Let The Tour de France Teach You How to be a Better Employee
The 97th Tour de France finished yesterday and it was a stellar one, with an epic showdown for the yellow jersey, a celebration of 100 years of cycling in the Pyrenees, the cementing of Mark Cavendish’s deserved rep as the most dominant sprinter on the block and Lance Armstrong’s final (this time he really means it!) kick at the grand tour can. I confess that I’m kind of at loose ends now. Despite not having been on a bicycle since I was 12, I love the Tour unabashedly and will get up at whatever insanely odd hour is necessary to catch its yearly three-week winding around France (and neighboring countries). Chases! Crashes! Crazy fans! Beautiful scenery! Dudes beating each other with bike wheels!
I’ve tried to explain to non-fans what my fascination with this event is, but maybe describing it as “chess on wheels” was the wrong tactic to pique people’s curiosity. So, this year, I’ve decided to offer up three job-related lessons that I’ve gleaned from following the 2010 Tour de France instead. The things we can learn from spandex-clad men in funny helmets!
The Peter Principle is alive and well
Since I watched the Tour via live internet feeds this year, I was at the mercy of whatever English broadcast happened to be available on a given day. My preference is for the delightful Versus team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, but often I was stuck watching the Eurosport feed. And Eurosport means listening to the aural awkwardness of one Sean Kelly. Widely regard as one of the top professional riders of the 80s, Kelly is downright abysmal as a commentator. Immune to the jokes of his fellow Eurosporters and prone to speaking in a flat, affectless monotone that goes on for paragraphs without a pause or breath, whatever the breadth and depth of his cycling knowledge, he just doesn’t have the personality or animation required to provide color commentary. As in the case of excellent workers who are promoted to management as a reward for their efforts but lack the supervisory skills to handle that responsibility, just because you were skilled at a sport, doesn’t automatically qualify you to call the play-by-play for the viewing or listening audience.
Relatability builds trust
When I heard that Lance Armstrong was coming out of retirement for the 2009 Tour, I couldn’t help but cringe. I’m not a fan and I had gotten used to several happily Lance-free years – no checking in with him before and after each stage, no Bob Roll waxing poetic about his man crush, no clip packages of his greatest moments, etc., etc. I thought 2009 would be a last hurrah; one and done, so to speak. But no, after last year’s third place finish, Armstrong decided to put in an appearance in this year’s Tour. And what an appearance it was. From the beginning, Armstrong was off his storied form. In one memorable stage, he crashed three times. In the end, he finished in 23rd place, almost 40 minutes behind Tour winner Alberto Contador. While personal branding types would roundly condemn Armstrong’s off-peak participation as damaging to his legacy as the preeminent cyclist of his time and one of the all-time greats, it actually bolstered his reputation. Viewers saw not the relentless machine of previous Tours, but an almost 39 year-old man past his physical prime who could no longer keep up with the new generation of elite riders. Lance Armstrong was finally human, obviously fallible and it looked good on him. By letting us see him at less than his best, it made his seven previous victories seem all the more spectacular. They seemed more the product of a phenomenal athlete in his prime than that of a pedal-pushing automaton whose dominance over mere mortals was a foregone conclusion from day one of the race. It worked so well that even I was rooting for Lance to pull out a stage victory this year and exit the sport with one final burst of glory. Well played, Mr. Armstrong. Perfection is admirable, but a flash of vulnerability is relatable and relatability builds trust or at least convinces coworkers you aren’t a Cylon.
Winning is good, but don’t be gauche about it
Everyone loves a winner (not as much a we love an underdog, but still), but we like to see winning as the triumph of pure talent and individual determination. By contrast, wanting it too much and being willing to do whatever it takes to get it is off-putting. We cling to the belief that we still live and work in a meritocratic environment and will be rewarded accordingly. Enter one Alberto Contador. Three times a Tour winner, he obviously missed this memo. Last year, despite being teammates with Armstrong and ostensibly there to support Armstrong’s quest for an eighth victory, Contador torpedoed Astana team unity by chasing the victory for himself. It paid off, but did nothing for his popularity or reputation as a solid teammate in the process. This year, he was up to his old tricks again – violating Tour etiquette by chasing down one of his own Astana teammates on a breakaway (and robbing him of a stage win) to gain a few precious seconds on tour rival (and fan favorite) Andy Schleck and going on the attack against Schleck while Schleck was in the throes of mechanical difficulty. The latter move earned Contador widespread criticism for unsportsmanlike behavior and led him to offer up a public apology, but the damage was done. Contador earned his third victory and cemented his rep as the kind of guy for whom winning takes precedence above all else and who has no grasp of/no respect for the unspoken rules governing the Tour and the implied gentlemanly conduct (fisticuffs aside) of its riders. Not exactly the type of colleague you’d trust to have your back or whose promotion you’d be keen to celebrate.