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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Lance teaches us about leadership

Looking at the dynamics inside Lance Armstrong's various bicycle teams gives us an interesting insight into the "leadership" style of a sociopath.

All of the reports which have emerged indicate that Lance bullied his teammates into doping themselves, whether or not they were initially inclined to, and threatened to ruin their lives if they ever reported him.

With Lance, everything was always about Lance. But that's not the way he would have framed his argument to each newcomer. He would have phrased it to make it sound as if anyone who was unwilling to dope was letting the team down, as if the team was what Armstrong cared about most. He would have made the newcomer feel guilty for not having enough team spirit if he was reluctant to dope.

Another thing Lance would have done was approach every newcomer individually, so that he could emphasize to each of them that if he didn't dope, he would be the only one who didn't, and that every other rider was fine with the program. He would have talked about how easy it was to fool the testers, and how all the other competitors were doping anyway -- so why would that newcomer want to put himself at a disadvantage?

Then, when he threatened anyone who would expose him, he would have couched that as a matter of being disloyal to the entire team -- and their spouses and children. Lance only cared about Lance, but he would have paid a lot of lip service to the team ethic.

Why would Armstrong's teammates put up with such transparent manipulation? Most likely, because they were afraid of him. Even if they didn't understand sociopathy, they knew instinctively that Armstrong was a guy they ought not to cross, since he would go to any lengths to succeed, and was completely uninhibited in his vindictiveness and viciousness.

They all saw what happened whenever anybody did cross Armstrong. He would use all of the public relations machinery at his disposal to destroy them. He brought lawsuits against journalists who dared to suggest that he might be doping, and he impugned the character of former teammates who told the truth about him.

When Emma O'Reilly, the team masseuse, spoke to journalist David Walsh about his doping, Armstrong not only sued her, but belittled her publicly as a "whore" and "an alcoholic." O'Reilly later said that she felt badly for the other riders, who weren't as "comfortable" with the doping as Armstrong was. This stands to reason, since qualms are not part of a sociopath's personality. The other riders, since they were capable of feeling guilt, were uncomfortable.

Betsy Andreu is the wife of Frankie Andreu, a former Armstrong teammate. She testified that she had heard Armstrong tell doctors at the Indiana hospital which treated him for cancer back in '96 that he had taken testosterone, EPO, growth hormone, and steroids. Armstrong then explained to the press she was "obsessed and vindictive," and also that she was a "crazy bitch." He tried to blackball her husband from work in cycling. They were telling the truth and he wasn't, but that didn't matter. He was Lance Armstrong, and they were nobodies.

Most of Armstrong's teammates knew that they were dealing from a similarly weak position. Armstrong was an American icon who had recovered from cancer to scale the French Alps and come back victorious. He had even started a foundation to help cancer patients -- what could be better proof of good character than that? Every teammate knew that it would be his word against Lance's (and Lance's phalanx of lawyers), which was not a winning hand.

They all knew that Armstrong's public image was the opposite of his real personality. But they were simply too intimidated by him to cross him. That was just the reality that they lived with.

They also knew that they were better off just going along with the program. After agreeing to Lance's demands that they dope if they wanted to be part of the team, they were now guilty as well. They earned more money by virtue of being on a winning team. And they would lose their livelihoods if they decided to come clean.

In the end, it was a pact with the devil not dissimilar to that of the Colombian journalists who crossed paths with cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar back in the 1980's. Escobar would offer them a stark choice: either take the $500,000 I offer you and stop writing bad things about me, or I will kill you and your family. Those journalists who took the money may not have been heroes (unlike their dead colleagues), but they were certainly not bad people, either. They were just normal people who had been subjected to abnormal pressure.

Likewise, Armstrong's teammates weren't bad people. They simply got caught up in the maelstrom that a powerful sociopath inevitably creates around him. And, like all people who are thus manipulated, they ended up feeling used, and ended up full of resentment and bitterness.

This dynamic happens in schoolyards, on athletic teams, in corporations, in police departments, and even in criminal enterprises all the time: the sociopath takes control, manipulates, bullies, and compromises his associates until they acquiesce to his will. Then, once they are tainted too, the sociopath has complete control. And he leverages that control as much as he can. This is a form of "leadership" which is all too common.

No one -- unless they're terminally naive -- looks back at a sociopath with fondness. But by the time people realize how badly they've been used, the sociopath has gotten what he wanted and has moved on.

But that's leadership, sociopath-style.


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

Now we know why there's such a herd mentality among journalists. If you blow the whistle on Obama, you are shunned.

John Craig said...

Andrea --
True. But with them, there's also the fact that around 90% of them WANT to believe in him since they basically agree with him politically.