Tour de France and Leadership

While recently watching some Tour de France (TDF) DVDs during an indoor cycling session, I started thinking about how good TDF teams can be exemplars for leadership teams. I realize that sports metaphors are overused, and generally inaccurate, when discussing leadership but be patient while I explain what leadership teams can learn from a TDF bicycle team.

The TDF route is announced several months prior to the race and teams immediately begin to plan for the race. They review the route, look for opportunities over the 21 stages of the race, map out training plans for their riders, and create a strategic plan for the race. The team will compete in shorter stage races as preparation for the larger, longer TDF and riders will visit the actual TDF routes to practice on the roads. Teams will assess their progress and make adjustments as needed.

Teams truly are teams and each member has a well-defined role that is recognized, communicated, and appreciated. Television viewers see nine riders on the road but the team includes cooks, bicycle mechanics, managers, drivers, massage therapists, medical personnel, and more. They all understand that their roles are just as important as the team leader’s role. The nine riders cannot win without all of the team members functioning at a high level. The team leader understands this which may be why the TDF has a tradition of the race winner giving his prize winnings back to the team to be shared among those who supported his win.

During the race there are 21 other teams and 189 riders competing for space on narrow roads with each team wanting to be at the front of the race. This means that the well laid plans developed months before while looking at the TDF route, assessing strengths and weaknesses of the team, and practicing on empty roads are immediately under pressure.  Good teams will reassess, adapt, adjust tactics if needed, communicate the changes, and continue to focus on the goal of winning the TDF. Bad teams panic, disavow the plan, question their leadership, and split into factions as they watch the goal of winning quickly fade and disappear.  Theirs becomes a miserable existence as they attempt to simply survive to the end of the race

Good TDF teams create a culture of excellence that does not end or begin with winning the world’s most difficult endurance race. They always want to be the best which is why planning for the race is so important. They are data driven which is why they are always assessing and adjusting. They never arrive as a team. After celebrating victory they start planning for a return to the podium. Can they keep their best riders, who needs to be replaced, who can be added to make the team better, and what can be learned from victory? The team will also need to continue fundraising. Prize money never covers the cost of operating a team so sponsors have to be consistently recruited to support the team.

What can leadership teams learn from TDF bicycling teams?

  1. Always operate with a clear mission and vision
  2. Plan to reach your goals
  3. Data should inform your decisions
  4. Create feedback loops and adjust plans as needed to reach your goals
  5. Always communicate especially if change is involved
  6. Communicate each team member’s role, recognize their contributions and celebrate and reward their successes
  7. Assessment is an ongoing activity that supports excellence
  8. There may be a recognized public face to the team but leadership is a team activity
  9. You never arrive but you can create a culture of excellence that makes each day of the journey better than the last day.



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