Leadership Lessons from British Cycling David Denyer

Leadership Lessons from British Cycling
David Denyer
Donna Ladkin
The British Cycling Team has been one of the UK’s sporting success
stories in recent years. Today I am with David Denyer, Professor of
Organisational Change here at Cranfield to talk about the role
leadership has played in the transformation of the Sky Cycling Team.
David, can you tell me a little bit about the nature of the success of
the Team?
David Denyer
Yes; I have been following this story for a long time, it’s such an
interesting story. If you go back to the mid-1990s and look where
British Cycling has come from, they were facing bankruptcy; they had
got one Olympic velodrome in the UK – Olympic standard velodrome
– which was facing closure. They won two bronze medals at Atlanta.
And you roll that forward to the London Olympics, eight gold medals
following up Bradley Wiggins’ first UK person to win the Tour de
France and followed the following year by Chris Froome repeating
that success. So not only did UK cycling have success in the
velodrome, but the cycling team took that into Team Sky and followed
it up.
Donna Ladkin
Now, Sir Dave Brailsford is often credited with being the architect of
this transformation, however I think what is interesting is he himself
doesn’t like to refer to himself as the leader. Could you speak a little
bit more about that?
David Denyer
When you listen to him in interviews and there are lots of them on
the internet that you can look, he always refers to himself as the
orchestra conductor and his view is that he has put together a very
good orchestra and he says that he never coaches the riders directly,
he coaches the coaches, who coach the riders. And I think one of the
key elements that he brought into British cycling was what he terms
taking the crowns off the heads of the management and putting it
onto the heads of the riders.
Donna Ladkin
It is really interesting because I think one of the things you are
pointing to here is that leadership in the way that he is seeing it is a
much more shared and distributed phenomenon, but somehow he
still has a role in making that happen. Could you speak perhaps a bit
more about some of the principles of his leadership style in making
that happen?
David Denyer
Well I think there are two things: I think there is the issue of his
leadership style and how he role models the behaviours that he wants
to see in others. What I also think he has done is created a fantastic
system that is a high performing system, and the way that he has
done that is to have absolute clarity about the goals that they are all
© Cranfield University 2013
trying to achieve. They set up what they called the Podium
Programme which meant that they were aiming for medals and
nothing less. He talks about prioritisation and deciding what you
want to win because you can’t win everything. I think there are some
key lessons there for leaders in any organisation. Once you have
identified what you want to win, he then plans backwards – we often
plan forwards in organisations, but he plans back from that goal and
says what will it take to win? What will it take of the individuals, the
individual riders to get to that point in time where they can win?
There is a great focus on process goals, not the outcome. So it is
delivering the times that they are required to do to win the gold
Donna Ladkin
I can imagine many business leaders listening to what you are saying
and saying well that is fine for cycling, the goals are very clear – you
either win the race or you don’t. How could a business leader apply
some of these ideas to the more ambiguous contexts in which they
are working?
David Denyer
Well I think in a lot of organisations we actually create quite a
muddy picture of the goals and priorities that we have got. I think
in all organisations we can be much clearer about the strategy, what
it is we are trying to achieve, to get buy in to that, to be absolutely
sure about the roles and responsibilities that individuals play in
reaching those goals. Unless people have a shared set of goals that
they can identify with and they are getting constant feedback that
they are moving towards those goals or moving away from those
goals, then they are not going to achieve them. So I think we can all
learn something from really discussing the goals amongst the
stakeholders involved and really ensuring that there is some clarity.
Donna Ladkin
One last question about the context within which cycling operates; it
is a context within which there has been quite a lot of discussion
about different aspects of ethics, particularly around drug taking for
increased performance. What kind of messages does Sir Dave
Brailsford give out to do with ethics and principles, and how does he
handle the kind of pressures in operating in that kind of context?
David Denyer
You can see when you look at the interviews with him, by being
hounded by the press, that this is a weight on his shoulders, a cloud
hanging over the whole team because as soon as you get an
exceptional performance a reporter will always ask the question,
well was he on drugs? And he is constantly defending that. So I
think there is a strong element of mental toughness at the individual
level that is exhibited by Sir Dave Brailsford.
© Cranfield University 2013
I think the other thing in that he has got a very strong zero tolerance
policy which is rigorously enforced and if you look back four
members, senior members of his management team, were
implicated in the drug scandal previous to their involvement with
Team Sky and they are no longer with the team. He often has been
heard saying that he would rather compromise performance rather
than his principles and I think there are some real lessons for
leadership here about sticking to your principles.
Donna Ladkin
That sounds like a really good point to end on. Thanks so much,
David Denyer
Thank you Donna.
© Cranfield University 2013