solutions that address the fears and concerns of people.  The difference in SBS leaders is that they allow themselves to “dive” at the rate of someone else’s anxiety until they can offer a confident, calming answer for it.  In other words, they run with your fears, not away from them.

12.  Confidence

You may call it arrogant or cocky.  You may call it optimism or faith in God.  You may call it unflappable or ice-veined.  I don’t care what you call it, but at your point of need somebody had better show up knowing that they know that they know what to do – and that they can get it done.  The SBS leader is confident.  In God.  In themselves.  But that alone doesn’t make them leaders.  The leader in them takes it one step further – they transfer that confidence to you.


You don’t have to have a title or position to be a leader.  And even if you do have the authority or title, that doesn’t mean you throw it around and call it “leadership.”  Yes, there is something to be said for exercising authority, especially in times of urgency or crisis.  And there is certainly something to be said for leading through serving.  But one of the most powerful positions of influence happens when you walk beside the people who are the keys to your team’s or organization’s success.

It’s amazing what people will do with you and for you when you see the world from their pace and face for just a little while.

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