This past Friday Lance Armstrong appeared before 300 fellow entrepreneurs and myself for a one hour, no-holds barred Q&A. Earlier that day, about 15 of us had the opportunity to join him for an early morning run. I really had no idea what to expect as I waited for him at entrance of the hotel lobby but I sure was curious. Just like that, there he was. Down-to-earth, unassuming and a bit nervous. He took as much time as we wanted for photos and answered a few questions before we took off. In his element, he relaxed and I could see Lance the athlete effortlessly running, safe from the circus that his life has become. I wish I could share more stories from the run but it’s 5am my time (Seattle), we’re running at a mile of elevation (Denver) and the faster guys in our group are pressing the pace. My goal at this point is to put my head down and stick with the group as I’m not sure I’ll be able to find my way back to the hotel. Thankfully, I survived.
A few hours later, a less defiant Lance from the one we saw on Oprah walked onto the stage. Again, I’m not sure what to expect but I’m super curious as what he’s going to say. During our run, one of my peers warned Lance to expect some brutal questions. His reply, “It’s ok. At this point, I’m a human pinata.” Here is a man that once was one of the most celebrated sports heros in the world, reduced to being a “human pinata”. This begs the question, “are there career management lessons can we learn from Lance?” Before we get to those lessons, we need to understand Lance’s mindset and why he did what he did.
Why He Did it.
In a very candid moment Lance shared exactly why he doped, lied and went to extremes to protect his lies. “I’m not going back to Plano and working in a bike shop. I’m staying… We all opted in.” He went on to explain that he took the same approach to competing in the Tour de France that he did to battling cancer. “Cancer was life and death for me. I transferred that to the tour. Winning was life and losing was death.” Viewed from that mindset, no option was off the table when it came to winning. From this comes our first career management lesson…
Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, banned for life from competitive cycling and removed from the Live Strong foundation that he founded, Lance still doesn’t seem to fully understand why he generates so much hate. Paraphrasing here, “everyone else went back to racing except me. We were all doing it.” That much is true. He did own that “overall I should never have treated people the way that I did.” That’s further than he went on Oprah when he came clean about the lies back in January of 2013.
He says that he “understands” why people feel the way they do and he “accepts” it but he doesn’t come across as a man that’s fully changed. When asked about what he would have done differently, he said that he wished he had treated people better and that he could have competed in an era when cycling was clean. The piece that is missing from Lance’s confessions is remorse. He says the right things but frankly, I believe he would do most of it again. Lance wants to fight, Lance wants to win and that’s a part of his personality that hasn’t changed. There just isn’t room in that equation for him to consider others or consider being “Likeable”. Until he wakes up to this, there will not be a Lance Armstrong redemption story.
Lies Beget Lies.
Lance is correct that everyone else on the Tour lied, cheated and went right back to racing. He wasn’t banned from cycling for life and left to live out his years as a social pariah for cheating. It was the lies about the lies and lengths he went to defend himself and deceive us that turned his story into a tragedy.
Thinking about it, I’m not sure how his story could have ever had a happy ending once he decided to dope. And that’s the interesting part of this tale. He knew that admitting he had cheated would result in him being stripped of his Tour victories. Perhaps he could have quietly won a few Tours and rode off into the sunset but that just wasn’t his style. Again, losing was dying and Lance chose to ride these lies all the way to the top and ultimately all the way back down to the bottom. How much deeper is this bottom? Aside from career and social suicide, he’s already settled $20M in lawsuits and is facing one last monster legal battle. His former teammate, Floyd Landis, is suing Lance (details here) on the behalf of the government under the False Claims Act for $100M! With career earnings of just over $200M (details here), Lance will lose what he has left of his fortune. Rather fitting in my view. This all brings us to lesson number two. You can’t move on with your life until the lies stop and you’ve faced the music (all the music).
His Legacy and Career Management Lessons.
It’s been close to a week since I met, ran with and listened to Lance. Going in I wondered what I was going to take away from the encounter and how I would feel about him. I do agree with him that his Tour victories are as legitimate as the ones before and after him. All it takes is a quick look at the winning times since the scandal broke to show that not much has changed in the sport of cycling (winners and times here). He also founded Live Strong which has raised approximately $500M for the fight against cancer. Another likeable discovery about Lance is that he sends video “you can do its” to EVERY person battling cancer that reaches out to him. That information came to us via Aron Ralston who I met (and wrote about here) later that day. Finally, I do not expect my sports heros to be role models. So where does this leave me with Lance? That’s a question I’m still struggling with.