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On Sunday the Tour de France finished for another year. I love the Tour so its ending is a bit like Christmas for me: filled with excitement but also with the knowledge that it’s a long year until it comes again. Given the time zone I’m currently in I couldn’t watch it as avidly as I have done on previous occasions but I managed to catch most of the major mountain stages, including the epic battles on Mont Vontoux (with it’s 23 kms of continuous uphill) and Le Grand-Bornand. It was amazing to watch the young and brilliant Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck fight it out over the mountains, a sight I’m sure we’ll see for many Tour’s to come, and it was inspirational to see Lance Armstrong return to the hardest race in the world after a four year break and finish third overall. It was fantastic to see the greatest riders of their respective generations ride together and I can’t wait for them to go head-to-head on opposing teams in 2010.

I like the Tour de France because it is so absurdly brutal that it becomes a race of the heart as well as the head; because it demands such manic strength of will and determination to keep going when the body is screaming for you to stop, to keep accelerating even as the gradient increases and mere mortals must bend to the will of the mountain. I love it because it also takes smarts; because it is much more than simply riding from A to B as quickly as possible but is rather a complex strategic and tactical game of knowing when to preserve and when to spend your energy; because while the honors are mostly individual it is still clearly a team sport and many riders sacrifice individual glory for the good of their teammates.

Since the race finished I’ve been thinking about how many of the themes of the Tour de France, and the reasons I so love to watch it unfold, are true in other parts of life also, and how we can take lessons from this the Tour as we can from almost any arena of human accomplishment.

Here, then, is my list of what we learn from the Tour de France:

It takes a team

While the sports reports only talk of individual placings and accomplishments (and, if you’re in America, mostly of Lance’s relative placing) the Tour de France is unquestionably a team sport, governed by team tactics and reliant on diverse contributions for success. The Team Manager is the primary strategist, deciding who the team will ride for and who will sacrifice themselves along the way. But to work everyone must play their part, from the ‘domestique’s’ who destroy themselves leading their star rider as far as they can to the lead-out guy who aims to set up their sprinter in a bunch finish. And the guys behind-the-scenes are crucial too, from the masseurs to team drivers to chefs.

The dynamic of individual glory built on team competencies is one we see regularly in the business and non-profit words. We glorify CEO’s and founders but the good ones always foster and build a team of individual and complementary talents around them. It is only through diverse contributions well-coordinated that change happens at scale. The last Presidential election is a great example of this. Undoubtedly Barack Obama is a once-a-generation candidate but he also built the best campaign organization, a team of rockstars who managed to work together without drama, out-strategizing, out-hustling and out-smarting his opponents. Obama was the leader but without David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, Joe Rospars, Chris Hughes and so many others Team Obama would not have had the success that it did.

It’s all about heart

Of course a unique physique and relentless training are necessary preconditions for success in the Tour but over the course of a three-week stage race heart becomes just as important as muscle. Those who succeed are those who refuse to give up, who have the mental fortitude to ignore their screaming body and push themselves past the brink of exhaustion. Sometimes this can go too far. British cyclist Tom Simpson literally died on his bike pushing himself too hard up a mountain, his final words were ‘Put  me back on my bike.’ That’s an extreme case, but all successful road cyclists, or any endurance athlete, must will themselves forward past the point when most of us would simply give up, our legs and our hearts drained of strength, our spirit broken. In other words it’s not enough to be a brilliant rider, you need to have a spirit which transcends physicality.

Issues come and go in prominence and as an issue becomes trendy thousands of new activists will jump in and get involved. This is wonderful and necessary but the true hero’s of any cause are those who stick with it, through thick and thin, shrugging off disappointment to continue forward, never waving in their determination to get to their goals.

I also see this as a reminder that spirit and intention matter in all that we do. In our dealings with others it is never simply about how well you write, how clever you are or how brilliant your idea is (okay, sometimes it is just about how brilliant our idea is, but it has to be pretty brilliant) it is about the heart and intention you put into your relationships. Social media embodies this. Those who are best at it are not simply clever, productive and forward-thinking, although all those things help enormously, they are usually also warm, open and generous. For social entrepreneurs and changemakers of all types empathy might be the single most important quality you can possess, as it allows you to understand the experience of others, which forms a platform for the collaboration, collective understanding and community so necessary to bring about social change.

When the going gets toughest real champions emerge

The leading contenders of the Tour almost never attack each other on flat or less intensively steep stages. It is on the mountains, and especially on stages which end with a mountain-top finish, where the real sorting out happens. In this year’s Tour it was the mountain top finish at Verbier which Contador won to leap into Yellow and then the incredible battle on the slopes of Le Grand-Bornand which solidified Contador in first and catapulted Andy Schleck to second which determined the results.  Similarly last year’s Tour came down to the legendary mountaintop Alp d’Huez where Sastre took enough time off Australia’s Cadel Evans to claim overall victory.

In life it is when things are hard that you often find the true quality of a person, and the true quality of your relationships. It’s easy to maintain friendships during good times, but in times of need you can often be surprised by who steps up, by who really cares.

In social change just as in the Tour de France it is great challenges that bring the greatest opportunities. The economist Paul Romer once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It is when are society is under stress that there is an opportunity to create fundamental change. Otherwise inertia and apathy tend to prevent us from grasping the opportunity to build a better world; the current state of affairs being ‘good enough’. It’s when they are no longer ‘good enough’ that the clamour and the opportunity for change grows, when people’s appetite for risk and effort increases.

Success is created one day at a time

You don’t become a world class cyclist overnight and you don’t win the Tour de France in a day; it is through sustained effort that you reach your goals. This is true for all big goals: you need to be dedicated and you need to incrementally approach them, remaining motivated even if it’s hard to see the progress you’re making.

Chad Fowler, CTO of InfoEther, Inc. wrote about this in a fantastic guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog recently:

You might not be able to see a noticeable difference in the whole with each incremental change, though. When you’re trying to become more respected in your workplace or be healthier, the individual improvements you make each day often won’t lead directly to tangible results. This is, as we saw before, the reason big goals like these become so demotivating. So, for most of the big, difficult goals you’re striving for, it’s important to think not about getting closer each day to the goal, but rather, to think about doing better in your efforts toward that goal than yesterday.

In other words, what did you do today to progress towards your goal(s)? Did you do more today than you did yesterday? Focusing on your effort each day, ensuring that you do something daily to advance your goals, is the key to completely large and complex tasks.

Got any other Tour de France lessons? Let me know in the comments!

more about “Tour de France 2009 Showdown“, posted with vodpod

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