Ethical leadership

When we are faced with an undesirable behavior, for example, the use of performance enhancing drugs in cycling (or other sports), we try our best to understand it. Some might refer to the individual’s disposition: genetic makeup, personality traits, character, etc. However, this method doesn’t bring us any real understanding. Unless, of course, we truly believe that almost every professional cyclist until recently were rotten apples. Perhaps, it is more likely that the barrel is rotten (to use Zimbardo’s metaphor).

Does the situation seem familiar?

Once again it has become evident that leaders who are not ethical, are not really leaders.

For example, one might also ask questions such as:

  • What conditions could be contributing to certain actions?
  • What circumstances might be involved in generating a certain behavior?
  • What was the situation from the perspective of the actor?

The point with these questions is to understand what situations a system creates, or what culture the leaders of a society or an organization create. For example, what culture did the International Cycle Union (UCI) create? What culture did it maintain even when everyone knew that something was rotten after the Tour de France-scandal in ’98?

I guess we all know that answer.

For those who don’t know how to define culture it is often defined as a body of beliefs, traditions and guides of behavior shared among members of a society or a sport discipline.

If we go back to the three questions and view them in light of Lance Armstrong’s recent input, then we see how the former Head of UCI Hein Verbruggen (apparently) was neglecting his leadership responsibility. (Is he still an Honorary Member of the International Olympic Committee?).  Hein Verbruggen was, we know that now, not really a leader since he didn’t have the courage and imagination to act responsible. He was shortsighted like a mole. He was letting things pass that were his responsibility to stop. He was too weak to lead. Probably to vague to imagine a different culture, for instance, one where cheating is not silently encouraged; or a culture where the use of performance enhancing drugs is allowed under strict control and advice from doctors.

To recapitulate: What conditions have contributed to the use of performance enhancing drugs (a culture that existed long before Armstrong and didn’t stop with him)? The answer is: The lack of ethical leaders. What conditions might be involved in generating such behavior? Well, knowing that the top leader know about your wrongdoings, but still give you the ok-sign might not make you change your behavior. (It doesn’t take way the individual’s responsibility, but helps us understand why approximately 90% of all Tour de France winners had been doped.) What was the situation from the perspective of the actor, for example, Armstrong? Weird and confusing, I guess, due to the fact that the rules of the games didn’t really have a function. The rules didn’t make any sense. The moral was: Everyone is doing it and no one wants to stop it, so let us just lie about it.

The Head of UCI could have stopped the continuation of a certain culture in 1999. He didn’t.

So, let’s not just blame Armstrong, Ulrich, Zabel, Zülle, Virenque, … for a rotten culture. They just followed the shared guidelines. (Just like we shouldn’t thank Indurain, Merck, and Hinault and so forth for being so pathetically silent right now).

Leaders are those who create a strong ethical context in the culture. Now, unfortunately, the ethical culture in cycling is being defined by jealous and revengeful former cyclist, while the sport – like always – looks for ethical leaders with the courage and imagination to change the culture for good.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: