Leadership Lessons from Lance Armstrong: What to Do After You Make a Huge Mistake

Posted by on Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013 with 2 Comments

making a mistake as a leader - Lance Armstrong Doping scandal

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Executive coaching sometimes covers the bases on helping leaders be the best at what they do. Sometimes, being the best means eating crow when something is your fault. An executive coach will help reunify the office or business so life can go on post-mistake.

While there are crisis intervention public relations folks who deal with the public during an emergency (i.e. a CEO was caught stealing) that’s not what we mean.  This type of executive coaching is designed for executives to be a better leader on a day to day basis.

There is no better person, perhaps, to prove our point on a very large scale than Lance Armstrong. Based on his recent interview with Oprah, we got so see just how far not coming clean after a huge mistake will get us – he wasn’t winning all those medals thanks to his team uniform designs.

To get started, here’s the best holistic (i.e. on a realistic day-to-day basis) approach to almost any mistake:

Just admit it.
You’re human. They’re probably human. Just admit when you do something wrong. You can decide to what degree you apologize for your mistake. For example, “I’m sorry, you cannot have Tuesday off,” is a completely different caliber than, “I’m aware you already booked the tickets to your vacation but you cannot have the dates off.”

Do not engage in discussion.
This is completely counter intuitive. The first thing many of us do when accused is to deny or defend our actions. If you made a mistake, just say, “You’re right.” It will feel terrible, but hopefully end things peaceably and you can move on to the resolution.

Be genuine.
If you truly aren’t sorry, truly don’t feel you made a mistake or honestly can’t admit to your own wrong-doing, don’t.  Wait until you take a little space to genuinely respond to the issues at hand.

Hide out or act normally.
If you start acting strange, people will notice and start talking even more. So, whatever your typical routine is, an executive coach would advise you to stick to it. If you are so affected that you can’t act normally, try to keep a very low profile so things can blow over.

doping denied by lance armstrong

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Specifically, however, let’s take a look at the way Lance Armstrong handled himself. When he was accused of doping (having never tested positive by the way), he immediately denied the allegation.

He refused to participate in arbitration, leading the USADA (United States Anti-doping Agency) to strip him of all seven Tour de France titles. (The timeline is a bit more complicated than that, but this is a good summation.)

Finally, in October 2012, a 1,000 page report released by the USADA reveals the very sad scheme Armstrong used for years to cover his tracks. He was recently interviewed by Oprah and admitted the allegations were true.

So, what did he do right, then wrong from an executive coaching perspective? At first, Armstrong implied the allegations were wrong and did not engage in any discussion. Thanks to his refusal to engage in the scandal, many believed he was innocent and took his side. Arguably, he also hid out a bit from facing the press.

If other teammates hadn’t come forward to tell the truth, Armstrong might have gotten away with everything. Since they did, the pendulum has swung the other way. He’s gone, as one headline put it, from hero to zero.

This time, he’s admitting his mistake, acting normally, being genuine and minimally engaging. What’s interesting, however, is that we can see from before and after the report was released exactly how the reaction someone has after they make a huge mistake effects things, right?

As an executive leader, when you do something wrong, most likely never on this caliber, just take a minute to review the above tips on how you can handle things to reach the best possible conclusion. If you aren’t sure honesty is the best policy, just ask Armstrong how handling things all wrong worked out for him – the second time.

Larry Seal is an experienced Executive Coach, Facilitator, and Speaker with over 20 years experience working with senior and executive level teams. For executive coaching needs, corporate development and improved leadership skills, contact Larry Seal today!

2 Responses to “Leadership Lessons from Lance Armstrong: What to Do After You Make a Huge Mistake”

  1. Larry,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your advice here. I think Lance saying he was sorry and that he’s a human who is flawed was a step in the right direction (though we can debate lots of other parts of the interview). The first 10 questions are so where he could only answer yes or no were super painful to watch. He definitely looked like a human being there.

    That said, one of the things I always recommend with clients and my team is to try, “I’m sorry” without the “but” or the explanation. It works in fights with spouses, in disagreements at work, pretty much in every situation.

    Last week I dropped the ball on something pretty significant. It’s very uncharacteristic of me and I felt (feel) terrible. I said I was sorry and what I was going to do to fix it. The person was really angry and wanted me to know so and came back at me with more reasons I screwed him up. I said, “You’re right. I’m very sorry. I’ll fix it right now.” That stopped him and he called me later to say he appreciated how I handled it.

    So it doesn’t have to be in a crisis…it can work in any situation where you’re wrong.


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