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Bruce Piasecki

Quality Insider

Shining a Light on the Dark Side of Teams

Seven lessons the business world can learn from the downfall of Lance Armstrong

Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 18:01

During the past few months, sports fans around the world have watched the downfall of Lance Armstrong, the most celebrated cyclist of all time. His televised confession interview with Oprah Winfrey—where he admitted to doping, using blood transfusions, and more—riveted the public. But what interests me most about the Armstrong story are the lessons it offers the business world about the nature of teams.

I’ve come to see the truth in the statement, “the team is more powerful than the individual,” and this knowledge has permeated every aspect of my work and my life. Teams expand the human experience. They extend our wings in practical, pragmatic, and measurable ways. People who would not normally be able to succeed alone—the planners, the doers, those who lack the internal spark to market themselves—can reap the benefits of success in the context of teams.

Yet many teams have a dark side. When these darker impulses are allowed to eclipse the positive transcendence that teamwork can bring, great harm can result. Evil deeds flourish. People get hurt. Lance Armstrong is just one very dramatic and visible example of what can go wrong with teams.

In my book, Doing More With Teams (Wiley, 2013), I have much to say about Armstrong. He cites the 200-plus-page report that was published and released in 2012 by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency about this most favored athlete. Twenty-six competitors (including a deliberate mix of direct teammates and key opposing team riders) verified the claims of what The New York Times called “a massive doping scheme, more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history.”

In particular, 11 world-class teammates from the Lance Armstrong teams documented how all the doping was centered around and for Armstrong. Most damning, George Hincapie, Armstrong’s closest friend and fellow teammate during each of his seven Tour de France victories, confessed to doping with Armstrong. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report noted the evidence made clear that Armstrong had “ultimate control over his own personal drug use,” and that he also “dictated its use over the doping culture for his team and the sport at large.”

Compare these dynamics to those of other well-known sports team, and you’ll see a marked contrast.

It was pure pleasure for a decade to watch how well Michael Jordan fit in with his court family, which was full of different personalities like the quiet Scottie Pippen and the very outrageous Dennis Rodman. The beauty of this team was that its members worked together in a way that allowed everyone to learn, together, where they fit while working for the common good.

Similar dynamics play out on the “courts” of the business world every day. When teams are well constructed with the right mix of talents and personalities—and well governed by leaders who recognize the most important capabilities in their people and facilitate them for the good of all—companies achieve, grow, and prosper. Yet when the “dark side” takes over, we see Enrons, WorldComs, Madoffs... and yes, Armstrongs.

So can we in the business world learn from the tragedy of Lance Armstrong? Here are seven lessons leaders would do well to heed:

Fierce individualism has no place in teams. Just the fact that we think of Lance Armstrong’s teams as “Lance Armstrong’s teams” speaks volumes. It was as if Armstrong’s entire team (Team RadioShack being the most recent) was there only for him. When we pin all our hopes on an individual, we are doomed to be disappointed. This is because youth and ability have a way of fading over time. Youthful arrogance, due to its fleeting nature, is no foundation on which to build a future. We need the shoulder strength of teams to keep us competent.

As leaders, we need to be sure that “the MVP syndrome” is not allowed to define our teams. Be always on the alert for individuals who might be losing sight of the team that gave them an identity—the group with whom they worked to produce the fame for which they are now known. It is in such situations that workplace ills such as favoritism, sexism, and even criminal activity like embezzlement tend to flourish.

What practical advice do I have? Seek to hire “coachable” individuals rather than individualist-minded high performers. Do everything possible to promote and reward teamwork rather than individualism. Whether your efforts are centered on pay structure, group incentives, verbal recognition, or some other technique, seek always to send the signal that it’s strong teams (not strong individuals) that make up a strong company.

MVPs must not be allowed to dictate to or pressure teammates. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report made it clear that Armstrong was driving the doping culture of his team. It stated, “It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike; he also required that they adhere to a doping program outlined for them or be replaced.”

Here’s what I know: You cannot do more with teams in an atmosphere of intimidation, deception, and contract pressures. You cannot ride into a more-than-average victory with that much weight of secrecy on your mind. You cannot make your friends the victims as you claim victory. This all goes against the magic of teams.

We must be careful not to give victors the benefit of the doubt. In all teams there is an inherent desire to protect our superstars and keep them winning. (Never mind all the others whose quieter, though no less critical, contributions are downplayed.) Armstrong was able to perpetrate his deceptions thanks to, as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report states, “the help of a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others within and outside the sport and on his own team.”

We are all aware of conditions when everyone else was willing to go along with a wrong. We recall instances in history where the politics of fear enabled the Nazis, and where embezzlement seemed normal. Yet these are harder to see when victory shines so bright. Leaders must be mindful of this very human tendency, in themselves and in others, to look the other way, to give our victors the benefit of the doubt. We must be vigilant and alert to wrongdoing. We must be willing to bench the MVP, or even to fire the superstar for the good of the team and the sake of integrity.

Ceaseless victory is a fantasy. Teams must keep a healthy sense of perspective. Lance Armstrong became a larger-than-life figure because he kept winning races. (Indeed, he won his race against his most formidable foe, cancer.) He was addicted to victory—felt entitled to it, even—and this is what drove him to drive his team to illicit extremes. In the end it was this addiction (to ceaseless victory, not to drugs) that became his undoing. The lesson is clear: When we don’t learn to tolerate failure, we will do anything to keep the public adulation coming.

