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April 2, 2019

Leading from the Middle of The Pack

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When you think of leaders on competitive sports teams, no matter how many players are participating, the mind (and the eye) automatically focus on the captain who rallies the rest behind him or her. George Hincapie isn't quite that kind of leader.

When you think of leaders on competitive sports teams, no matter how many players are participating, the mind (and the eye) automatically focus on the captain who rallies the rest behind him or her. George Hincapie isn't quite that kind of leader.

Over the course of his 19-year professional career in competitive cycling, Hincapie snagged victories in 17 Ronde van Vlaanderen races and a second-place finish at the grueling Paris-Roubaix—the best placement of any American racer. Hincapie also competed 17 times in the Tour de France and won three U.S. National Road Race championships.

Getting to those victories took a combination of skill, passion, determination, and sheer will. Yet he wasn't always leading the pack—or the peloton, as it's known in cycling, which is that tight formation of riders whose legs are spiraling so close to each other's they're practically touching in a way that can unnerve even the most seasoned observer.

Instead, Hincapie became famous for his role as a domestique. That's the French term for the rider who is constantly working for the benefit of his or her team and leader, rather than trying to personally win the race. The word loosely translates to "servant," and to hear Hincapie describe his role, it's fitting.

"The team was always more important than the actual leader," he explains. That meant that he would put it on the line for the best person competing on a given day. "I was always really good at helping or making the decisions on the road," Hincapie adds, moments when a curve, or a hill, or a sudden shift in the wind could mean disaster—or an edge, depending on how he read it.

His utter commitment to the team was evident in an episode he now calls his biggest challenge. In 2009, Hincapie broke his collarbone during the Tour de France. "I didn't want to get an X-ray," he confesses, because it happened close to the finish. "The last five days cost you the most. I knew how important I was to the team, so stopping was not an option."

Hincapie says his team-first mentality is something he learned over the course of his career. He began as a young boy and would eventually win 10 junior national titles and two world medals prior to joining professional ranks. "I was on the best teams and learned a lot from my mentors," Hincapie says.

Something else he learned that would dovetail nicely into the domestique role also has roots in his youth. "When I was fifteen, I was racing in Europe, and the culture and language at times felt really overwhelming," he recalls. Looking back, Hincapie can see those experiences as an important crossroads, "to keep pushing on learning about the cultures I was trying to live in."

Although he doesn't say it explicitly, Hincapie's careful attention to those around him, their languages and their customs, played an early part in sharpening the skills he needed to rise in competition, whether he was actively out front, or managing the peloton so another member of the team could shine.

That certain skill is called emotional intelligence, and it's one of the most highly prized attributes in our current workplace. Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote about it back in 1998, in Harvard Business Review. The key traits of an emotionally intelligent leader are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation (defined as "a passion for work that goes beyond money and status"), empathy for others, and social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks. Goleman contended:

"The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It's not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won't make a great leader."

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