What the Lance Armstrong Story Teaches About Sustainable Leadership

Posted 10.25.2012

Anyone in the market for a 24” by 36” signed color portrait of Lance Armstrong leading the Tour de France? I’ve had one on my office wall for four or five years but I’ll be taking it down now. Over the past several weeks, Armstrong has experienced one of the most dramatic self induced falls from grace ever. The guy who thrilled and inspired millions of people and raised millions of dollars for cancer research has been stripped of his seven Tour titles, lost his endorsement deal with Nike and former sponsors are apparently going to sue him for claw backs because his core story wasn’t true.

Living a life that is aligned with the story you’re telling is at the heart of sustainable leadership. You might be able to fake it for awhile but eventually the truth comes to light. Armstrong was the “clean” cyclist who battled back from cancer to win seven Tours. He built his story on the idea that it was only his hard work and dedication that enabled him to win all of those races while everyone else in his sport was doping. As The New York Times reported, the evidence now shows that he was doping and insisted that every rider on his team dope as well. He presented himself as something he wasn’t.

A story is a promise. Armstrong broke his. The good work he’s done with LiveStrong and all of the yellow bracelets is over. Who’s going to wear a yellow bracelet at this point when it represents not just battling cancer but such a lack of integrity on the part of the movement’s founder?

You could argue that the good Armstrong did through LiveStrong outweighs the lies he told about his story. There’s no doubt that he did a lot of good. So have a lot of other organizations battling cancer. In the end, though, Armstrong’s leadership wasn’t sustainable because his story wasn’t true. There are a lot of ways that leaders can break trust with the people who admire and follow them. Nothing does it faster than being exposed as something you said you weren’t.

What are your thoughts and lessons learned from the Armstrong story?