September 2012

This week, for a new project, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk leadership with Rick Hendrick at his headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a wonderful day, and I came away with something that I want to share with you, because I think it will be of tremendous value.

Now, if you don’t know Rick, that’s okay. He’s a good friend, and in addition to being a successful businessman, he also happens to be a phenomenal leader. In fact, Rick is such a great leader that he’s able to maintain two entirely separate massive enterprises: Rick Hendrick Automotive Group, which comprises his 120 car dealerships across the southern United States, and Hendrick Motorsports, which is made up of his various car racing teams.

Both of those accomplishments are amazing in and of themselves. But Rick isn’t the kind of leader who’s happy with being just a business owner; he is committed to excellence in everything he does. And that’s why his NASCAR racing teams alone have won 11 championships, including a record-setting five championships in a row by driver Jimmie Johnson. Rick’s drive to be the best translates into a vision that goes across all of his organizations and produces astounding results.

As you can imagine, the opportunity to sit down with Rick and talk about leadership was something I couldn’t pass up!

For our conversation, Rick brought along one of his NASCAR drivers, a very sharp young man named Chase Elliott. If you’re a NASCAR fan, you’ve probably heard his name – he currently leads all rookies in points towards the Rookie of the Year award, and he’s done very well in many of his races. Even though he’s still looking for his first win, after just a few hours with Chase, I knew it wasn’t a question of IF he’d get a win, but WHEN.

The reason why I feel so confident about Chase getting a win is because of his perspective. Now, he’s a young man – just 20 years old – and he’s following in some gigantic footsteps. Chase took over Hendrick Motorsports’ 24 car, which was previously driven by the legendary Jeff Gordon. Chase’s father happens to be Bill Elliott, who is also a legendary NASCAR driver. Everywhere Chase looks, he’s surrounded by people who have achieved success at the highest levels of his profession.

He could feel overwhelmed. Or he could assume that he’s somehow entitled to success. But he’s done neither of those things. Instead, Chase has the mindset that all great leaders have: he wants to learn to be great.

In fact, he said something during our time together that just struck me. It was such a fantastic leadership statement that I immediately told him I was going to take it and use it. (And I am!) As we were talking about the preparation he does for each race, Chase explained how much he studies what other drivers do. He described the hours of film he watches, the conversations he has, the ways that he constantly seeks out information that might make him better, make him sharper. And then he said this:

“After all, you create your own luck.”

I love that phrase. It’s such a leadership concept. You create your own luck. You don’t just wait around, hoping someone will open a door for you. You don’t just sit back and hope for good things to come your way. Hope is not a strategy, and waiting is not always winning. Good leaders, the best leaders, are constantly looking for an edge. They are learning whatever they can, in order to gain new insights, hear fresh perspectives, and see new opportunities.

There’s a quote, often attributed to the Roman writer Seneca the Younger, that reads, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” What Chase has learned at such a young age is that leaders like Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon and Bill Elliott have a lot of things to teach him. They have a lot of wisdom that Chase can use in preparing to take advantage of opportunities when they come along.

The same is true for you. You are surrounded by people who have something to teach you. You have leaders with wisdom to share and peers who have great insights from experience. Take advantage of what they know. Buy them a cup of coffee, and then ask them questions. Be intentional about getting to the heart of what people know.

Because when you intentionally chase wisdom and insight from others, you begin to create your own luck. As you learn and grow, you begin to see opportunities you would have otherwise missed. Not just to advance your own agenda, but also to add value to others, who will in turn add value to you. This is what separates average leaders from good leaders. And consistently living this way is what helps turn good leaders into great ones.

As poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” When you make the choice to intentionally learn from others around you, you can help create the luck you need to do the things you dream of doing.

Everything worthwhile is uphill.

I’ve been saying that a lot lately. Because it’s a fact. Almost everything that has value, almost everything that has purpose, requires work on our part to attain it. We have to put in the effort to get what to where we want to go.

Think about it – you want a good marriage? You have to work at it. You want a good career? You have to work at it. You want to change your life, achieve a goal, do something you’ve never done before? You have to work at it.

Nothing that is good in life comes easy. And very little that comes easy is good.

You have to work at it.

I’m reminded of a funny story about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Known as one of the most gifted and brilliant architects in American history, Wright is remembered for some breathtaking designs. One of his most famous is a home called Fallingwater, which he designed for Edgar J. Kaufmann in 1935.

