Sports figures have longed served as icons for business leaders. They simplify and symbolize the essence of competition by their dedication and success.
As an avid cyclist, I’ve followed the meteoric rise and fall of Lance Armstrong’s career with deep interest. Without drugs, he was one the greatest cyclists of his time. With drugs, he was statistically even better but they also amplified fatal character flaws that competing at any cost bring.
Cheating on the track is not different from cheating on Wall St., Main St. or wherever the desire to win crosses the line. When our icons stumble, it’s time to reflect. Here are six lessons that Armstrong’s case underscores:
1. The value in any bargain is never permanent – As long as Armstrong was racing and could provide income or other value for silence, he could control others. Once retired, he had no power to silence other riders, particularly in the face of perjury.
Implication: Change is the natural state such that leaders should use advantage when they have it but consider it as temporal. Assuming advantage is permanent is unrealistic.
2. Bad Attitudes Linger – Armstrong was an acknowledged bad ass who bossed others around. As long as he was the top dog and you were on his team, it was tolerated but once that changed, it was payback time.
Implication: Respectful guys always finish and get to go around again. You will be “traded” throughout your career and meet up with folks you never thought you’d see again. Keep that in mind.
3. Complexity thwarts control – Armstrong did not dope alone. Managers, team assistants, spouses, doctors, mechanics, etc. all assisted in storing, delivering and injecting drugs or transfusions. Add in riders moving from team to team and you’ve got a complex system to control.
Implication: There’s an old saying that a secret in an organization is something communicated one person at a time. Controlling large social networks is increasingly impossible so pay attention to your actions; everything is eventually public.
4. Testing is an imperfect science – The ability to test for performance enhancing drugs such as EPO trailed its use in the peloton by at least two years. Today, the understanding of how EPO works and how to detect it has greatly improved.
Implication: Testing is by definition an imperfect sampling mechanism who’s results indicate probabilities; not absolutes. Always keep in mind that a good audit or assessment is like a photo: vivid but incomplete.
5. Forensic evidence oozes information over time – Although the original testing could not adequately detect EPO in the blood, it was possible to keep the blood samples stable such that testing improvements worked.
Implication: Just as DNA analysis has reversed felony convictions, advances in technology consistently offer new insights from old evidence. Similar insights might be gained from applying today’s algorithms to your company’s historical data.
6. People will cheat, particularly if money’s involved – Armstrong didn’t act alone. The governing body of cycling, UCI, focused more on growing revenue than keeping the sport clean.
Implication: Armstrong is the most recent news making cheat; not the first or the last. It seems like leaders too often look for incentives, usually monetary, to drive the best behavior rather than values. Incentives often bring unintended consequences whereas leading by advocating a set of core values is less likely.
A market or company without competition becomes stagnant very quickly. But despite the Vince Lombardi posters that one often sees in corporate settings, winning isn’t the only thing. Leaders hate losing but as Armstrong’s case demonstrates, winning at any cost rarely remains a win.