What have these two cycling champions in common? And what should inspire business employees and their managers…?
You don’t know them probably if you are not into cycling. And you may wonder what this content is doing on such a professional sharing platform.
I am going to tell you about the concept of Vista, Brio and Grinta.These terms are very much used in sports. You will see that they perfectly apply to your companies as they fully refer to notions of leadership, especially in a corporate context where employees and managers are enslaved to processes while it is expected from them to over perform in an ever fiercer and competitive business environment.
First of all, let us ignore sterile polemics on doping. Yes, doping exists and will probably always exist in the sport and demanding sports like cycling in particular (which remains the most controlled discipline, and therefore one that attracts the most critical attention – such an unfair paradox). Doping, however, is also in business. I have seen managers, sometimes top of the line ones, who had to use some white powder or meth ‘ to keep pace, resist stress or feel better about themselves before a plenary speech in front of hundreds of their employees. And then, as long as there is competition there will be cheating, dirty tricks and imposters. This is human nature. Let us try to transcend it and deliver the best of ourselves.
That is what the two champions pictured do. Professional cycling – as companies – tends to standardize and normalize. To such an extent that any individual (riders but also employees and managers) has become interchangeable, immediately replaceable by another. Sometimes, no one can see the difference, nobody realizes the change or even the missing person, in the peloton… and at work. But when it comes to Nibali and Gilbert, we recognize them immediately in the peloton, even seen from the helicopter. There is something special about them. Whether you are a novice or an expert in cycling, they catch every one’s attention, they inspire their fellows and as a sport fan, you want to follow them.
Both have won the most prestigious races of the cycling calendar. To name only a small part: The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Lombardy for the Sicilian Nibali, several classics classified as ‘monuments’ and the World championship for the Walloon Gilbert.
However, I have chosen two special events to illustrate their personality and my point, that is actually not about cycling as such, but once again about true leadership. And I will refer to the three concepts that I mentioned above, often used in sports journalism, written or televised: Vista – Brio – Grinta.
2 Avril 2017, 101e Tour des Flandres Belgique, 260 km
The tour of Flanders is one of the most difficult classics of the calendar. It combines windswept plains, short but steep climbs and cobbled paths being used by agricultural machinery only. It’s the race that brings together almost all of the Flemish people, there to encourage about two hundred participants from all horizons and representing two dozen professional teams each year. The spirit of that race, made for the toughest guys, has changed little over the decades while cycling has transformed dramatically.
The massive influx of money through sponsorship and the points system that determines the riders’ pay grids eventually lock out the races. Professional cyclists are starting their career very young because it’s a sport where the age of thirty puts them in the “senior box” (it will soon be the case in business too, you will see). By the way they all look much more beautiful than before in their integrale lycra spandex, with their legs shaved, tanned and oiled by the embrocation. The new mentality is another story, far less impressive if you ask those of my generation who lived through the heyday of Merckx, Hinault and other Kuiper. Many “pros” today behave on assistance, answering the instructions of their team manager.
We must remember that cycling is a sport that is individual AND collective. No race is won without good teamwork, often done in the shadow of the peloton. But back to the tactics, we must also understand that everything is pre-defined before the race and that the roles are clearly distributed. “Don’t think – pedal!” could be the watchword. The remainder of the instructions are continuously distilled to the brain of the riders during the competition, via headsets hidden under helmets.
As a result, races are completely stereotypical in their scenario: the subordinates of second-class teams get in the morning break to show the logo of the sponsor on TV, then the “rouleurs” of the big teams begin to roll to bring their leader to the head of the race as late as possible before these last perform a final ‘fight’ in the ultimate 15-10 kilometres. The show has become distressingly boring in a majority of cases. Facing such pre-established schemas and the decline of television audience, the federation is even planning to ban, on occasion, the use of the headsets. But the damage is done, the riders are now prisoners of their habits and above all of the “race processes”. After all, why risk it all to win when a 12th place will grant them valuable points during the renewal of the contract at the end of season…?
Philippe Gilbert doesn’t give a s….# in playing apothecary. He has been like that since he embraced the career. He is a dynamiter that runs on instinct. On April 2 he attacks, alone, 55 kilometres from the finish. Suicide! His opponents are so surprised that they do not even think to take his wheel. Worse, at this moment of the race, some of the favorites take it easy back in the peloton, all convinced that nothing can happen at this point in the competition. Nobody will see Gilbert before the arrival. In the last half hour of the race, thousands of spectators celebrate, drunk of happiness and disbelief, the fabulous performance and the fragile but promised victory of their compatriot. During this time a trio of favorites that counter attacked behind the Walloon, so confused from the humiliating lesson they just got, crash here where they should never have to fall. Gilbert finished exhausted but conscious of the scope of his achievement. He even allows himself to get off the bike ten meters before the line, which he crosses in a magic halo.