The story goes that Kaufmann commissioned the design from Wright, who did nothing with it for several weeks. And then one morning, as Wright was eating breakfast, he received a surprise call from Kaufmann, who informed the architect that he would be by around noon to see the final design for his house.

According to the story, Wright hung up the phone, finished his breakfast, and designed the entire house in less than two hours. When Kaufmann arrived, he loved the bold design, and went on to build one of the most amazing homes in American history.

Now, even if that story were true – and most people believe that it’s not – or even if you think Frank Lloyd Wright was so gifted that he could just design a house from scratch in two hours, do you think that house was the first one Wright had ever designed?

Of course not! Before Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater, he’d designed many other homes and structures, and spent countless hours drawing and dreaming of designs. In other words, Wright didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and make magic happen; he worked steadily at his craft one day at a time.

Because everything worthwhile in life is uphill.

But too many people don’t seem to want to climb a hill. They just want to wait at the bottom and let whatever is at the top roll down to them! I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough cartoons to know that whatever rolls downhill is rarely something you want to get in front of. If you don’t believe me, just ask Wile E. Coyote from Looney Tunes.

So why do some people prefer to stand at the bottom, waiting around?

Maybe they are afraid of the climb. Maybe they don’t think they can make it to the top. Maybe they don’t have the energy or stamina necessary to go up the hill. Maybe they lack the discipline.

Or maybe they just like the feeling of coasting.

When I was a kid learning to ride my bike, I was always glad to go down a hill. It was fast and exciting, and I didn’t have to pedal.

But you know what I soon realized?

In order to go down that hill, I had to pedal my way to the top. The thrill I chased only came after I’d done the work necessary to catch it.

If everything worthwhile is uphill, that means you have to make the choice to go and get it. You have to put one foot in front of the other and take that hill a step at a time. You must grow and stretch yourself a little every day. You may not conquer a mountain at first, but for every hill you do conquer, you gain confidence for the next climb. And there is always another hill to start climbing from the bottom.

I’m at a point in my life where I could choose to coast – I’ve been climbing hills for over forty years now. People ask me all the time when I’m going to retire, or if I’m ever going to take it easy. And I’ll tell you what I tell them: I’m not ready to coast. So why do I keep climbing?

Because what I’m going after every day in this season of life is worth it. The growth I discover as I push toward the top of my current hill is worth more to me than the temporary joy I’d get from coasting, even for a little while. And that’s the secret. Whatever you put at the top of your hill, it must be something that makes the journey worth it.

So what about you? Have you been coasting, or maybe waiting at the bottom of the hill? Are you unsure if what’s the at the top of your hill is worth the climb? I have good news for you – it’s never too late to make a fresh start. Choosing to go after something worthwhile is the first step in the journey uphill.

Or maybe you’re already going after something every day, putting one foot in front of the other, climbing slowly but surely toward a prize that will make the climb worthwhile. If so, I’d love to hear what that prize is! What’s at the top of your hill right now that keeps you motivated? What are you chasing that’s worthwhile?

I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments. And I’ll leave you with this: everyone has something worthwhile to go after. Every person has a dream or a purpose that can make even the hardest sacrifices feel worth it in the end. Whatever that may be for you, my friend, don’t give up on it. Even if you have to take small steps, take them every day.

The view from the top of hill is much better than the view from the bottom.

This past weekend, millions of Americans celebrated the 4th of July. The holiday, often referred to as America’s birthday, is usually filled with cookouts, fireworks and flags, all in the name of celebrating freedom. Because America is founded on the idea of freedom.

Freedom is so ingrained in America’s DNA that it’s woven into our very laws as a country. In fact, in the first amendment of the Constitution alone, all American citizens are guaranteed the freedom to practice their religion, to speak or write their opinions, to assemble in protest, and to ask the government to do (or not do) something.

And that’s just ONE amendment!

The idea of freedom isn’t anything new; in fact, it’s been present in humanity since the beginning of time. We’ve always enjoyed the ability to be free creatures, even before things like Constitutions and laws existed. In fact, there is tremendous freedom to be had for any person in any place on the earth. This freedom is found in our ability to choose.

I’ve often said that while we can’t choose what happens to us, we can choose how we respond to what happens to us. I recently came across a quote from Viktor Frankl that gets to the heart of the matter:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who would go on to become a prominent psychologist, knew firsthand the value of the freedom to choose. While a prisoner of the Nazis, Frankl and his family found a way to rise above the brutality and horror by exercising the one freedom that could never be taken from them. No matter what happened, Frankl kept himself free in the only way any of us really can – by choosing how he responded to his circumstances.

