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The Lance Armstrong apology tour

It’s rare that an interview with a TV talk show host gets this much attention, even if the host is Oprah Winfrey.

Yet details have leaked out about cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping confession to the talk show queen, who said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning” that Armstrong came clean in an interview that will air Thursday, although not “in the manner I expected.” The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article on why Armstrong decided, against the advice of some of his lawyers, to talk about the investigation into his use of performance-enhancing drugs, which the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called “the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” He has apparently called people in the cycling community with whom he had not been truthful to apologize. Other reports said Armstrong was emotional during the interview, and may pay back some money to his former sponsor, the U.S Postal Service.

But despite all the buzz surrounding Armstrong’s interview, what interests me most is the stop he made before heading to the talk with Winfrey. Just hours in advance of facing the cameras, Armstrong reportedly made a stop at the Austin, Texas headquarters of his cancer foundation, Livestrong.

The AP reports that the Livestrong stop included “an emotional apology” to the 100-odd staff members of the charity, in which he choked up during a 20-minute talk and shared his “regret for the long-running controversy tied to performance-enhancers,” though he “stopped short of admitting to them.” According to the report, he brought several staffers to tears, and a charity spokesperson said the speech was “heartfelt and sincere.”

Still, I can’t help but wonder about the timing. On the one hand, Armstrong, who stepped down as chairman and resigned from the Livestrong board last fall, may have been trying to distance himself from the charity and ensure that the nonprofit’s employees heard the apology personally from him, rather than watching what he had to say on TV a few days later.  

On the other hand, however, the close timing of the Livestrong stop to the Oprah taping meant that the apology to the charity would get visibility. It makes the Livestrong apology look like part of an overall communications strategy to resuscitate Armstrong’s image. That could have the potential to backfire with staffers if any of them saw the stop as part of an image-rehab tour, rather than as a sincere apology he feels he owes them.

Apologies from leaders (or former ones) are tricky things, and without direct access to what was said, it’s hard to know exactly how Armstrong’s remarks to the Livestrong staff were received. It sounds as if they went well, but for an apology to truly work — especially one that involves not only the use of performing-enhancing drugs but years of denials about them — it must be complete and hold nothing back, and the mea culpa can’t appear to have any other agenda but to come clean.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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