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For Armstrong and Contador, the Leadership Wheels Come Off

by on
in The Next Level

For most Americans, cycling’s annual 15 minutes of fame has come and gone with Sunday’s conclusion of this year’s Tour de France. In case you missed it, this year’s winner was Spain’s Alberto Contador. Finishing third and making a comeback after a three and a half year retirement was the seven time winner Lance Armstrong. One thing that made the race more interesting than usual this year was that Contador and Armstrong were on the same team although you’d never have known that from the way they’re sniping at each other now.

In a post race press conference, Contador said, “My relationship with Lance is zero.  He is a great rider and has completed a great race, but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will.”

Armstrong fired back on his Twitter account. Quoting the tweet, "Seeing these comments from AC (Alberto Contador). If I were him I'd drop this drivel and start thanking his team. Without them, he doesn't win."

Snap and double snap.

I’ll acknowledge that I know next to nothing about the sport of cycling. I do, however, find the leadership aspects of the sport pretty intriguing. As you probably know, guys like Armstrong and Contador win their races with the support of teammates who provide offense and defense for them throughout the event. It’s sort of amazing that Contador and Armstrong came in first and third as members of the same team. That seems like one heck of an achievement and one worth celebrating.

Instead, the post race attention is on a clash of egos and arguments about who should have been the designated leader of the team.

I think there are two broader lessons from this story that leaders in any field can apply. The first is drawn from Johan Bruyneel, the manager of their team. What should he have done to get Contador and Armstrong on the same page? From the press accounts, it sounds like the two superstars barely spoke to each other over the three weeks of the Tour. Shouldn’t the job of a manager (any manager) be to facilitate communication and cooperation among the stars on the team? I think so.

The second lesson is an illustration of one of the most common causes of conflict on a team. When the roles and responsibilities of the team members aren’t clear, you’re setting yourself up for a clash.  That’s even more the case when big egos are at play. The manager’s  job is to make sure that the roles and responsibilities are understood and everyone knows how they fit in. Over the course of the Tour, the daily drama was who going to cede to who - Contador or Armstrong? Shouldn’t they have figured this out ahead of time?

There’s more to it than that obviously, but I think those are two reasonable places to start on looking for leadership lessons in this year’s Tour. I’m sure that some of the Next Level readers are both serious fans of cycling and students of leadership. What’s your take on the way things played out between Contador and Armstrong?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Wade Paulsen July 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Scott, I think the Lance-related publicity has misled you. Actually, in Contador’s four Grand Tour victories (all within Bruyneel’s last six Grand Tours), another rider from the team has finished on the podium (second or third) three times. This is unheard of in cycling since 1986 (the year the first American to win the Tour, Greg LeMond, did it for the first time), and for Bruyneel to have pulled it off three times means that he has done a great job of building relationships and managing egos. Had Levi Leipheimer not broken his wrist while in third place among the contenders during stage 11 (or had Contador not “attacked” to drop his teammate, Andreas Kloeden, from the lead group of four during stage 17), Astana could have accomplished something that had only been done once in Tour history, and not since the early years of the Tour: swept all three podium positions.

To manage a collection of talent (and egos) like that takes tremendous management skill. And Johan Bruyneel had to do it this time while battling the owners of his team over money and power (the team almost went broke in May, the riders went two months without salary before the owners paid up, and the head of the ownership group said before the Tour that Bruyneel would be fired after it). Simply put, Bruyneel is not getting enough credit here. If he hadn’t built good relationships with all of his riders (including Contador and Armstrong), the team would have quit on him because of all the adversity. Since the ownership group had already said before the race that the only one of the riders that it wanted to retain was Contador, there were bound to be resentments among the riders, but Bruyneel kept those resentments from boiling over until the Tour was over. There is no long-term when you’re being terminated in a month.

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Scott Eblin July 29, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Some really interesting points of view everyone. Thanks for the comments.

Wanted to take a moment to follow up on Brett’s comment in particular. I hadn’t thought about it that way at all. If Bruyneel saw his objective as placing two of his riders in the the 1st and 3rd position then he was clearly successful. Your point reminds me of a modification of the Thomas Kilman conflict mode instrument that I’ve used for years. If you think that you’re solely in a one off transaction (as perhaps Bruyneel did), then you put a high emphasis on results and a low emphasis on relationships. That leads to a competitive style. If you’re trying to build for the long run (which apparently Bruyneel was not), then you put equally high emphasis on results and relationships which leads to a collaborative or cooperative style.

