Don’t amputate your fist – what the UCI need to learn about culture change

This is the second post I have dedicated to the UCI in light of the Lance Armostrong affair. In terms of an organization and a total culture needing change, I’m not sure there is a better example right now – and certainly not one getting the press scrutiny of the UCI. It’s a fascinating case to look at.

Pat McQuaid

On Monday, the UCI accepted the USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. This might be seen as a big positive in the fight against doping in cycling, and a sign that Pat McQuaid, the organisation’s embattled President is moving in the right direction. And yet, that is far from the case. It has been easy to “throw Lance Armstrong under a bus” in the current climate. What is far harder to do, and where McQuaid has been totally unconvincing is in taking accountability for the UCI’s own role in the fiasco.

In January of this year, Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen (former President of the UCI) announced their intention to sue Paul Kimmage – a well known cycling journalist and anti-doping campaigner. Kimmage famously opened Pandora’s box on the Lance Armstrong affair when he completed a seven hour interview with Floyd Landis, a former team mate of Armstrong who made a number of direct allegations about doping. McQuaid and Verbruggen are suing Kimmage claiming their “reputations have been seriously damaged” by the article and citing their “annoyance”. Interestingly, they chose to sue Kimmage (currently unemployed) personally, rather than the publications that ran the interview, (L’Equipe and The Sunday Times). Kimmage has explained his thinking for why they have done this:

“Clearly they don’t want this addressed properly in court, because if they did, they would have addressed their letter to L’Equipe… L’Equipe would have sent along their finest barristers and presented a defence of this. They would also have brought all of the witnesses that you would need to defend it.

“Clearly they [McQuaid and Verbruggen] don’t want that to happen, which is why they have targeted me rather than the newspapers. That would be my reading of it.”

Why is this relevant? Because this type of reaction has typified McQuaid’s handling of the entire Lance Armstrong affair: Bullish and defensive when challenged personally. And because the UCI has enabled the culture of doping and secrecy that has brought professional cycling to this juncture. The point is presciently made by Landis in his interview with Kimmage:

Kimmage:              How many of the decisions you made after that (Landis’ assertion that the UCI covered up Armstrong’s positive doping result) were coloured by this experience you’ve had with the UCI and their relationship with Lance? How big a factor was that in the decision you made to dope?

Landis:                   That’s all of it. If I had any reason to believe that the people running the sport really want to fix it, I may have actually said ‘If I wait long enough I’ll have the chance to win without doing this (doping) but there was no scenario in my mind where in my lifetime I was going to get a chance to race the Tour and win clean. So, all of it had that as a backdrop.


Talking about organizational change, Martin Bauer of LSE argues that resistance is very much like pain in the body; uncomfortable to deal with, but a valuable signaling mechanism. We may not enjoy it, but pain is essential for our survival, and its value to us should not be underrated. Kimmage’s criticism is a vital part of the cycling community. Rather than trying to understand what actions the UCI have taken that have caused this criticism and doing something about it, McQuaid is trying to ostracise and silence him; a bit like amputating your fist because you hurt it punching a wall.

Kimmage continues to act as a thorn in the side of the cycling hierarchy, giving this stinging radio interview on Monday. More to the point, he has recently asked difficult questions of this year’s Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. While some would argue he is sucking the joy out of British cycling at its finest hour, if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that organized cycling needs the cynical eye and honest questioning of Kimmage and others like never before.

And this is the key point. Cycling needs a massive culture change and core to this is cultivating a new set of behaviours – discipline, measured cynicism and brutal transparency. In vilifying the type of behavior that cycling desperately needs to catalyse, McQuaid is choking this change to death before it has a chance to take root. Kimmage himself sums up the cultural implications best:

“We talk about omerta all the time in the sport. This is how they enforce it. Is this what they would say is part of the fight against doping? I don’t think so. This is all about the omerta, and enforcing the omerta.”

It is a leader’s job to manage meaning, to put words to a new positive vision of the future and to demonstrate integrity by following these words with meaningful action. Only one of these two men is acting as a leader for cycling at the moment, and it’s not Pat McQuaid.


New roles for new leaders (or what Rupert Murdoch can learn from UPS)

There have been a couple of really prescient examples this week of an old model of leadership proving defunct and irrelevant. Last Wednesday, Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone – a landmark judgment for the ICC. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was accused of being unfit to run a major corporation. Interestingly in both cases, there was insufficient evidence to directly prove either leader had actively done wrong. But whether Taylor ordered the rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians in irrelevant. Whether Murdoch explicitly ordered a cover up of phone hacking, or just created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture devoid of moral questioning is moot. In both cases, leaders created a culture that allowed evil to occur. And in both cases, the leaders have been called to account, and have been found wanting – regardless of their plausible deniability.

Diana Whitney draws the useful distinction between leaders (as people with competencies) and leadership as an emergent process in an organisation that enables better performance. Given the rise of megalithic companies (or states – for that matter), it seems necessary to move past the assumption that an individual leader (no matter how competent) will be able to keep tabs on an entire organisation.

So if Taylor or Murdoch are guilty of enabling a culture where evil could occur, what does positive leadership look like through this lens? Arguably the most important aspect of leadership in a post-command-and-control space is to act as a moral compass. To ensure that good ideas are megaphoned, and ideas that can lead to evil are stamped out.

Beyond that, there is also the requirement to create a culture where everyone is enabled to question, experiment and engage.

In this respect, you could do worse than looking at UPS. At some point in the last couple of years, someone had the counter-intuitive idea to redesign all their routes so that trucks in the USA never had to turn left. No, it was not an ‘Ode to Zoolander’s inability to ambi-turn; the idea was to cut down the amount of time idling and sitting in traffic. The strategy has helped them shave over twenty million miles off their clocks in 2011, while delivering 350,000 more packages. They have also reduced their carbon footprint by 20,000 metric tonnes.

Regardless of Bob Stoffel’s (UPS CEO’s) charisma, personal insight, or knowledge of the activities in every nook and cranny in his organisation, he has created a culture where ideas like “let’s never turn left anymore” can not only be voiced, but can gather momentum and actually become reality.

“Strengths perform, but also, strengths transform”

I am spending this week at the 5th World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Ghent, Belgium. Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy of change, based on the belief that the best way to enhance the capability of a system is to focus on what works well in that system currently; and to engage the whole system in the co-creation a new way of working.

David Cooperrider, father of the field gave the key note speech on the first day, offering a personal perspective on some of the most recent developments in the field.

A consistent theme in Cooperrider’s work over the last twenty five years has been the need to move away from a defecit-based view of change. Playing on Einstein’s truism that a problem has never been solved at the same level of consciousness that the problem was created, Cooperrider offered a corollary for organisations, suggesting that the greatest problems an organisation faces are never “solved”, rather, they are “eclipsed, made irrelevant, or saturated in strength”. Rather than identifying problems and proposing solutions to fix them, Cooperrider argues there is much greater value in identifying strengths and growing them to the point that the organisation evolves past the problems of yesterday.

Cooperrider drew on Peter Drucker’s definition of leadership, as “creating an alignment of strengths that renders a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Inspirational, thoughtful, packed with practical examples, the session was a call-to-arms to scale up the generative power of AI to match the demands the world is facing today.