I am passionate about cycling and hearing about Chris Maffey cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End inspired me to share my love for it with K&H.
I love the complex interplay of personal discipline with teamwork. I love the combination of brutal effort and chess-like strategy. I love the epic scenery and the cool gadgets.
And I love the Tour de France. In a blatant bid to get more people interested in cycling, here are my ten leadership lessons from the Tour.
1. More collaboration equals more progress
In cycling, the more people you collaborate with, the faster you go. The more people who share the work at the front, offering others their slipstream, the faster and further you will go.
It is common for a group of riders to get ahead at the beginning of a stage. If this group is big enough and gets far enough ahead, they might be able to stay in front. But when the ‘peleton’ (the main group of riders) gets organised they will probably go faster.
So avoid making enemies among your competition. You never know when you may need them, and learn how to motivate others to work with you.
2. Sometimes leaders have to follow
Cycling is both a team sport and an individual sport. Team members sacrifice their individual ambition for that of the team and the team leader. However, if the leader does not have the strength to win, or if they are so far ahead that they don’t need to, they gain more credibility with their team mates for next time by helping one of them to win.
Whenever you are the leader, look for opportunities to share the glory and support your team mates in achieving it.
3. Leadership is emergent
Cycling is brutally meritocratic. The team may nominate a ‘leader’ for the tour, but if that leader loses time on a team mate, leadership moves to where it is most relevant. For a leader to remain the leader, they have to perform.
In hierarchies, ‘leadership’ is appointed; in teams, it is emergent and dynamic. Every member is expected to take responsibility and contribute what they can: sometimes that means leading, sometimes that means following.
4. Remember to look after yourself
Riding a tour stage consumes about 4,000 to 6,000 calories. Riders need to be constantly eating and drinking to make sure they have enough fuel for when it matters. Running out of fuel means a slow and painful end to the stage. After the stage they need to take care to rest, make time for massage, eat the right food, hydrate, stretch and get a good night’s sleep so that they can recover for the next day.
We all perform better when we are well fed and rested. If we want to lead we need to be in top condition as much of the time as possible. We need to look after our bodies and stay energised.
5. Equipment matters; team matters more
It is easy to get seduced into the kit and the gadgets. Carbon fibre bikes with lightweight components and mini computers that can tell you every detail of your ride. But the kit will never differentiate your performance for long; the way a team works is far harder to copy and is what sets winners apart from runners up.
Getting the people issues right too often goes into the ‘too hard’ box and is ignored, while investment is poured into equipment or other areas that are easier to understand. If you want your team to flourish, you will need to invest in it.
6. Train, train, train
A cyclist wanting to win the Tour de France will have started regular training and competition in their early teens. They will have built up their endurance base over 10 to 20 years (Tour winners in their early 20s are rare). They will have started their specific training the previous November and will have had a tailored programme over the spring, riding thousands of kilometers before they even get to the start line.
Riders will work with coaches, strategists, psychologists, doctors, nutritionists, physiologists and masseurs to ensure that they are in peak mental and physical condition for the race.
If we want the best from ourselves and our team, we need to take responsibility for our training. In today’s world there is so much that a leader needs to know – not just about their specialist subject, but also about psychology, marketing, communication, technology, the market, finance, motivational speaking and more.
Cyclists say about recovery: When you don’t have to stand, sit; when you don’t have to sit, lie down.
Leaders might say: When you don’t have to communicate, learn; when you don’t have to learn, rest.
7. Protect your star riders
In cycling the star rider is usually a specialist who can climb or sprint better than the others. The team will ride to protect that rider and save their energy for the key moments of the race, when they can make the difference. The team will fetch them food and drink from the team car, pace them back to the front if they stop for a pee or a mechanical problem and spend hours riding in front of them to protect them from the wind.
Most organisational teams also have a star, the best designer, sales person, technologist or whatever. To make the most of that skill the rest of the team needs to rally round and ensure that the star player can focus time and energy on doing what they do better than the others. The team also needs to treat the stars carefully to avoid ‘divadom’.
8. Energy management is more important than time management
In the race it is the relative time to other riders that matters, not the absolute time. The rider who wins over three weeks is the one who manages their energy best. They avoid wasting energy by riding in the wind or attacking when they don’t have to.
Time pressure is often an illusion. We all know that when we are working on something we are passionate about time is rarely a problem; it is when we are working on things that bore us that we run out of time. The ideal team will have specialists who are passionate about all areas that need to be covered, so that everyone can stay as energised as possible.
9. The last 1% makes all the difference
In the Tour de France you might lead any of the competitions by a crushing margin right up to the last kilometre of the last stage. But it is worth nothing if you don’t finish.
Whatever we do in life, persistence is often worth as much, if not more, than brilliance. Whatever we do, it is worth very little if it is incomplete – no matter how brilliant the rest of it is.
10. You have to love it
To be a pro cyclist takes an incredible level of dedication and commitment. Even in their teens the aspiring cyclist lives monastically in pursuit of their passion. No rider can achieve greatness if their goal is financial reward or celebrity – they have to love it, they have to have a passion for what they are doing.
Everyone who aspires to success and fulfillment in life needs to find and focus on doing what they love. It is the only way.
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