Thanks for making me think about this differently Brett!

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Brett T. T. Macfarlane July 29, 2009 at 1:23 am

Ultimately didn’t Bruyneel achieve his objective, win the tour. Sport has a finite end date, you can’t manage your time line to success. Yes, egos in business are big, but nothing compared to sport, and in fact the ego is what greatly helps achieve success. So couldn’t his tactic of keeping Armstrong and AC apart be great leadership? Clearly cooperation was there, the necessary communication achieved it. Maybe they didn’t chat over team dinners, but clearly there was enough communication for the team to work efficiently together to win.

Interesting looking at management from the perspective of timeframe. If you have three specific weeks with a darn specific objective, that if you miss can’t be made up next quarter, how does you management style change versus quarter to quarter?

Great post, very thought provoking.

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Steve July 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Your argument basically says that Contador was a bad teammate at this year’s Tour. But the truth is he was only looking out for his own interests because unlike other team leaders he had to look out for his own back bc Armstrong was clearly angling to assume the leadership position himself, when he had no business to do so. Bruyneel was clearly aligned with LA and probably so were some other teammates. As the ’07 TdF winner and the ’08 winner of the Giro and Vuelta, Contador deserved better treatment. Lance’s fame and his “saving lives” campaign has NOTHING to do with the tour nor Astana’s team dynamics. That point of yours is retarded. The best way to sum things up is that Armstrong used his political/PR advantages to assault Contador in his own team and he used innuendo during press conferences to suggest that Contador was a bad teammate, when Armstrong himself was the bad teammate because he was never a loyal supporter of his own team leader (Contador). The fact that Bruyneel allowed this to happen is shameful (although not unexpected given his and Armstrong’s track record together).

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Ron July 28, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Dear Anya,

Why am I not surprised? Your comments reflect that of many Livestrong fans and die hard fanatics of Lance Armstrong. The philosophy behind these sort of comments and thinking is this : “If you’re a cancer survivor who has achieved a big athletic feat successive times that also managed to bring some recognition and money along with it, you’re automatically immune from criticism or have the privilege of being reserved from criticism inspite of shoddy behavior.”

This is a fallacy of the human mind. Its called ‘BIAS’. Its normal to have bias but you need a different perspective.

If you will kindly notice Mr. Eblin’s post, nothing was mentioned about cancer even though he very well knows who Lance is and what work he has done in the field of cancer. This is trying to objectively survey the leadership qualities of Lance Armstrong as a bike rider, and his role as a mentor to the younger Contador (didn’t happen). Why don’t you do some research as what to Mr. Armstrong’s specific attitude and behavior was to Contador way before the Tour beginning in March when he didn’t even know who he was, to the time during the Tour and after the Tour. Has he really been a good teammate? Survey his Twitter account, his press releases about Contador, his crafty wind breakaway on Stage 3, his behavior on the podium of Paris, his behavior on the night of the Astana celebrations and many many more.

About team-ship : If you want to talk about how Contador was not a good teammate of Kloden (even though Kloden had little chance of being a podium contendor as he was not a good time trialist nor could compete with the Schleck brothers), the same standards must be applied to Lance Armstrong, who inspite of knowing very well who the team leader in Astana was, decided to stage some of his own antics in certain stages of the race.

Now on the issue of being an advocate for healthy issues : Suppose, say tomorrow, Contador sets up an initiative to start a fund for people suffering from congenital brain issues that are a serious risk to life also, would you respect him? Would you consider it normal and okay for people to stop criticising him no matter how good or bad a person he is just because he has done something on the humanitarian side?
It seems pretty unlikely, because you know already whom you will support and who your favorite it.

Its called Bias.

On the issue of ratings and spectators : This has got to be one of the most overrated topics in this year’s Tour. There is no objective analysis done anywhere that Lance Armstrong, and ONLY Lance Armstrong, was responsible for the record number of people watching Tour on their televisions, and those who lined up the climb of Verbier.

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Keith July 28, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Every day in the tour brings different circumstances and roles; team requirements change daily and even hourly during a stage. Astana had so many strong weapons and the luxury of seeing how things played out. Everything I saw from Lance was pure class. I really was expecting a little more arrogance from him but his comments were very mature in a tough situation. I can understand Contador’s situation and his desire to win as he truly believed he was the best rider (especially since Lance came off a broken collar bone that altered his preparation for this tour, but I say Lance won my support if not the yellow jersey. Contador better find a team and take what he learned from Bruyneel this past season or someone from Radio Shack will be wearing yellow next year! Livestrong!