To win this way, Gilbert used three things the other did not have: Vista – Brio – Grinta. And his manager testified his intelligence… we’ll see how.
17 Mars 2018,109e Milan-San Remo – 294 km
Milan San-Remo is another “monument” of cycling. From the capital of the Lombardy down through the plain of the Po, the race crosses the – often snowy – pass of the Turchino before continuing along the Ligurian coast. There, the riders fight the ‘Capis’, innocuous climbs made hard by the unusually long race distance and by the weather conditions that are still capricious at that time of the year. Finally, it ends on the prestigious via Roma of San Remo, after a very giddy descent.
It’s a race made for sprinters, a typology of riders that can ride very fast on the last few hundred meters. They are very athletic, big guys. They rely on a grouped arrival where their brutal strength can talk. To secure such a finish, team managers select strong team mates able to maintain very high speed, so they prevent any desire to attack. Obviously, this race is the wrong place to be for “featherweights”, if it isn’t to just be there. This is not the Nibali’s style. Vincenzo, the eldest of a modest family from Messina, is 1,81 and weighs all of 65 kg. A straw but a straw with a mind of steel, who knows the weaknesses related to his size but capitalizes on its advantages: an outstanding downhiller without inhibition when facing this perilous exercise, and last but not least, able like no one else to think race scenarios “outside of the box” as we love to say.
On the morning of March 17, everyone bet on a massive sprint. The rain that waters the first two hundred kilometres does not encourage breakaways. Arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean, the big teams lead at a breakneck pace, annihilating any attempt to exit the peloton. The Capis are swallowed up like amaretti with expressos. The peloton arrives bundled at the foot of the Poggio di San Remo, the ultimate challenge. Attacks will be made – to show the Jersey – but everyone agrees to conclude that they will be launched in vain. Because attacking too early and you condemn yourself to an unlikely athletic effort, doing it too late and you fight all the pilot-fish pedalling furiously to protect their leader. Everyone has forgotten Vincenzo Nibali, who attacks just before the start of the descent, when the peloton needed a few seconds to breathe after reaching the top of the Poggio. Nibali, sure of his descent skills goes full steam ahead. He already used the same trick some months ago at the Tour of Lombardy, and won. Still, no one believes he will make it. The chasers are sure they will catch him back. They will, after the finish line…
The receipt of the « Primavera à la Nibalèse »: Vista – Brio – Grinta!
Vista – Grinta – Brio
Now you are a little more savvy in the history of cycling, see what’s behind these terms used mainly in the field of sport… and how they could or should apply in business.
According to a definition of the net, the vista is ‘the vision of the strategy of the game’. From Italian vedere (see) declined into vista(view).
Other definitions add another dimension relating to the space from view… at the bend of a road, at the top of a hill, through trees or a very narrow lane. This definition related to space informs on the ability to “see clearly in a beam however restricted”. In the case of Gilbert and Nibali, playback of the race taking place did not allow them to plan any tactic for a long time in advance. The window of opportunity as they say was very reduced. These are the circumstances of the competition related to his experience,, skills (stamina regarding Gilbert, the downhill talents of Nibali) but also the “gut feeling” which proved to be decisive for both winners…
Taking benefits from one’s vista and following intuition requires challenging the codes and often disobeying all “rules and codes” that are dictated by the culture and by the habits (one does not attack so far from the finish or at the edge of a descent, as written in manuals of modern cycling strategy. It is even harder to disrespect the orders the team manager gave in the morning briefing or through the headset during the race.
Here the managing talent of Patrick Lefevere, boss of Gilbert’s squad is to be recognised. When Gilbert launched his suicidal attack, Lefevere preferred to let him do it against all odds, despite the fact that the risk to lose was big in a race which was THE EVENT of the year for the sponsor.
But as Lefevere trusted his own vista (and his riders), he played the game, unplugged the headset and gave twenty kilometres of full freedom to his leader before validating definitely the way forward. Winning strategy!
Let us put this situation in a corporate culture and ask the question: considering the financial stakes we know, the detailed business plans all settled in boards, work processes described as sheet of Gospel, how many of the competent and experienced employees we know do you think would trust their guts and let their intuition guide their choice, when the moment is critical? And how many of their managers, yet with the word leadership hung permanently in the corner of their lips, would allow them or even better encourage them to follow their way?
