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Leadership lessons from the Tour de France

July 23, 2014

There’s no better or more beautiful way to illustrate the interconnectedness of effective leaders and their teams in achieving a hard-fought objective than the July sporting spectacle that is the Tour de France. And you don’t even need to be fan of cycling to understand the simple leadership lesson that is as true for business leaders as it is in professional cycling—nobody, absolutely nobody wins without a strong team.

But cycling is an individual sport, right? Just like the CEO is the most important member of your organization, right? Actually, no.

Of course in cycling, there can only be one winner on the podium—the team leader—who gets to raise his arms on the top step on the final day in Paris. Each team picks a leader whom they believe is the strongest and the best able to deliver victory when it counts, but every leader also knows that it’s impossible to win without a team of riders that are dedicated to protecting him and helping him to produce exceptional results over the course of more than 2,000 miles, and 21 days of racing.

The strongest teams ride at the front through rain, and high mountains, and over jarring cobblestones, and through 100-degree heat so their leader can draft through the wind and save up to 30% of his energy and deliver the win at the very end. They drop back to the support cars to bring up food and water when he needs it, and they’ll even give up their bike if his breaks. They sacrifice everything for the leader, but in return they share in the victory (and the prize money) when he wins.

In a cycling team, the leader is usually the most high-profile team member, and ultimately the person most visibly responsible for the team’s success, just as a CEO is usually the voice of an organization and the one most responsible for setting the strategy to deliver the business “wins” of profits and growth. But the reality is that no matter how talented, or driven, or charismatic, or “brilliant” a CEO is, the best know how to recruit and reward a strong team that’s willing to work together (and even sacrifice at times) so they can all share in the organization’s success when they win.

And there’s a valuable leadership lesson to learn from cycling scandals of the past as well. Lance Armstrong’s well-catalogued fall from global icon to pariah provides a chilling example of what can happen when a talented, ambitious, egocentric, and fatally flawed leader becomes bigger than his team and even his sport. For a while, he was able to produce historic results that were directly connected to a highly sophisticated system of organizational cheating. And while the fact is that “everybody was doing it” has proven to be true, he was exposed and ultimately brought down by his own ex-teammates.

And that’s exactly what can happen when business leaders forget that no matter how talented, or successful, or driven they are, no one is above the law and a leader is only as strong as their team.

So let’s hear it. What kind of leaders do you work with?

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