I could make a long list of the freedoms available to Frankl, and really anyone. But I’ll narrow it down to five that I think are the most crucial to living a life that’s truly free.

1. Choosing Your Attitude

Have you ever woken up with a bad attitude? Ever ask yourself how it got there? Of course not! We know – though we don’t like to admit – that our attitude is our choice. You are free to choose how you react to the pressures of life, and sadly, some people choose poorly. People who choose to allow others to dictate how they respond to circumstances surrender their greatest freedom.

We need not put ourselves at the mercy of someone else’s attitudes, actions, and agendas. While you may not always be able to overcome difficult circumstances or change the situations you face, you can exercise your freedom to tackle them with an attitude – like positivity or abundance – that makes things just a little bit easier.

2. Practicing Self-Leadership

There is an old picture from Nazi Germany of a crowd raising its hands in salute to the Reich, but in the middle of the photo is one older man with his arms folded across his chest. It is a powerful image because it illustrates so much of what it means to lead yourself. Even when the rest of the world leads one way, you still have the freedom to lead yourself.

And yet, of all the freedoms we have, this is the most difficult to exercise. After all, the hardest person to lead is always yourself! That’s because leading yourself means doing what you know is right even when it’s hard. It’s developing and exercising internal motivation, instead of relying on motivation from other people. But when you learn to lead yourself, you’re exercising a fundamental freedom that enables you to go in the direction that you choose and to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. Self-leadership takes good intentions and turns them into good actions that have the potential to benefit you and those around you.

3. Taking Steps of Growth

Personal growth is not automatic. We take for granted that we, by virtue of being human, will simply grow and develop over time. After all, we’ve all grown physically from childhood to adulthood, without any real effort. But personal growth is very different from physical growth. Without purposeful steps to promote this kind of growth, it simply doesn’t occur.

The good news is that you have the freedom to choose to grow, and it’s as simple as picking up a book, or asking good questions of other people. It’s being curious and teachable. You don’t have to go back to school to get a degree (though you certainly can!); you simply have to look at life as a series of growth opportunities, and make choices that move you forward from one to the other.

4. Learning from Failure

Benjamin Franklin once said that there were only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d like to add a third certainty – failure. Everyone fails. Even people who try to avoid failure fail at not failing! It’s just a part of life. But while everyone fails, not everyone learns from failure.

You see, each failure has lessons to teach us, if we’re willing to look for them. We are free to ignore those lessons to our own peril, but we are just as free to reflect on our failures and extract wisdom from them. We have the freedom to re-write the story of our failure by pulling out valuable lessons that help us grow and improve in life.

Or, to put it another way, we have the freedom to fail forward!

5. Making a positive difference

This freedom is perhaps the most under-valued of them all. Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their ability to make a difference in the world. I’ve sat down with people at all levels of influence and poured into them my belief that everyone can be a catalyst to transform their community, their country, and even the world. And while the process of transformation isn’t quick, it is easy to begin: all it takes is living each day in a way that adds value to others.

We each have the capacity and the freedom to make a difference. In fact, I believe you have the capacity to change someone’s world today – and you might not even realize it when it happens. Maybe the word of encouragement you offer or the cup of coffee you buy will seem insignificant to you, but you have no idea how much it might mean to the person who receives your kindness.

You are free to give generously, speak kindly, and bring hope to those around you. Start in your home and your workplace, but move it beyond those spheres. Exercise your freedom at the grocery store, the library, at a local restaurant. Look for opportunities to be a light in your world.


The freedoms we have in America are worthy of celebration. They are the reason this country has been a beacon to people from all over the globe for over 200 years. But if we’re not intentional about exercising our freedoms, we can be prisoners even in a country where everyone is free. That’s why I love this quote from poet John Donne: “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”

My friend, you have tremendous freedom, given to you by God, to live a life that makes a difference in the world. You have a purpose you’re meant to fulfill, and you’ve been given the skills and strengths necessary to achieve so much more than you can imagine. I want you to understand that the limitations that you feel, the limits that culture or doubt would place on you, do not take away your freedom to be who you’re meant to be.

You are free not just because you live in a country that offers freedom – no matter where you live, no matter who you are, you are free. Free to choose your attitude, free to choose to make a difference, free to change the course of your life for the better.