Lance Armstrong and the Power in Captains

FILE - This is a July 24, 2005, file photo showing overall leader Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, surrounded by press phot
FILE - This is a July 24, 2005, file photo showing overall leader Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, surrounded by press photographers, signaling seven, for his seventh straight win in the Tour de France cycling race, prior to the start of the 21st and final stage of the race, between Corbeil-Essonnes, south of Paris, and the French capital. UCI, the cycling governing body, agreed Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

An excerpt from Doing More With Teams: The New Way of Winning (John Wiley and Sons, March 2013) by Bruce Piasecki:

Over the years I've come to realize a truth that has permeated my work for
changing corporations, my writings on corporate and social change, and
recently every aspect of my life -- from how I run my firm to how I have fun
with my family: The team is more powerful than individuals.

In this great world of gain and loss, there is something about teams that
expands our experience of being human. Teams extend our wings, in practical,
pragmatic and measureable ways. They allow all different types of people to
succeed. Those who would not normally be able to succeed on an individual
basis can reap the benefits of success and reach peaks they would not be
able to climb alone. This is what makes teams magical, and mighty fun to
watch mature and succeed.

However, teams do not always work from a positive place. Many teams have a
dark side. When these darker impulses are allowed to eclipse the joy in
teamwork, great harm results. Evil deeds flourish. People get hurt. (Think
here of Enron, Bernie Madoff, and of the Penn State football scandal.)

The Dark Side, Personified

Whereas the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Chicago Bulls basketball trio exemplifies
"good" teamwork, they also stand in stark contrast to the team that
surrounded the most celebrated cyclist of all time: Lance Armstrong.

To me, Armstrong's downfall, caused by revelation of his alleged use of illicit
performance enhancing drugs, is a striking example of what can go wrong in
teams. In October of 2012 one detailed report, published and released by
the U.S. Anti-doping Authority
, changed the way we think about this most
favored athlete. The report called it "a massive doping scheme,
more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history."

Armstrong has been accused of using blood transfusions, the red blood cell
boosters EDO, and large amounts of testosterone to enhance his performance.
Twenty-six competitors (including a deliberate mix of direct team mates and
the key opposing team riders) verified the claims of doping. In particular, 11 world-class teammates from the Lance Armstrong teams documented how
all the doping was centered around and for Lance. Most damning, George
Hincapie, Armstrong's closest friend and fellow teammate during each of his
seven Tour de France victories, confessed to doping with Armstrong.

Seven Lessons From the Fall

So what went so wrong with Lance Armstrong and his team?

1. Fierce individualism has no place in teams.

Just the fact that we think of Lance Armstrong's teams as "Lance Armstrong's
teams" speaks volumes. It was as if the Armstrong's entire team (Team Radio
Shack being the most recent) was there only for him.

We need the shoulder strength of teams to keep us competent.

As leaders, we need to be sure that "the MVP syndrome" is not allowed to
define our teams. It is in such situations that workplace ills such as
favoritism, sexism and even criminal activity like embezzlement tend to

Seek to hire "coachable" individuals rather than individualist-minded high
performers. Do everything possible to promote and reward teamwork rather
than individualism. Whether your efforts are centered on pay structure,
group incentives, or verbal recognition, seek always to send the signal that
it's strong teams (not strong individuals) that make up a strong company.

2. MVPs must not be allowed to intimidate or to pressure teammates.

The U.S Anti-doping Authority report made it clear that Armstrong was
driving the doping culture of his team. It stated, "It was not enough that
his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required that they
adhere to a doping program outlined for them or be replaced."

Here's what I know: You cannot do more with teams in an atmosphere or
intimidation deception, and contract pressures. You cannot ride into victory
more than average with that much weight of secrecy on your mind. You cannot
make friends victims as you claim victory. This all goes against the magic
in teams.

3. We must be careful not to give victors the benefit of the doubt.

"With the help of a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug
smugglers, and others within and outside the sport and on his own team,"
Armstrong was allowed to exploit until recently this benefit of the doubt.
It took 26 testifying at once to serve as counterweight to the counterfeit
of Armstrong's claims.

4. Ceaseless victory is a fantasy.

Teams must keep a healthy sense of perspective. Lance Armstrong became a
larger than life figure because he kept winning races. (Indeed, he won his
race against his most formidable foe, cancer.) He was addicted to
victory -- felt entitled to it, even -- and this is what drove him to drive his
team to illicit extremes. In the end it was this addiction (to ceaseless
victory, not to drugs) that became his undoing.

I believe if his teammates and owners taught Armstrong where the tolerance
of losing is mixed with the pleasure of knowing we have tried our best, he
would have proven a more dependable competitor. The great CEOs, the well
compensated doctors, the best in hospital administrators, the legendary
leaders of colleges are not people known to expect ceaseless victory. They
are great competitors because they come to accept that we cannot always win.
(Indeed, only through loss can we grow and improve.)

5. Great teams revel in the pleasure of persistence and the sheer thrill of striving.

I posit that once we've accepted that defeat is a part of the
journey, there is great fun -- yes, fun -- in knowing that we will stumble and
fall from time to time, yet get up, and try again, with some success. Then,
and only then, do we free ourselves to feel the pleasure of persistence and
the sheer thrill of striving. In the end, all of our training is about the
pleasure of accomplishment in teams...

6. What makes teams successful is a sense of commonality, shared values,
integrity, and a commitment to one another.

When joining the military, everyone has a crucible, basic training, which
really isn't basic at all and is usually the hardest experience to get
through. The crucible is something all members have to overcome to be part
of the team. They shave all the soldiers' heads to take away their
individual designations and rebuild them as team members, reshape their
identities into a shared identity.

7. The right "captains" can help us build teams strong enough to withstand
the dark side.

Here, of course, in the choosing and nurturing of captains, is where all of
the lessons coalesce. It takes a certain type of leader to create not just a
loose affiliation of fierce individualists but a true team.

My definition of a captain is someone who can rapidly recognize the key
capabilities of their team members. They are able to see the capacity for
harm and evil -- a captain would have been able to recognize a Lance Armstrong
early on -- and quickly disarm it.

On the other hand, captains recognize the capacity for generosity and
quickly put it to use in building up other team members and generating
momentum. In this way they build teams that balance the negatives in each
member, making a stronger and better core.

Captains also treat their team members with a kind of fierce immediacy, and
they achieve team coherence and team integrity in the process. Captains do
not take the time to -- what as I heard from several military sources -- "wait
for solutions." Instead, "they seek possible solutions and test them on the

In my work I have found that many leaders have the raw material to be
captains. Invest in your captains.

Choose them well and use them wisely.

Give them authority to align and make accountable those capable of evil,
harm and generosity.

They will bring the results and the profits you are looking for -- and along
the way they will empower your people to extend their wings and soar in the
magic that only teams can generate.

Bruce Piasecki is the president and founder of AHC Group. To enroll in AHC Group leadership workshops, please visit To learn more about the forthcoming book Doing More With Less, please visit the website: