This morning I read about the Astana pro-cycling team’s experience in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, a world-class race that took place March 23-27 in Spain. Cycling fans were particularly interested in this race because it would be the first time that Astana teammates Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador would race together.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong needs no introduction. He returned to pro-cycling this year and helped his teammate Leipheimer win the Tour of California. Many people don’t realize that cycling is truly a team sport since we hear so much about individual victories. A team leader counts on his teammates to chase down other riders, go back to team cars for food and water, and take turns on the front of the peloton (pack of riders) to set brutal tempos. Teammates endure serious pain so that their leader can conserve his energy for when he really needs it.

(photo by MoBikeFed/Flickr)

(photo by MoBikeFed/Flickr)

Contador, the 2007 Tour of France victor and two-time winner of this race, hadn’t yet raced with both Leipheimer and Armstrong, and many wondered who the team leader would be. Would it be Contador, the returning champion? Would Armstrong show he was back as a victor, not a supporting player? Or would everyone work for Leipheimer, fresh off his Tour of California victory?

“From inside the team there has only been one position regarding this: we support our strongest rider in the race.” That’s the Astana team philosophy. Contador, who was in a position to win this race, worked for Leipheimer, the strongest rider. Armstrong crashed and abandoned the race after suffering a broken collarbone on the first day, but I suspect he would have done the same thing.

I thought about how leaders are chosen in member organizations. Are the “strongest riders” chosen to be committee chairs? Or are they selected based on less worthy criteria, like:

  • They know the right people — political connections
  • It’s their turn in the game of “revolving chairs”
  • They’ve paid their “dues”
  • Only board members are appointed as chairs

Sound familiar? Organizations become stagnant when the same faces sit around the table year after year. Other members don’t think they have a chance of participating in the leadership clique so they often don’t bother. And the message is worse if the leadership seems “fixed” — based on politics, and not merit. Your leaders need to have the skills and talent required for their committee work, but that doesn’t always mean seniority.

Find a way to cultivate new leadership — people who can do the work, have the mojo, and can bring new perspective and ideas. Some organizations create “emerging leaders” groups as a transition to leadership. Others use a co-chair system to bring in unfamiliar faces — less experienced members are partnered with known veterans. A co-chair system makes leadership change more comfortable for everyone — those who don’t quite have the confidence in their ability, and those who have trouble with change. Set some ground rules so that it’s not an unequal partnership. Change your bylaws if you must — when governance gets in the way of progress, you have an even more serious problem than stagnant leadership.

Find your strongest riders and support them. How does your organization find and cultivate new leaders?