The Importance of a Strong Storyline – Lance Armstrong

By January 17, 2013Generations

I am not a Lance Armstrong expert, but his storyline has been:

  • Little known biker gets cancer
  • Biker expected to die but recovers stronger than ever
  • Biker wins seven races in a row, becomes very famous and wealthy
  • Biker starts cancer foundation

It is a solid personal story, branching out to touch many, many lives. Embedded within this story are some voices questioning whether it was all done in a natural way. In other words, there were questions about possible doping.

A common response was:  “Everyone is doing it.”

What If?

Here is the “what if” question. What if the storyline was:

  • Little known biker gets cancer
  • Biker expected to die but recovers stronger than ever
  • Biker enters race and vigorously promotes clean bike racing in a completely open way
  • Biker shows how to race cleanly and the importance of living and riding honestly
  • Biker wins two races and changes the integrity of the sport
  • Biker becomes moderately wealthy and very famous
  • Biker starts cancer foundation

If this was Lance Armstrong’s story, we would not be having this conversation. We would be extolling his principles and applauding the way he changed the sport.

We all have this choice. It is a choice of teaching through living right and a choice of change through truth.

Teaching through Living Right

A Strong Consistent StorylineTeaching others is best done through example. When we live the principles we advocate, we are making them real. There is an enchanted feel to living the words you speak. Some may find it boring since it incorporates a strong discipline of consistency. Words equal actions. Actions equal words. It is a consistent formula to living and leading.

It is an inspiring thing though. Just think of the Greatest Generation. The magic in this generation was the rising up in action to principles they believed in. It wasn’t any after-the-play analysis and armchair second-guessing of the people doing the work. They got out of their chairs and enlivened their principles through the actions they took. It was consistency. It was seamless. There was no daylight between principles and actions.

Teaching through living right constructs a consistent and meaningful life story.

Change through Truth

Truth is powerful. “The truth will set you free” rumbles through our minds, and we are inspired and a little scared. The phrase sounds lofty, yet we know it will be tough and challenging. It is as if this statement needs to be pared with another:

“The truth will set you free, and no one said it was going to be easy!”

Confronting a culture of wrong and dishonesty is challenging. Many forces will be against you. People will try to stop you. But, step by step, truth begins to shine through and change begins to unfold. Truth is clean. At some point, the gleam will empower others to join in and change the way things have always been done.

Living a story of truth changes cultures and strengthens a life story of principle.

A Strong Storyline

Life is about big choices. In making these, there are numerous decisions and actions underneath to continue to ensure we stay on the right path. The key question is:

What is our storyline, and does it have real meaning and worthy power in its outcome?

We are always fascinated when stories like Lance Armstrong’s unfold. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. The important thing to do is to learn from their stories and adjust our own. We need to ensure we are on the right story line; the one that delivers the lasting legacy of truth and positive change.

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Sean Conrad says:

    I don’t think your second scenario is how it would go. I think it goes like this:

    Little known biker gets cancer
    Biker expected to die but recovers stronger than ever
    Biker enters race and vigorously promotes clean bike racing in a completely open way
    Biker shows how to race cleanly and the importance of living and riding honestly
    Biker wins two Tour de France and nothing changes
    Biker becomes moderately wealthy
    Biker starts small cancer foundation
    99.9% of the world never hears about the biker or the cancer foundation he created

    I think that scenario is more likely than yours. But MOST likely it goes like this:

    Little known biker gets cancer
    Biker expected to die but recovers stronger than ever
    Biker enters race and vigorously promotes clean bike racing in a completely open way
    Biker shows how to race cleanly and the importance of living and riding honestly
    Biker cannot get on a competitive team and never wins a major race

    Biker retires from racing and gets a job
    Biker is never heard from or about again

    No way does a professional cyclist in that era break the code of silence surrounding that sport and have a shot at winning – or even making a living as a pro.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Sean, for adding your perspective. Change is possible, and many leaders have made the change from within and had a wider impact. It all depends in how we approach challenges and leverage them afterwards. Appreciate the conversation and your insight. Thanks. Jon

  • Ted M. Young says:

    I think an even better “what if” is:

    * Little known biker gets cancer
    * Biker expected to die but recovers stronger than ever
    * Biker wins a few races and becomes moderately wealthy/famous
    * Biker starts cancer foundation
    * Accusations of doping against biker increase
    * Biker “comes clean” and admits to doping, apologizes for damage caused, and pushes for change in the sport
    * Biker shows how to race cleanly and the importance of living and riding honestly
    * Biker wins two races (going overboard to prove they were won cleanly)

    Now, the biker is role model for not only pushing for integrity in life and sport, but also that we’re all human and we make mistakes.

    _That_ would be someone I’d look up to as a “hero”.

    • Jon M says:

      Ted, That is a good, strong story as well. It does show that we all make mistakes; it is how we correct them and live differently that make the difference. Centered around it all is truth and leading with that principle. Thank you. Jon

  • Suzie Carr says:

    Everything we do impacts others- every word we speak, every smile we form, every criticism we allow to come out of our mouths. Our actions directly affect others whether we know it or not. Knowing this, makes me extra mindful of what I put out there. If I am putting my best efforts forth, then I am free.

  • Alli Polin says:

    Appreciate this, Jon.

    It’s tough. We make some people into heroes and expect that because we’ve elevated them in our minds and lives that they have somehow reached a level of perfection. We assume that they are living their truth and that they inspire us to do the same.

    It’s hard as a leader, as a parent, as a friend to want to be liked (heck, to be loved!) and sometimes that leads to terrible choices.

    Instead of erasing the good that Lance Armstrong was able to do with Live Strong, we should continue to share his story including his bad choices and downfall. We all make our own choices and create our own stories. My hope is that future generations will learn from Lance and choose truth over lies. Like you suggest, powerful transformation can be found in the truth.

    • Jon M says:

      Great points, Alli. We always need to take the complete story; it is who we are…. good, bad, and corrected. We just need to grab on to truth more and pull it through more thoroughly. Appreciate your insights! Jon

  • AjmaniK says:

    We want our heroes to be “larger than life” ~ our heroes want to create story lines that will fascinate and captivate us. So, to paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, we get the heroes we deserve and/or believe in…

    But there is hope. If we decide to make some tough choices, define our core values, and be heroes for our kids our families, our schools, our communities.

    Keep writing Jon.


    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Kumud. Alexis de Tocqueville was right. You are, too. There is hope. I am confident in the Millennial Generation as well as in the previous generations as they age. There seems to be a shift to more meaning. I hope….

      Appreciate your voice and support. Keep doing #SpiritChat, too. It always makes me think bigger and better! Jon

  • Andy Ferguson says:

    Guys just to say a big “thank you” to you all for sharing.

    I have been depressed by the lack of empathy and concern that people on line seem to have for each other as highlighted by the whole “gun control” shouting match.

    I’m of to Kenya in a few weeks to take part in a leadership event set up to “build a better future together” based on trust and values.

    I was ready to “right off” the US as full of “self centred” bigots who are acting like spoiled teenagers ….. when I stumbled across this and it lightened my heart.

    I know, I was being lazy … I should have known better, I’m a lot happier for finding this oasis of sense. I’ll check in often.

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Hard to know what to say about Lance. The whole thing just makes me feel really sad, for him and (especially) for the people involved with his foundation. It’s always hard when our heroes fall from grace. Your points are of course excellent Jon. Every one of us has the opportunity to behave well in life – because we are not perfect, once in awhile we stumble, sometimes we fall flat on our faces. The interesting thing is that there have been many people come back stronger than ever despite even the most public of failures – in fact sometimes we cheer them on even more, because on some level we need to have hope that there is a chance in life for redemption. It will be interesting to see the path Lance chooses to follow now.

