Saying a Mouthful: Lessons in Leadership from Lance Armstrong

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to present to our Student Government Association about student leadership skills, and did a presentation based in large part on Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Temptations of a CEO. The exercise started with them collecting their ideas on good and bad traits of leaders, and people who exemplified those qualities for better or worse. The choices varied widely: their good leaders included the Obamas, Oprah, and Angela Merkel of Germany (I was impressed by that one!); the bad included Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashians, and Tory Burch’s husband (there’s a story there, I won’t go into it here). Had I to do it over today, I would have called to their minds Lance Armstrong. 



After looking over the admissions he made to Oprah last night, an interview I was unable to watch in the absence of cable at my apartment, I think that the testimony could be used for a lot of things- to invalidate his advocacy for cancer research, to vilify a man who has been previously seen as an upstanding inspiration, and any number of other opinions that are likely flooding talk radio this morning. But I think leadership educators have a powerful opportunity to show an example of how not to lead, and I hope to find a way to impart those “lessons learned the hard way” to our students. In this medium, I’ll pull a few of the tenets from Lencioni’s book and try to relate them to Armstrong’s long-overdue confession.

A recurring theme in yesterday’s admissions was the drive to win, no matter what it took. For many athletes that means putting in the work to train hard, but for Armstrong that meant using any means (legal or illegal) to get to the top and stay there. The result was seven Tour de France victories, but no fairly won ones. In this regard, Armstrong fell prey to Lencioni’s first temptation: valuing status over results. He wanted to win, to be seen as a titan of his sport. But the non-victory related results, such as the people who would have to cover up his lies and those who may be hurt by his illicit methods, didn’t matter as much. 

In choosing to be dishonest about all that he did, worrying how it would affect his image or the generosity toward his organization, two more temptations overtook him: the value of popularity over accountability, and the value of harmony over conflict. The latter becomes complicated when you consider the considerable legal defense he mounted, suing such a list of people who were being truthful that he can’t remember everyone they attacked. Did he invite conflict in that regard? Absolutely, he did. A former massage therapist of his came forward; she was greeted with accusations of being “a liar” and “a whore”. The wife of a teammate came forward; she was greeted with accusations of being “crazy” and “a bitch”. Both of those accusations were paired with lawsuits. But that sort of conflict isn’t the kind Lencioni is talking about. That is the conflict that is symptomatic of what the author believes is the most damaging of the temptations: valuing invulnerability over trust.

Armstrong admitted last night that he recognizes that it is “too late” now to admit to all that he’s done. This is absolutely true. Perhaps the biggest question surrounding this sudden confession concerns just that: why now? And while this large question has gone unanswered to date, I can offer a potential reason based on Lencioni’s reasoning. There is a fear of vulnerability in leadership that is gradually being broken down. In the position of power Armstrong has enjoyed, vulnerability is not encouraged. To that end, being able to admit wrongdoing (accidental or intentional) is difficult- at times seemingly impossible. While I suspect there are other, bigger and considerably more self-serving reasons for Armstrong’s deception, the concern about vulnerability no doubt played some role.

So given all this, what can we do with students to help them avoid the trappings that have so mightily befallen this former champion? A few:

  • Encourage recognition of good work, however that applies. Don’t just recognize work done well, recognize work that is conducted in a morally upstanding way. If that example is set and recognized, it will be followed.
  • Emphasize the learning nature of student leadership. Don’t make mistakes seem insurmountable; rather, acknowledge that they happen and help students strategize to mitigate the fallout of missteps.
  • Encourage leaders to hold each other accountable. Students like to let things go when their peers do something wrong, fearing that they won’t have friends if they force them to follow the rules. Stress with them that accountability means helping others do their best work, not punishing them when they do something wrong.
  • Your words and actions cannot be undone: Armstrong spoke of trying to make peace with some of the people who he wronged, but peace could not be made because they were hurt too badly. The actions that we take and the words that we say cannot be taken back, and in some cases the damage cannot be forgiven. That realization will hopefully help them to be thoughtful in their decisions.

What other lessons am I missing? What did you think about the interview last night? How else will you use this incident to educate students?


4 thoughts on “Saying a Mouthful: Lessons in Leadership from Lance Armstrong

  1. Great post Amma! I followed some of Lance Armstrong's career and even bought & read his book "It's Not About The Bike". I always appreciated his genuine compassion for others who had been through, or were going through, the same thing he was around sickness and cancer. What bothers me most now, though, is his apparent lack of authenticity. The reports that I've had the chance to read/hear (and I'll say here that I didn't watch the Oprah interview) show such energy being invested into defending, covering and smoothing over rather than accepting and acknowledging. This ties into your point about making mistakes and 'embracing the learning nature of leadership" (which I love by the way!). Acknowledging and owning mistakes is not only so key for credibility and authenticity, but it also models a leader in the centre (not leader at the top) view of working in teams that I strive to model and look for in others. I'm hoping to use this story as a teachable moment not just with my students but with myself and colleagues as well. Thanks for sparking some good mental stretching! 🙂

  2. Hi Lisa, I'm really glad that you enjoyed this, and I agree with the lack of authenticity- I feel for him, as he talked about stopping being himself and started living as the legend that was created around him. His trouble getting forgiveness is a point that I want to drive home- your actions stick. People remember. So be careful!

  3. The one thing I really struggle with this whole situation – and full disclosure, I did not watch, no have any interest in watching, the interview, so I have no new insight from that – is how to reconcile with the belief that the ends justify the means. In this particular instance, Armstrong's foundation led to the raising of millions of dollars for cancer research, a feat that certainly would not have been possible were it not for the platform Armstrong held from his ill-gotten wins. While it cannot be denied that his personal gain was significant, so too was the impact to many, so while this was certainly not selfless, it was larger than self. To me, Lance is far less Bernie Madoff and far more the protagonist in the moral dilemma about stealing a drug for one's ailing family member.Lance's primary shortcoming of leadership here? Being a jerk about it.

  4. I agree on both counts. It's a hard thing to understand that the cause he had to maintain the facade for, is a good one. Further, it's going to be very difficult to keep people believing in the work that Livestrong is doing given his association with it (even if he did step down). And yes, the jerky nature of it makes it even worse. He's apologizing, but he doesn't seem sorry. And that's going to hurt him in the long run.

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