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.