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Lance Armstrong: What You Can Learn From His Failure

Lying, denial, cheating: There have been plenty of Lance Armstrongs in the business world. But are these situations really as black and white as they seem?
Lance Armstrong at the Power of Four mountain bicycle race at the base of Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo.
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There's an age-old saying: "May you live in interesting times."

The enigmatic phrase usually applies to famous or notorious people. Whether it's a blessing or a curse often depends on their actions--such as getting caught doing something they shouldn't have done.

That certainly appears to be the case with Lance Armstrong.

After years of angry denials, the disgraced cyclist finally admitted to doping--to Oprah Winfrey, no less. He appears to be after some sort of redemption, or at least a diminished ban so he can earn a living racing in triathlons.

The question on everyone's mind is, does he deserve absolution, or did his bad behavior cross a line from which there is no return? To most people, that's a question of ethics and a black-and-white one, at that. Not to me.

While Armstrong's situation may seem unique, it's not.

It's actually quite common in the business world. Many of you may face a similar dilemma at some point in your career, if you haven't already. And like it or not, the path to choose is not as black and white as you might think.

First, let me explain something about Armstrong. He is a fierce competitor who's incredibly focused on winning. That's what drives him. He always has something to prove and a chip on his shoulder about proving it.

Which means he's not unlike some other star athletes, such as former tennis star John McEnroe or Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. To me, he also sounds a lot like a number of great entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Guys like Donald Trump, George Steinbrenner, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison come to mind.

A big difference is that Armstrong found himself competing in a sport that has been completely overrun by organized, systematic doping that generates more red blood cells and improves aerobics. If you don't do it, you're at a tremendous disadvantage. And everyone who does it knows exactly how to avoid getting caught.

Once you start down that path, it's a slippery slope.

Not only that, but once you win big and achieve some notoriety that way, it's all too easy to find yourself locked on a treadmill you can't get off. We'll come back to that in a minute.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not defending Armstrong's actions. I'm simply suggesting that it's not uncommon to experience similar dilemmas in the business world.

Let me give you a couple of notable examples that come to mind:

Just six years ago, an epidemic of stock option backdating accounting scandals rocked the high-tech industry. It took down dozens of top executives from Apple, Altera, Broadcom, Brocade, Cirrus Logic, KLA-Tencor, Maxim, McAfee, Rambus, Sanmini-SCI, Take-Two, Verisign, and Vitesse.

The Apple case tainted the careers of two top executives, former CFO Fred D. Anderson and senior VP and general counsel Nancy Heinen, both of whom were forever banned from serving as officers or directors of public companies. Steve Jobs narrowly dodged a bullet because his backdated options had gone underwater, so he had previously had them cancelled and exchanged for restricted shares. That was sheer luck.

And how about all the top executives that got caught lying on their résumés about degrees they never received? Former chief executive Scott Thompson was shown the door at Yahoo following the Résumé-gate scandal. But Microsemi's board members stood behind CEO James Peterson, even after he lied to them and their shareholders in denying the allegations that later turned out to be true.

It's easy to assume that those executives intended malice, but I don't think that's how it typically happens.

I think they embellish their résumés--as many do--when they're young and in desperate need of work. And it follows them throughout their careers. By the time they hit the jackpot and become top executives, it's too late to change their résumés without calling attention to it. There's that treadmill we talked about earlier.

Relating all this back to the Lance Armstrong situation, I think bad behavior often comes down to three major factors:

The age factor. When I was young, I did some stupid things. I know very few people who didn't. Luckily, they didn't amount to much and I didn't get locked into any treadmills I couldn't get off of. I'm incredibly thankful for that. Today, I'm more risk averse because I have so much more to lose, so I'm in little danger of crossing any lines. That clearly wasn't the case with Armstrong and some of the others in the examples above who made bad decisions and perhaps set their paths when they were young.

The denial factor. When it comes to leaders behaving badly, denial is nearly always in play. But any good shrink can tell you that, on some level--probably subconscious--nearly all of us are aware of what we're doing. And if we do bad stuff, it eats at us. So, even if you're good at compartmentalizing bad behavior, a part of your brain feels guilty. And if you are consciously aware of what you're doing, well, who wants to spend their life looking over their shoulder? Not me, that's for sure. It's a lousy way to live. In any case, we all have some capacity for compartmentalization and denial under certain conditions and at certain points in time. All of us.

The ethics factor. Some people are so driven by the need to prove something, by that chip on their shoulder, that they'll do whatever it takes to win. It's a powerful motivator in lots of successful people. And sometimes, they cross a line. For others, ethics and morals are a really big deal. They simply won't cross that line no matter what. I think these two groups of people are at opposing ends of the bell curve, and everyone in the middle has some aspects of both extremes.

So you see, none of this is black and white. That's why I look at Armstrong's redemption in purely practical terms. I'm not interested in what his motivation is for reversing course and coming clean. But if, and only if, he's willing to help expose and bring down the doping culture in cycling, then I think he deserves some leniency and should be allowed to compete in triathlons.

If you're more inclined to be judgmental, that's fine. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

IMAGE: David Zalubowski/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Last updated: Jan 16, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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