    • Jon M says:

      Great points, Marquita. Learning from missteps is vital, as is coming back stronger. Although the Lance story facilitates the conversation, it is important for us to consider our own story and ensure we are making the right choices and backing them up with our actions. Really appreciate your voice in this discussion. Thanks! Jon

  • Kent Julian says:

    “What we believe in is evident in how we live, not by what we say.”

    The Lance Armstrong story vividly illustrates this reality.

  • Blair Glaser says:

    Hi Jon,
    I enjoyed this post. Teaching through living, truth and story are *so important* yet we need to really examine what happens when someone’s role modeling gets a fair amount of attention. It seems nearly impossible for the human being to resist becoming enthralled with their own power, and that’s usually when bad things happen, and the need to keep those things under wraps takes over and wreaks havoc. What are the forces that powerful individuals and groups must learn to face and what resources need to be in place for them to successfully manage all the intensity of being a public leader? How can one stay grounded and accept the greater responsibility and power that comes with leadership without losing one’s right size? How can we turn these ideas into knowledge and skills that are embodied, and not just rhetoric?

    • Jon M says:

      Powerful and important questions, Blair. These are ones that we need to answer as we develop our life and leadership story. Staying grounded and keeping our principles require others to challenge us and hold us accountable. It also takes self-control and think-time to ensure we stay on the right path we selected.

      It is an important question, whether famous or not: How do we stay centered in our practices and principles?

      Thank you for taking the time to add your insights. Very grateful! Jon

  • I agree Jon, the point is to learn the valuable lessons that come with this kind of story.
    But part of the issue is that your second scenario is not one that is celebrated by people. It would be grand if it were and people wer actually rewarded for telling the truth and succeeding anyway, but they are often rewarded for sucess in whatever way it comes.
    The best example I can think of is the world of body-building. Most people can name, or at least picture the face and physique of world-famous body-builders, They can probably even name a few who dies in pursuit of the “art” through the abuse of steroids. But I would challenge those same people to name one natural body builder. The second category doesn’t garner the praise, the fame or the money of the first. They are valued less, even though they have physiques that most people can attian with dedication.
    Yes, we are fascinated when our heroes fall, like a train-wreck that you can’t turn away from. But we must also bear the responsibility for making and celebrating these people that we make into heroes, living monuiment, national heroes and role-models for our children.
    Yes, we must each search our hearts and souls and try live out the best, most authentic story we can. And we must continue to learn and garner the useful information from the successes and mis-steps of ourselves and others. But we cannot turn people into pariahs, when we truly suspected all along what the truth was.
    Much more than I meant to write…

    • Jon M says:

      Many great points, Martina. Thank you! Society needs to adjust as well in what they value and hold up as an example. Our society needs to advance forward beyond rhetoric and superficial wins. It is a larger conversation on what will advance society forward, rather than going backwards.

      I also believe that stories should not be turned into “pariahs.” We need to embrace the story, determine what we can learn from it and how we can adjust our own lives to make better choices.

      Again, many, many great points you raised, Martina. Appreciate your voice in the conversation. Jon

  • Adi says:

    I think this kinda underlines the futility in taking too much from the life stories of other people, yet that’s pretty much the entire premise of the auto-biography industry. Look at this famous person and how they’ve achieved great things, what can you learn from them?

    The reality is very little because their circumstances were entirely different to yours, and as the Armstrong situation reveals, their story may have been entirely false anyway. It’s a classic version of the halo effect.

    Reading what others have done is fine and interesting, but in all likelihood, if you want to achieve great things then you’ll have to do it in your own unique way.

    • Jon M says:

      Agree, Adi. It is about focusing on our life story and ensuring we are developing it in a consistent and meaningful way. There is no “greener grass,” just the path in front of us and we need to make the best choices we can. Thanks for your comment! Jon

    • I agree, Adi. I think we can spend all too much of our time fascinated with others like Lance Armstrong and their Shadows. Stand aside, and if you want to learn more, attend to the Shadow that is your own. To do so, I believe, means you must follow the thread of your life in a deeper, more genuine way and your story will be exactly what it needs to be.

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