The recently completed 106th edition of cycling’s best-known stage race, the Tour de France, was one of the most exciting in recent memory. The race had become a bit of a predictable slog, with a dominant team controlling the race and delivering a winner from the favorites.
This year was a roller coaster that included everything from prematurely canceled stages due to mudslides, to a relatively unknown Frenchman wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey for 14 days, igniting the passions of the French people who haven’t seen an overall French winner since 1985. Days before the close of the 21-day race, a 22-year-old Colombian became the first person from that country to win the Tour de France, potentially marking the emergence of a multi-year superstar.
Whether you enjoy cycling and the Tour de France, an admittedly difficult event for new viewers to understand, there were interesting leadership lessons on display as the race covered 2,200 miles of roads from Belgium to Paris.
1. Build a team and tactics around your strategy
Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of the Tour de France for the uninitiated is that there are multiple races within the overall event. There’s a competition for the overall winner, denoted by the yellow jersey, which represents the rider with the lowest overall time across the 21 stages. There’s also a competition to win each stage, as well as multiple other competitions, from the race’s best sprinter, denoted by the green jersey, to the “king of the mountains” in a polka dot jersey.
Each of the 22 eight-man teams comes in with a specific goal and a roster of riders designed to achieve that goal. One team might target winning sprints, and will bring a powerful sprinter as its leader, combined with “lead-out men” to help that sprinter conserve his energy until moments before a finish. A team targeting an overall win brings strong climbers to pace their leader in the mountains.
For some teams, the strategy is as simple as riding to the head of the group every day to get TV time for themselves and their sponsors, knowing that stronger riders will overtake them at the end of the day. Each team settled on a strategy well in advance of the Tour de France and filled its eight-man roster with the people its leaders felt were best equipped to achieve that strategy. It designed its race-day tactics to realize that objective, even if it were not manifest until the waning days of the Tour de France.
As leaders we need to carefully consider not just our strategy, but how we configure our team and tactics to execute against that strategy, and also have the maturity to understand when we’re simply not equipped for a certain objective and need to reconsider the goal.
2. Plan for the “punch in the mouth”
Boxer Mike Tyson famously quipped that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and multiple punches were on display in this year’s Tour de France. The best teams quickly adapted, in some cases completely changing their strategy or the roles of key players on their team, based on what the race threw at them. In the case of dominant team Ineos, in the final days of the race, one of the team’s leaders transitioned to riding for his co-leader, abandoning his hopes of an overall win in support of his teammate.
It can be difficult to abandon a well-planned and well-loved strategy, especially when it becomes untenable far more subtly than a bike race where it’s clear where you are on the road. Constantly try to evaluate whether your strategy is working and whether it’s still an appropriate objective before you risk losing the proverbial race.
3. Use the data, but also respect the intangible
One of the major criticisms of recent professional bike races is that they’ve become too clinical. Cyclists and their coaches now have data about everything from how much power they can sustain on the bike, to how much glycogen is in their muscles and how many calories they’ll need to power their bodies on a given stage. It’s a case study in the power of data and analytics, and increasing performance shows that it works.
However, the other major story from this year’s race was Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe. He was known for his ability in one-day races, and his early-stage wins, while well-executed, were not unexpected. However, as fans of the Tour de France have often noted, “Yellow gives you wings,” and Alaphilippe exceeded all expectations, holding the yellow jersey for 14 days and keeping fans and competitors on edge.
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Like cyclists, we’re awash in data about how our teams are performing, and it’s easy to forget intangibles like morale, vision, organization support, and inspiration. These are much harder to measure but can have a very real impact, for better or worse. If you can understand the effects these intangibles have on your teams and combine that with the hard science of data, you’ll have a winning combination.
Master these leadership lessons
Whether you enjoy cycling, consider some of the leadership, management, and team dynamics on display during the Tour de France. Much like our working lives are not won and lost during a single event, the Tour de France provided a 23-day microcosm of some of the challenges and opportunities we face as leaders. Luckily, unlike the Tour de France, there’s room for all of us on the winner’s podium should we master these lessons.