Viewpoint -- Leadership Lessons From NASCAR

Dec. 21, 2004
The right driver behind the wheel can make all the difference, especially in business.

Still think NASCAR is only for mullet-wearing guys named Waylon or Vern? Think again. NASCAR, especially Winston Cup racing, is the fastest growing sport in America. The recent Daytona 500 was the most watched race in NASCAR history, with 25% of all TV sets in use tuned in. Not only is NASCAR muscling its way into the upper echelon of American sport, it also is providing lessons in business leadership worth noting. NASCAR is popular because it puts on a competitive and entertaining show, in part by creating a level playing field. The lords of NASCAR do everything within their power to ensure that all of the cars are equal. Look closely at those Fords, Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Dodges. With the exception of the nose piece, the grill and the windows, the bodies are almost identical. Remove the bodies and the machines start to look even more alike. And just to be on the safe side, NASCAR will tweak the aerodynamics of each car type to get the performance even closer between the cars. Strict rules are enforced to ensure that each team operates under the same guidelines. Oh sure, some teams are better funded than others, resulting in better race shops with more sophisticated equipment and higher payrolls. But even then, out of the 43 cars that started the Daytona 500, at least half had an excellent chance of winning. Luck always plays a role. Avoiding someone else's misfortune and not getting caught up in a big wreck cannot be discounted. But what other factor could possibly make a difference? That's simple: the driver. With all things being equal, the driver's ability takes on the most important role. Driving skills, the ability to intuit how the car is performing, communicating with the crew and car owner, and the sense of timing to know when to charge in and when to back off are what tip the balance of power in one team's favor. Would the No. 24 team be as good without Jeff Gordon? If Tony Stewart left the No. 20 team, would his replacement step right in and achieve the same level of success from day one? The parallels to the corporate world are manifold, as they say in the pit. We all play by a similar set of rules, whether defined by the IRS, the FCC, the FDA or a host of other regulatory agencies, though admittedly these rules are not always as stringent as NASCAR's. Within these regulations, a corporation can be at the right place at the right time with the perfect technology and a ready market. It also may have a winning support team in place. Yet, 12 months later, the company is scrambling for investors and seeking answers to embarrassing questions. Why? Because it didn't have the one basic element that could separate it from the competition. That one special driver otherwise known as the CEO. A proven builder of relationships and motivators of teams. Someone who can not only develop strategy, buy also knows how to deliver results, and understands that the driver has to be decisive and accountable for his decisions. Outstanding NASCAR drivers generally perform as well off the track as they do on it by communicating with owners and mechanics and by building support with the public. So too does the successful CEO who can move outside the company and deal effectively with customers and shareholders. A commitment to the program, a positive outlook and a passion for the game are essential to both types of drivers. It takes a combination of things to make a successful NASCAR Winston Cup team. But the key element common to all of the top teams is the marriage of equipment, crew and driver. In the world of business, that translates to a combination of product, staff and corporate leadership --which is driven by the person behind the wheel. Just something to think about the next time you see a car or a company finishing first and wondering how they did it. Terry Boles is a partner with The Broadmoor Group, an international executive search consultancy based in Dallas. He can be reached at [email protected].

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