Back to sport, it should be noted that the vista benefits not only to the athletes the best endowed by nature. To quote a category of cyclists, the sprinters, the big guys (Mario Cipollini, Marcel Kittel, André Greipel) are intrinsically favoured by their impressive muscle mass. This fact has not prevented smaller jigs (Robbie Mc Ewen, Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan) from beating them regularly as they capitalized on their vista. Making fast decisions at key moments to follow the best slipstream or to choose the right tiniest space to slip between opponents is a much more decisive factor than just using brutal force… The vista is not only tied to size, force, or simply being gifted. It is a matter of mind. Everyone can develop it.
Brio takes its etymological origins from several languages: it means “zeal”, “ardour” in Italian or Spanish, ‘audacity’ in old Irish (brig), “ardent” in old French (a-brive), “high esteem” in Welsh…
In music the way a composition is delivered. Brilliantly done often refers to the enthusiasm, the energy, a form of vivacity of gesture and spirit.
It is essential for the vista, its “twin” component. Intuition is there but will you push the trigger? Without this boldness, this taste for the beautiful gesture, this “panache” to use a French synonym, would Gilbert have begun his exhausting marathon, and would Nibali have thrown himself like a madman in the descent of the Poggio, at the risk of his life?
It’s this brio that we often lack, while we are convinced of our intuition, our competence and our grinta, although we know we can make it.This spark we create that changes everything in an instant. Not to mention the simple beauty of the gesture that can inspire the others around us. It can be to refuse to compromise in illogical, unfair, destructive long-term decisions that are nonetheless supported by the hierarchy.
It’s simply the tenacity. Fifty-five kilometres alone in the wind with a stacked squad against you and all united in your pursuit, it’s a challenge both physically and especially mentally. You have to believe that you will make it! Imagine what could cross the mind of Patrick Lefevere (“that won’t work, too far!”) or of the relatives of Nibali in front of their TV (too fast in the turns, he will break his bones). Perhaps these doubts were also at the back of the minds of the two champions. Maybe they were tempted to stop their crazy initiative to return to the ranks and try another tactic later, more reassuring, more conventional… They held well, true to their instincts, their belief that their “disruptive” actions “(to use another fashionable term) would pay. And it paid off!
At the office, do we keep easily stay on course when our micro-manager threatens us insidiously for not following the routines? Do we have enough grinta to go against the tide and deliver what we know to be the best way to satisfy customers and stakeholders?
A personal anecdote: in 2002, while I was manager of the IKEA store in Toulon – Southern France, Ingvar Kamprad founder of the company, who regularly stayed in the region came as a “visitor”. About a merchandising detail, he got mad and questioned whether the CEO of IKEA France and the Global CEO of the time, nothing less than this (!) were deserving of their positions. This while the fault was ours and even more precisely mine as I was the store manager. As he didn’t want to hear anything about my explanations, I waited overnight to write a letter that exculpated both CEOs and confirmed my own responsibility. And I took the wheel, febrile, to deliver this mail in his hands, at his home. I thought that my last hour in the company had probably rung. He was there, I handed him the letter, confused and shaking (well… I was facing a monument). He read it, obviously appreciated my initiative, tore it up and invited me to discover the last production of his winery (infamous at the time). In retrospect, I think that behind my reaction there was probably a bit of vista but especially a lot of brio. I followed my instincts, and I stayed 16 years longer in the company.
The matter here is not about promoting irrational and short-sighted decision-making. The vista for example is a high-speed reading of the current situation and unconscious mechanisms that lead us in the right direction. It refers by no means to being irrational.It’s a quality that we all have in us and that we can cultivate. As a manager and leader, we can help our employees to also develop it and encourage them to implement the winning combo “Vista-Brio-Grinta”.
The combo is the fruit of experience, of empiricism. It will only develop, therefore when accepting to be confronted with the failure and by adhering to the notion of “a right to fail” condoned (or not) by our superiors, peers and subordinates. If this right to fail is not really granted, then claim it, grab it. Because if the management is entrusted by the management to others, leadership is something to be taken.
What if we would encourage our managers and employees to follow their intuition, based on their experience, their previous successes and failures. In many companies, leadership is the WORD colouring any human resource strategy, how comes then that rebels are tamed and sheep get promoted. The fast-changing world – the VUCA world as many “want-to-be-inspirational” managers like to refer to – requires more risk taking and bolder decision, at all levels of the organisation ladder. What if we would let our people develop and use their Vista-Brio and Grinta?
As evidenced by Gilbert and Nibali, but also by entrepreneurial legends such as Ingvar Kamprad, daring is about learning how to lose, but above about how to win.
Jean-Yves Masse, founder of Engage & Deliver.