Le Tour de France: 5 Lessons Learned about Leadership and Innovation

I will be the first to admit that I have watched Le Tour De France bicycle races sporadically for many years and always mildly intrigued. I mean, it’s a sporting event that lasts TWENTY-ONE DAYS! Not only that but each day is a called a “stage” and meanders through amazing scenery over a period of up to 5 hours during which I found myself looking at the castles and vineyards and of course the bystanders running alongside the cyclists in their bizarre outfits in search of their 15 minutes of televised fame.

 My newest book, Make Your Own Waves: The Surfer’s Rules for Entrepreneurs and Innovators (http://www.louispatler.com/books/ ) took a close look at Big Wave surfers to find business insights, but until this year I had no clue about the inner workings of this bicycle race that captivates all of Europe and much of the sports world every July.

I am not sure what possessed me to record Stage 1, but I did and watched and played back a few key moments listening to the commentators more closely. Soon I started paying attention not to just the leaders, but also to the infamous “peloton” that comprises the rest of the pack of up to 198 riders, and the chess-game-like-strategy of the teams.

So, I recorded Stage 2.

And Stage 3 & 4 & 11…and well, actually, all 21 Stages.

In the course of those three weeks, ending with Chris Froome’s triumphant pedaling across the finish line in Paris, I realized that I had learned a lot about the Tour and also upon reflection, about leadership and innovation.

Here are my Top Five Lessons Learned from Le Tour de France.

1.     It’s all about the peloton: There are not individual riders who win the Tour that should have all the admiration, there are teams comprised of individual riders who create winners. The teams vie for position, control of the pace and most importantly, they surround and protect their key rider. The basic construct is that teams win, not individuals. As in business, leaders understand this.

2.     Acknowledge the “position players”: Much like baseball, soccer or basketball, each team has its “position players”. I never realized this until this year. There are at least five major roles (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cycling/0/tour-de-france-rules-do-jerseys-mean-just-do-riders-go-toilet/ ): rouleur; lieutenant; lead-out man; domestique; and road captain.  Among them are the sprinters who store up their energy for a final burst to the finish line after perhaps 125 miles of plodding along in the peloton. There are climbers for the hills who have serious leg strength to power up steep slopes. After watching about 50 hours of Tour footage, I can imagine using these designated roles for creating innovation teams.

3.     Celebrate in stages: The life of an entrepreneur and of a Tour rider happens in stages. It is not a sprint. In fact it is not even a marathon, it is a way of working that moves one pedal rotation at a time. The 21 stages of the Tour each have a winner. Each stage also involves mini-celebrations by the winning team. There will be only one winner at the end, but as the great leaders know, celebrating along the way is crucial to sustaining spirit and energy.

4.     Yellow, green and polka dot jerseys celebrate strengths:  The Tour acknowledges the varying strengths of the riders. The overall leader with the fastest net time wears the yellow jersey. The green jersey goes to the rider with the most points that accrue during the many stages. The polka-dot jersey is for the “King of the Mountain”, the rider with the most points on the mountainous sections of the tour. And the white jersey goes to the fastest rider who is under 26 years old. The teams understand two basic leadership and innovation premises: you build on individual strengths, and you form teams based on complimentary differences.

5.     The breakaways usually get caught and surpassed: In most every Stage of the Tour, at some early point a group of 2-12 riders sprints ahead of the peloton hoping to create an insurmountable gap and/or wear down the peloton. The breakaway group often “cooperates” and riders take turns leading the small pack, fighting wind resistance and allowing those behind them a bit of a breather. Where strategy comes to the fore is when the teams in the peloton have to decide when to close in on the breakaway group. Notice I said “when” not “if”. With very few exceptions the peloton eventually catches and surpasses the breakaway group. A good lesson in leading innovation is found here too: even if you eventually get passed, breakaways set the stage for what will follow and are therefore crucial to the innovation process.

Vive Le Tour de France!