I believe if others had taught Armstrong that the tolerance of losing is mixed with the pleasure of knowing we have tried our best, he would have proven a more dependable competitor. The great CEOs, the well-compensated doctors, the best in hospital administrators, and the legendary leaders of colleges are not people known for expecting ceaseless victory. They are great competitors because they come to accept that we cannot always win. Indeed, only through loss can we grow and improve.

Leaders must instill in teams this tolerance of losing. In word and deed we must convey that failure is a part of life and thus a part of business. We must model this truth by allowing our own weaknesses, flaws, and vulnerabilities to show. We must refrain from punishing teams that give their best yet fall short of victory. And after a defeat, we must insist that employees get back in action as team players and work together toward the next contest. In this way the pain of loss will naturally dissipate.

Great teams revel in the pleasure of persistence and the sheer thrill of striving. Presumably, Lance Armstrong and his teams could be satisfied only with an unbroken string of victories. But where else is satisfaction to be found? Once we’ve accepted that defeat is a part of the journey, there is great fun—yes, fun—in knowing that we will stumble and fall from time to time, yet get up, and try again, with some success. Another way to say this is: Accepting the reality of our imperfection takes the pressure off. Then, and only then, do we free ourselves to feel the pleasure of persistence and the sheer thrill of striving.

It’s critical to teach teams to be well prepared for assignments and to keep going in spite of hardship. When my company enrolls an executive in leadership training, we emphasize the following lessons of teamwork:
• How to play through pain
• How to resist the criminal opportunities inherent in becoming an MVP
• How to keep your feet on the ground despite being a member of special teams with special force
• How to outlive uncomfortable appointments, such as when your boss has selected you for teams that are a bad fit, and how to behave when you are chosen for teams you do not want to play on


In the end, all of our training is about the pleasure of accomplishment in teams. Life can be a tough slog, and victories are sporadic at best. Maybe we can’t win, but we can keep going. This striving brings with it its own rewards. It is up to us to learn to appreciate them. In a world full of pain and blind ambition, the pleasure of accomplishment may prove the most reliable path to make the great reliably greater.

What makes teams successful is a sense of commonality, shared values, integrity, and a commitment to one another. In preparing for a team event, or in becoming a member of a team, a transformation occurs where team members end their individual associations and create a team identity through sharing with others the experience of that process. Once the team is created, a strong bond is already in place from that preparation, from the obstacles everyone had to overcome to get there.

When joining the military, everyone has a crucible, a basic training, which really isn’t basic at all and is usually the hardest experience to get through. The crucible is something all members must overcome to be part of the team.

We have many ways to create bonding experiences in business. There is nothing wrong with off-site team-building events or weekly social gatherings—the more people are together, the better they get to know each other—but there is no substitute for “real-world” work. Bring people together often so they can share their progress, brainstorm ideas to keep projects moving, and generate the synergy needed to move from being a collection of individuals to becoming an interconnected, mutually dependent team. Great teams mourn losses together. They celebrate success together. Always, they share information and hold themselves accountable to the team.

The right “captains” can help us build teams strong enough to withstand the dark side. Here, of course, in the choosing and nurturing of captains, is where all of the lessons coalesce. It takes a certain type of leader to create not just a loose affiliation of fierce individualists but a true team. My definition of a captain is someone who can rapidly recognize the key capabilities of their team members. They are able to see the capacity for harm and evil, and quickly disarm it (as opposed to Lance Armstrong, who allowed it to flourish and even promoted it). On the other hand, captains recognize the capacity for generosity and quickly put it to use in building up other team members and generating momentum. In this way they build teams that balance the negatives in each member, making a stronger and better core.

Captains also treat their team members with a kind of fierce immediacy, and they achieve team coherence and team integrity in the process. Captains do not take the time to—as I heard from several military sources—“wait for solutions.” Instead, “they seek possible solutions and test them on the fly.”

So, keeping teams safely away from “the dark side” begins with ensuring that the right captains are at the helm. All of which brings to mind a big question: Are captains made, or are they born? Personally, I think the answer is “both.” In my work I have found that many leaders have the raw material to be captains. They simply need to be nurtured and developed in ways that coax forth their inherent noble qualities and bring them to full flower.

Invest in your captains. Choose them well and use them wisely. Give them authority to align and make accountable those capable of evil and harm—or integrity and generosity. They will bring the results and the profits you are looking for, and along the way they will empower your people to extend their wings and soar in the magic that only teams can generate.


About The Author

Bruce Piasecki’s picture

Bruce Piasecki

Bruce Piasecki is president and founder of AHC Group Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in corporate governance, energy, environmental strategy, product innovation, and sustainable strategy. Piasecki is the author of several books on business strategy, valuation, and corporate change, including In Search of Environmental Excellence: Moving Beyond the Blame (Simon and Schuster, 1990), and Doing More with Less: The New Way to Wealth (Wiley, 2012). His newest book, Doing More with Teams: The New Way to Winning will be published by Wiley in March 2013.


The Dark Side of Captaining-ship

Thank you for your realistic, deep analysis. Yet, I quite fail to agree with your conclusion that "we" should invest in our captains: would you ever invest in a Bounty's like Captain Bligh? Or we should rather name him Captain "Bilnd"? History is crowded with recounts of any kind of "crew" mutinying against his captain. Whoever is in a position of command or of mastering, has first of all to care for his or her own crew, or team. You mention biking: you therefore might remember the world-class biker Fausto Coppi, who probably died of some kind of doping, but who held is team in the highest consideration: it was his team who made him a champion - he was well aware of that.