Live Wrong: Don't Be a Leader Like Lance Armstrong

What can small-business owners learn from Lance Armstrong's fall about making leadership mistakes?
Getting Small Businesses Unstuck, Shafran Moltz Group
January 18, 2013

"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."—Proverbs 16:18

I have followed Lance Armstrong for over a decade. I remember when my family visited Paris to see the Tour de France in 2003. I tried to point him out as he whizzed past. I wanted my sons to see a man who had so much courage and a non-quitting spirit. Armstrong was a feel-good story for so many years. He was displayed as a person of resiliency when he came back from testicular cancer to compete and win again. Soon after, he founded the Livestrong Foundation to help other cancer survivors. In every respect, Armstrong was a role model for every small-business owner demonstrating leadership, mental toughness, commitment and focus.

When the initial doping allegations hit Armstrong in 2011, I was skeptical. I thought it was sour grapes by other losing competitors. But last year, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with having used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career and banned him from competition for life, I was convinced he was a cheater.

Now, Armstrong has finally admitted to using drugs on his "Tour de Apology" with Oprah Winfrey. "I was the leader of the team, and the leader of any team leads by example," Armstrong told Winfrey on the Thursday broadcast. As far as how his doping may have influenced others, he acknowledged, "If I do it, and I'm the leader of the team, you're leading by example, so that's a problem." 

What can small-business owners learn from this fallen leader?

Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey, televised as a two-part series, on Thursday and Friday. (Photo: Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images)

Be authentic. Your image as a leader has to match who you are outside of work. There is little separation of business and personal life these days. In today's highly connected digital world, the truth will come out sooner rather than later. Someone else always knows. If the image and reality of you don't match up, it's only a matter of time before there is a " leadership issue."

Keep the denial stage short. Tell the truth ASAP. If you have been systematically breaking the rules for a long time, come clean. The more adamant a liar you have been, as is the case with Armstrong, the harder it is to get forgiveness. The good news is that there are so many examples of public forgiveness for people like Bill Clinton, Pete Rose, Jerry Springer and Ted Kennedy. However, rehabilitation can only start after you tell the truth. The longer the denial stage, the longer forgiveness is delayed.

Be contrite and don't make excuses for your actions. No one wants to hear excuses from a leader. Forget revenge. Don't blame or strike out at others in the organization or the competitive landscape. Instead, own it. Apologize to others whom you have accused or hurt along the way. Taking responsibility for your actions will allow the conversation around you to move forward.

Clearly articulate why "next time" will be different. Tell why it will never happen again. This allows employees and friends to rally around you. We all make mistakes, and employees (and customers) understand that.

Remember, it's not about you. Most leaders are connected to something bigger than themselves. It might be the organization or the industry as a whole. Leaders think of the big picture, not just themselves.

Avoid becoming an all around loser like Armstrong. Remember, leaders are flawed individuals just like us. However, true leaders lead even when they are falling.

Read more Leadership Watch articles.

Photo: Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images