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Lance Armstrong, Mario Savio and the Odious Machine

As a part of an inspirational speech at the height of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 Mario Savio, the American activist,  said “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” This statement still holds true today, almost 50 years on.

Mario Savio’s speech uses the beautifully simple and graphic metaphor of a machine with interconnected gears and levers in which we all have a part to play. Our actions or inactions affect the functioning of the machine. This ‘machine’ can be anything you wish, big or small relating to society, the economy, organisations, teams or individual relationships.

Mario Savio and the Odious Machine

Mario Savio


You can view Mario Savio’s speech on You Tube by clicking here

A central principle in Challenging Coaching is ‘speak your truth face the facts’. We are more than just coaches and can speak what we feel and think; speaking our truth as we see it. This relates to feedback to a coachee – our observations and hunches concerning the individual or organisation, etc. This is particularly important “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious…” for then speaking your truth is crucial to prevent decay and failure. However, speaking your truth is not only about highlighting problems, but is also about providing insight and sharing your understanding with others. Sharing your objective viewpoint is a valuable part of speaking your truth. Mario Savio was clearly aware of this.

In Chapter 10 of Challenging Coaching ‘The Deeper FACTS’ we talk about moving from dependence to independence and finally to interdependence. Interdependence is a state of being that recognises the connectedness of the system; this is a ‘we/us’ world not a ‘me/I’ world in which we partner, collaborate and share power. This interdependence acknowledges that “unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all”.

I was reminded of Mario Savio’s words and the idea of interdependence when absorbed by the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 (for more details click here). Lance, stripped of his seven Tour de France cycling victories for drug-taking, made a particularly interesting comment: “I didn’t invent the culture [of drug-taking], but I didn’t try to stop the culture” Lance was faced with an ‘odious machine’, the institutionalised use of drugs within competitive cycling. However, in contrast to Mario Savio’s guidance, Lance Armstrong continued to take part and to take part very actively.

I wonder how many other people in organisational life could say a similar thing to Lance Armstrong? “I didn’t invent this culture but I am doing nothing to stop it”. Are there any organisations, sports teams, communities, families etc. which you are part of where the culture risks becoming odious? At what point are you still taking part and colluding with this culture rather than challenging it? Last week Lance Armstrong finally faced the FACTS in front of a global television audience of millions. Let’s hope that by speaking our own truth in the present we can avoid making a similar mistake in our own professional lives.

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