Leadership lessons from Lefevere

In the UK a fair amount is written about Team Sky’s (soon to be Ineos) Sir Dave Brailsford and his leadership; both good and bad. Less known to the UK is another cycling team boss Patrick Lefevere. From Belgian, Lefevere is the manager at World Tour leading team (football equivalent of the Premier League) Deceuninck Quickstep.  Over the course of the 2018 season, Lefevere’s team topped the World Tour points ranking with 13,425. For context Team Sky were second with 10,213. Cyclists among you will know that these points are just one measure of success. Accepting this is just one measure, the number amassed is a fair predictor that sustained high performance is present.

For some Patrick Lefevere is the current godfather of Belgian cycling, for others, he is outspoken and often critical, even an outdated alpha-male and for others, he is the motivational juice that makes his teams so successful. Recently Lionel Bernie of The Cycling Podcast sat down with Lefevere and conducted an in-depth interview for Friends of the Podcast.  An excellent interview, I wanted to capture my impressions about the leadership approach of Lefevere. Before I get to that here is a little more context to the man.

Lefevere is a 64-year-old from the Flanders region of Belgium. He came from a non-cycling family and had run-ins with teachers during his schooling. After a fairly short procycling career, Lefevere moved into managerial roles, working with a number of professional cycling teams.  He learnt his craft from some of cycling’s big names in the eighties and nineties. He’s married and has two children. He has suffered a number of personal setbacks including in 2001, a challenging battle with pancreatic cancer. Given cyclings history of drug cheats, there is little in the way of controversy surrounding him and his teams. There was one major exception in 2007 when the Belgian media accused him of running a sophisticated doping programme.  In 2009, he was exonerated and awarded €500k in damages.

So what are the leadership observations from the Cycling Podcast interview? Here are 10 and 10 questions to see how you could apply the leadership approach in your world.

One – Develop a bigger picture to drive and give context – I guess the ultimate big context to life is what people remember you for when you’re gone.  Lefevere jokes that despite all his success they will write ‘never won the Tour de France’ on his grave. He talks about developing long-term relationships with people to achieve stability.  Perhaps this puts Lefevere at odds with the short-term nature of much of the world. Short-termism, in Lefevere’s view can lead to counterproductive behaviours coming into an organisation. He also comments about not overextending yourself to get a short-term gain. In his context, this relates to hanging on to an expensive rider at the expense of the longer-term future of the team.
How could you describe your bigger picture context to have a greater impact?

Two – No one is bigger than the team dynamic – In cycling teams just like any organisation, there are personalities and egos.  Ensuring no one person becomes bigger than the team is critical for a positive team dynamic to thrive.  In fact, Lefevere pushes the point that the riders will come and go, it’s the team foundations that are really important to nurture. A positive team dynamic feels like one of Lefevere’s indicators of sustained success. He also recognises that his teams are part of a riders wider career so they might need to move on to progress.  He comes across as comfortable with that, even proud to play a part.
How could you have a positive influence on your team dynamic?

Three – Work to understand individuals – Building on the point above, treating everyone the same misses out. Using key elements of an individual’s motivation increases performance. Lefevere seems to have an instinct to assess and use that motivation.  He’s also aware that the motivation will change for the individual depending on the circumstances they face. The same applies to what stresses them. The importance of ongoing talking and listening seemed like something key to making this work.
What is your balance of talking and listening with your team?

Four – Keep learning – In some leadership situations, people can become paralysed by the scale of a task or perceived risk. My impression is that Lefevere is willing to start something and develop experience along the way. Learning ‘every day’ felt like a genuine part of his approach to life. He went as far as to say the day you stop learning you die (in this context I think he was meaning that the team die). He also called out not trying to find out all the answers yourself. Working with others to solve challenges and not leaving it too late to ask for help.
What challenge are you currently working on that could benefit from others input?

Five – Know what you and others are are good at and what value it contributes – At various points, during the interview, Lefevere makes the point that he’s a ‘bookeeper’.  This feels like an understatement given the more CEO like role he has within the team. That said, he is making a more general statement about knowing what you bring to the team and doing that well.  That means you also need to understand what other people bring and trust them to perform; in this context, he calls out the doctors and coaches.
Are the people in your team spending most of their time working on what they are good at?

Six – Be clear about what you want and spell out the consequences of falling short – Part of Lefevere’s role is to set out for people the standards and expectations in the team. He wants riders to feel like they can talk openly; particularly if they are sick or struggling. He wants to avoid unhealthy pressure to be put on peoples shoulders as in his view its counter productive. Winning needs to be done in the right way.  Given cycling’s history of doping, he spells out for riders the consequences of falling short of his standards if a rider is tempted to cheat. Drawing on the wider team and the impact of the 75 families who would suffer hardship if as a result of cheating the team fail to get the funding it requires to survive. Given the number of riders over the years Lefevere is realistic that there could be at least one deviant. Therefore the message about standards needs reinforcing continuously.
How are you discussing falling short in your team?

Seven – Panic is not a good advisor – As a leader developing resilience when things are not going so well is something important to Lefevere. If the leader is nervous and panicking then that will quickly spread in the team and as a result, increases the chances of poor decisions and behaviours.  I really liked Lefevere’s expression ‘panic is not a good advisor’.
How could you increase your objectivity when things don’t go to plan?

Eight – ‘Delivery theatre’ can be beneficial for influencing a situation – The expression ‘delivery theatre’ wasn’t used in the interview, that is my take on some of the tactics used by Lefevere to attract top talent and influence sponsors and journalists. I imagine this is one area to balance, as like marketing if overused it would quickly damage credibility and reputation.
How could some delivery theatre help you succeed?

Nine – Know when you’re in win mode – Clearly, Patrick Lefevere is in the winning business. It appears to be a big factor in his own motivation. My guess is to win particularly in the volume and stature of Lefevere’s teams he would need to be ruthless. Professional cycling is a complex sport with as many unwritten rules as formal ones. Therefore he would need to strike a delicate balance between ruthlessness and respect. He seems to pride himself on the fact that he is able to look everyone in the eye. He puts this down to his ultimate ability to be straight with people and knowing when he needs to be in win mode. He calls out about wanting respect, not friends.
What more could you do to earn respect?

Ten – The boss needs support too – It appears that Lefevere looks to his wife as an independent voice to help his own decision making. This includes agreeing upfront how long he will continue in the sport (he currently has a pact with his wife for another two years). I agree with Lionel Bernie’s assessment that based on his passion for what he does, I’m not sure ultimately how much he would listen to his wife if she called time on his career. The point for me is more about him looking to someone outside the team environment to help make the big decisions.
Who is in your support network?

As I reflect on these observations I think many are transferable to other environments or in everyday life.  I doubt Patrick Lefevere has set out in a formulaic way to become the leader he is today. He has learned over the years what works for him and the wider team. Whilst I don’t agree with all his views about the sport of cycling and its image, I do hope Lefevere is around for more than two years as I think he’s one of the characters of the sport.  I also hope he keeps on learning and adapting to what is and is not acceptable in the modern era.

If you are interested in professional cycling racing I recommend The Cycling Podcast for decent news, views and analysis of current events and overall health of the sport. The weekly edition is free or for a small annual fee, you can become a friend of the podcast and receive extended interviews and more in-depth analysis of issues affecting the sport.

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