Sunday, July 13, 2014

Armstrong: What Lessons Can We Learn?

In a 2013 article by Michael Blanding he reminds us that “when Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he had "doped" - taken performance-enhancing drugs - to win his record seven consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005, few might have been surprised. Rumours and allegations had been swirling around the cyclist for years. And yet, there was still something shocking about the admission. At the peak of his career, Armstrong was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, earning $28 million a year from team salaries and sponsorship deals. More than that, Armstrong had transcended himself to become an icon, having overcome testicular cancer and then raising nearly $400 million to fight the disease through his Lance Armstrong Foundation (now the Livestrong Foundation).”
So out of the horror story of power, greed, delusion and denial what can the ‘common’ man learn from this saga?
When Armstrong chose to break the rules of professional cycling by taking illegal substances, he did more than put his own career in jeopardy—he betrayed millions of people who believed in him, and risked the reputations and careers of teammates in order to win personal glory. "Once he decides to cheat, it is not just about him, he needs to create this whole infrastructure around him with this incredible organization to facilitate it," says Professor of Management Practice Clayton S. Rose, who sees in Armstrong's story an ideal vessel for teaching lessons about business ethics and leadership.
Michael Blanding explains that “despite its emphasis on individual heroes, cycling is very much a team sport, one where the team supports the leader and works for his success. Riders help shield their leader from other cyclists in tight packs, draft in front of him to reduce wind resistance during climbs, and chase down rivals who break from the group. So when Armstrong decided to dope, he required other riders to dope as well to match his escalating performance level, and the rest of the support team to facilitate the doping and manage the cover-up to achieve victory.”
In fact the jury is probably out on whether cheating in sports is on the increase or whether authorities are just getting better at catching the cheats. But teams don’t just exist in the sports sector, teams exist virtually everywhere in the business sector and somewhere around the world, while you are reading this article, some innocent employee will be asked directly or coerced indirectly to help their department or organisation ‘cheat’.
Like Armstrong the excuse for many will be that everyone else is doing it and therefore ‘we’ have to do this to survive – whether it’s accepting money or a gift, normally called a bribe; or it’s crossing the palm of a government official with ‘silver’, somewhere this is going on right now – and to many, just like with Armstrong, it’s fair play as long as you don’t get caught.
The plain fact is that Armstrong probably would have remained an unknown had he not cheated – and probably would never have raised the nearly $400 million he did to fight cancer. Some organisations lose out on lucrative contracts because they won’t get involved in bribery and corruption – and yet again, beyond their circle of influence, probably no one else will ever know of their moral stand. 
So shouldn’t we be doing more to acknowledge ‘ethics in business’ (and sport for that matter) or will we continue to allow corrupt business and sports people to be turned into celebrities, even if only for a short time, for cheating the system – and then, worse still, writing books and making films about their blatant abuse of the system. What about the good guys and gals – who’s celebrating their successes?
As Michael Blanding concludes “the lessons from Armstrong's story go beyond the classroom to apply to a range of business situations both on both Wall Street and Main Street; where well-meaning people might be asked by a leader to break the rules for personal or corporate gain.”
Blanding, M. (2013). Lessons from the Lance Armstrong Cheating Scandal. Harvard Business School. [On-line:]

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