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A.C.H. July 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Plus you can’t expect a guy like Lance Armstrong, a 7 time Tour de France winner; to compete for anything other than 1st place! Mark Cavendish sprints for 1st place every sprint stage. You can’t expect Lance to do anything but want to win. But once Alberto got the yellow jersey, he did hold back like he said he would and IMO; helped Alberto win the Tour.

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anya July 28, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Look, Lance Armstrong is the face of cycling and particularly the Tour de France for most people and he also is using his fame and his return to cycling to help his work against cancer around the world. Many cyclists on the Tour including Yens Voigt mentioned this and stated that “Lance is saving lives” in many commercials. The ratings were more than double from last year and the crowds were unbelievably large due to Lance’s return. Alberto Contador sadly, continues to show his total immaturity, his lack of respect for the sport by dissing one its best ever riders and an icon and his prima donna attitude (ask the team about Contador – particularly Kloden what they think about his antics in the Tour) has alienated many people (fans, other cyclists, etc. Without the team, Contador would not be the Yellow Jersey. I am not saying that Contador does not have talent – of course, but this is not an individual race – it takes a strong team to be able to be in the picture (ask Cadel Evans about that one). Then contrast the Wiggins/Vandevelde situation for Garmin Slipstream. Armstrong worked in the team’s best interest to where he almost lost out on the podium, while Contador attacked his own teammates even when he was in the Yellow Jersey – unforgivable and I hope that he has no team next year (or at least a very weak one) no matter how much talent he has. Contrast that with Cavendish, a real show boater (his tirade on his delegation as one example) but he always, always, stated that without the team, he couldn’t win. This proves again to me that Contador is not ready for prime time with his latest statement. He won – let it go and move on; but not Contador.

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A.C.H. July 28, 2009 at 4:54 pm

I watched every stage of the Tour de France. I’m a huge Lance Armstrong fan, but believe it or not; I’m also a Alberto Contador fan. All I saw was Lance being a good team mate. You never saw him challenge Alberto once. Do you not think he could have? Of course he could! But Alberto went first, Lance didn’t challenge cause he’s his team mate; and Alberto got the yellow jersey. It was then Lance’s job to keep a Astana rider in that yellow jersey and he helped do that. They are both great riders; that’s obvious. Next year they’ll be on different teams. They will be their team’s captain. It’s gonna be a war! I can’t wait! Betting it’ll be the best Tour de France ever; 2010!!!!! Go Lance; bring on the hurt!

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Sean July 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Lance and Bruyneel are best of buddies, even Lance himself said that he wouldnt race for any other Manager. And the fact that Armstrong is the ultimate competitor, to have him resigned to being an also-ran was never going to sit right with the team. There was constant undermining of Contador from both Lance and Bruyneel right throughout the tour, it sure looked liked a double whammy king hit that they were trying to pull on the Spaniard. The fact that there was no radio contact for Alberto in the last time trial and Bruyneel kept telling Contador not to attack on the mountains where they knew he had a clear advantage. I don’t blame AC for striking out like he did after the tour, after reading Lance’s books, the guy is an arrogant prick (excuse the language).

The fact of the matter is Armstrong and Bruyneel wanted to win for themselves, Contador was just having none of it.

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John from St. Louis July 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I’ve got a Management degree & an MBA, & I’m a big fan of pro cycling, so I saw things as you did. Alberto Contador in Septemder was in the process of winning his 3rd Grand Tour. It wasn’t until after he’d renewed his contract that Bruyneel announced Lance would be on his team. Alberto had no option to buy out his contract or go elsewhere. At the Team Camp in Tenerife, Bruyneel said this in a press conference: “If Lance is not the best, he will become the best teammate Alberto could ever have dreamed of”. Was he naive, misleading Alberto, or overconfident in his own abilities? At the February team camp in Santa Rosa, all Astana employees were together for one of the few times in the year. Lance rode with the Trek Livestrong team for a few days, then left to visit the wind tunnel and velodrome. Bruyneel flew over from Spain, and instead of joining all of his paid employees, he went to see Lance. There was clear favoritism going on at the Tour, & Contador had to protect himself to win as the best rider in the race.

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