Why theme an issue on “Leading Leaders”? And why put professional cyclists on the cover?

Attracting talent, developing and then leading leaders is the bedrock upon which high-performance teams are built. Take a quick look around any organization and you will notice that leaders come wrapped in a variety of packages.

My spouse, Networking Times’s Editor-in-Chief Josephine Gross, grew up with bicycling mania as an inbred element of her Belgian culture. In Flanders, folks are downright religious about their cycling heroes. At family and public gatherings, I noticed that kids and even the most casual Flemish folks know all about cycling tactics, specialties and honors.

How à propos, she reasoned, to have a team of professional cyclists captured mid-race symbolizing this month’s theme of Leading Leaders. Since I’m the confirmed cycling nut in the family, she invited me to author the Leadoff for this issue.

A quick survey of our internal team revealed no one else besides the two of us knew why one of the cyclists on the cover wore a different color jersey, or why he was in the middle of the group. (It is because the overall race leader in the Tour de France gets the honor of wearing the coveted Yellow Jersey, and his teammates are sheltering him from wind, protecting him from inadvertent mishaps and conserving his strength for decisive moments.)

Professional cyclists dedicate countless hours developing their skills and honing their performance to perfection. If you could peer into any professional cyclist’s past, you would see an athlete steadily growing in strength, talent, focus, resolve, dedication, results, acclaim, and also leadership skills in the process. Professional teams unequivocally select their members from among the best candidates available and, in many instances, assemble a group of bona fide leaders to take on all challengers.

While most people have heard of the Tour de France, many don’t fully understand how a team is even involved in the competition. It surely looked like an individual performance when Lance Armstrong won those seven consecutive Tours! Yet Lance Armstrong, when asked if he were “le patron” (undisputed boss of the entire team of teams during the Tour), said, “The team is the new patron.”

Each and every member of a cycling team has a unique role in the multiple-day race.

Some cyclists are sprinters and specialize in unleashing an explosive burst of speed at the finish line, each day hoping to have their sponsor’s logos prominently displayed on their chests on the front pages of newspapers and on TV screens all around the world.

Others on the team lead the slipstream of teammates that position and launch their sprinter to burst to the finish line. Still others ride out in front leading the way, setting the tempo and expending enormous effort throughout the entire three weeks, blocking the wind and helping their team captain conserve strength for the mountain peaks that typically determine the ultimate individual race winner.

There are also specialists leading the chase over the mountain passes, and still others leading the race against the clock. The youngest cyclists (twenty-five and under) have their own race within the race, and the first three daily winners on each team contribute to their team’s overall position.

Who is the leader on the team? Each individual cyclist seeks to be a leader in his own specialty, yet each supports the others at different times of the race.

Who’s leading the leaders? Behind the scenes, out of sight and tucked in a car behind the racers, each team has a directeur sportif (DS) who identifies the individual and collective team goals, and who develops and refines the team’s strategy (which often changes on the fly as race conditions warrant and unforeseen opportunities are revealed).

The role of the DS is to inspire, challenge, praise, cajole, encourage, comfort and prod. But he doesn’t pedal the bike. His experience allows him to optimize the chances for his team and its individual members to reach their goals. Without ever actually getting on a bike, he earns the highest respect of all the leaders on the team, and their results are his only badge of honor. As leader of leaders, the DS validates, recognizes and empowers his leaders while they pedal the bikes.

As on most high-performing teams, the leader of leaders unifies the team as a cohesive unit in its collective quest for excellence. The developing team spirit allows each team member to feel the impact of his contribution in striving towards the team’s objectives. When a team member steps onto the podium to be recognized for his efforts, the entire team knows it was a collective effort of a cadre of teammates—each a leader in his own right.

The parallels between leading leaders on a professional cycling team and doing the same thing in a network marketing organization are striking. For well over a decade, I have witnessed network marketing award ceremonies on stages the world over. The unifying theme most evident is the gratitude from the recipient towards the organization. More times than I can count, the leader of leaders in that moment of triumph demurs from accepting the honor alone, and recognizes his or her team and the many leaders on it, without whose varied and collective talents the milestone would not have been achieved and the honor would not have been bestowed.

A leader of leaders often works out of the limelight, behind the scenes, helping individuals advance towards their goals, all the while recognizing contributions throughout the organization. Like the DS who doesn’t personally pedal the bike, a leader of leaders doesn’t do the work for his team. Instead, he empowers each emerging leader to commit to individual performance as well as organizational outcomes. This surely is a winning recipe for self-sustaining growth all around.


CHRIS GROSS is CEO of Gabriel Media Group, Inc. and Cofounder of Networking Times.