Austin Neill via Unsplash

Leading Rock Stars and Roadies as High Performers

Leaders love a good metaphor. I don’t know if this is hard-wired into our DNA or something we pick up along the way, but it’s a reality that’s hard to deny. In fact, I’d go a step further and say leaders love metaphors—good or bad!

You remember the metaphor from your days in grammar class, right? It’s a figure of speech that’s used to make a point by comparing one thing to something highly familiar. Our office is a zoo. My client is a peach (or a bear). That computer is a dinosaur. . . .

I’m personally drawn to metaphors (and similes). They are just so handy because they help us paint a picture (so to speak) of the reality we want to share. Sometimes, however, the reality of the picture we’ve painted can be more second-grader-with-crayons than Picasso. For instance, leaders often refer to their top employees (or the employees they would like to hire) as “rock stars.”

She’s such a rock star!

We need more rock stars on this team.

Author Eric Chester points out that most rock stars are “egotistical front men who dress outrageously, show up late, perform stoned, smash pricey equipment, and trash hotel rooms.” Then he adds, “Maybe what you really need are a few good roadies.”

Really good high performers get on stage and provide customers with a reason to buy – without destroying everything and everyone around them.

That’s funny, because there’s an element of truth to it. On the other hand, no one pays $125 for an upper deck arena seat to watch the roadies set up the stage. They pay to see the star. And if a roadie gets stoned or oversleeps, the show still goes on, probably without much of a glitch.


What teams really need, as Chester would tell you, are good roadies playing the role of roadies and good rock stars playing the roles of rock stars. The really good roadies make everyone, especially the star, look and perform at a higher level. But the really good high performers get on stage and provide customers with a reason to buy – without destroying everything and everyone around them.

All too often, leaders get caught up in the rock-star metaphor and, in doing so, make critical mistakes, such as …

  • Putting up with the type of rock stars Chester jokingly described. I’ve learned the hard way that those top performers aren’t worth the revenues they generate. They eventually flame out and usually torch the organization along the way.
  • Hiring based only on their projected performance and neglecting their character. I’ve hired rock stars who never fit in the organization. It can be painful watching morale degrade due to one bad apple. So don’t get too starry-eyed by someone’s ability to hit a few high notes. Look for character, as well.
  • Devaluing the work of roadies. It’s easy to shine a light on rock stars. They pretty much demand it. Roadies often are more comfortable in the background, but they still deserve praise for a job well-done. They deserve to be respected and valued as human beings. And often they grow and blossom to become rock stars in their own right.

Truly great rock stars make everyone around them better. Think Bono of U2, John Fogerty when he was with Creedence Clearwater Revival, or, more recently, someone like will-i-am of The Black Eyed Peas. Hire those types of rock stars for rock star positions and let them shine. But don’t forget the importance of your roadies. Otherwise, your band is more likely to end up like Guns ‘N Roses – dysfunctional, splintered, and ultimately dissolved.

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