December, 1999

The moment, two decades in the making, had finally arrived. My brother Travis and I were finalizing the sale of our construction equipment business. Burch-Lowe was my father's baby. He started the company when I was nine months old, selling, renting and servicing heavy equipment that was used to build the infrastructure of our civilization: highways and streets, sewers and dams, bridges and skyscrapers.  For most of my adult life I had worked to build the family business, pursuing my father's vision rather than my own.

After our father's death in 1990, my brother and I began to implement our own plans, and the business grew.  In 10 years, we took a sleepy, 35-year-old company off the plateau it had been on for years and quadrupled its size, starting two new businesses as we went.  Now, with long commutes and 60-hour work weeks behind me, it was time to pursue my dreams.

I had spent 20 years preparing for this moment, and five years actively planning for it.  In the mid-1990s, I revisited a vision I'd first had as a young man, to walk away from the business at age 45 and find something more meaningful to focus my energy on for the next phase of life.  Charlotte Roberts, a wonderful mentor and friend, introduced me to the concept of personal mastery.  Personal mastery is one of the five disciplines Peter Senge defines in his book The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, and it would prove to be the cornerstone of my endeavor to create a meaningful second career.

Personal mastery works through what's called structural tension. Structural tension is created when you articulate what truly matters in your life and then look honestly at your current circumstances.  For years, I have aspired to live the life Christ modeled.  Whenever I am willing to admit the reality of my life, there is tension in the contrast.  We will always have tension in our lives; the key is to organize the tension in such a way that it resolves itself in the achievement of our goals.

When you pinpoint what is truly important to you, and you clearly articulate your preferred future in a way that you can act on, you have created the vision.  Then, as you work to identify what is in place and what is missing, you define your current reality.  The contrast between the two creates structural tension.  Once you've taken that step, there are only two ways to resolve the tension. You either lower your goal, or you move your reality towards the goal. Often, we wish we could remove the tension from our lives.  But this tension is a powerful source of energy that will move you towards the accomplishment of your vision.

TAKE A MOMENT   Have you developed the skill of setting long-range goals and organizing your life to achieve those goals?

Personal mastery is a discipline which, like the spiritual disciplines, you never fully complete.  For 20 years, I've worked to integrate personal mastery, and the structural tension it creates, into my life.  It is an ongoing discipline that I will practice the rest of my life.  Incorporating this and the other learning organization disciplines into our business model helped my brother and me usher in a period of intense growth in the 1990s.

When articulating a vision for your life or business, clearly seeing and defining reality is crucial. But it's the piece that's missing from most of the visioning processes I've seen.  Strategy work often includes a review of the context, called a SWOT analysis.  SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  A SWOT analysis bases strategy on an all-encompassing look at the environment. Personal mastery, on the other hand, focuses on the current reality vis-a-vis your vision.  How can you map a path to the preferred future if you don't know your starting point?

TAKE A MOMENT   Do you know what your preferred future looks like? Take some time to think about where you'd like to be five years from now. Look at the different elements of your life and imagine what you would like to see come to pass.  Close your eyes and think for a minute on each of these elements, and then write down what comes to mind:  Your family, your career, where you live, your relationships, your church, your community, your relationship with God.

Charlotte describes it this way: "Personal mastery is the discipline of employment and engagement of self to create desired results in a consistent fashion.  What do we mean by employment?  Employment means I literally take action.  However, I can employ myself in my work and not be engaged.  Engagement means I bring my passion, my energy, and my full self to the work."

Charlotte prompted me to revisit a vision which had emerged in my life years before, to exit the family business and pursue a second career.  When she led our company through a strategic visioning process, she told the senior staff, "You guys have got to figure out how to do this without Gregg.  He's not going to be around here forever.  He's got something that wants to come out, and if he doesn't do something about it, it'll come popping out of his chest like that Alien movie."

Around this time, potential buyers began to sniff around Burch-Lowe. In the early 1990s we had started an equipment rental arm of the business, and in just a few years it grew to the 38th-largest equipment rental business in the nation. Public companies were buying up small, private equipment rental companies like ours and building national chains out of them. Since we had 11 locations across the Southeast, the public companies came courting us as a platform to enter our market.

Driven by my desire to pursue a second career, my brother and I began to consider selling the business.  In our last round of strategic planning, in 1996, we split the company into three separate business units. We said that after three years, we would decide whether to stay in each business or sell it.  At the end of 1999, we inked deals to sell two business units but keep the core distribution business my father had started.  My brother wanted to stay and run that business, and I began to put my exit strategy in motion.

TAKE A MOMENT   What would it take to achieve your preferred future? If you could have your preferred future right now, would you take it? If you could have it, what would it bring you?

In early summer of that year, my wife Genie and I bought a vacation home in Colorado. Our son Andy had moved out West to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his fiancee had followed him. We knew the kids were there to stay, so it made sense for us to look for a second home in the area. We found a house in a funky little hippie town called Nederland, just up the canyon from Boulder. We closed on the house in June and called it Base Camp. It would be our home base for exploring the mountains.

My brother and I were finalizing the deal to sell our business, and I was looking forward to unwinding my involvement.  Genie and I were taking steps to live out a vision that was two decades in the making.

Living out West was another element of the vision I'd had as a young man, and now I was on a quest to fulfill that dream. I had been seeking God's faint path for years, occasionally finding it, but mostly wandering through the spiritual desert.  All I could discern at that point were shapes in the mist, but I was heading out for a new beginning.  Life was good.  Something was missing, though.  The house in Nederland had the views, but we found ourselves on an acre and a half in a subdivision.  The log cabin we had dreamed about for years and the peace and solitude that wide open spaces bring were still calling to us.

My friend Richard Kessler first introduced me to the idea of a "home place."  A very successful businessman and philanthropist, Richard had built Mount Pleasant, a retreat on the Savannah River near his birthplace, as a retreat where family and friends could gather. This idea of a home place became part of my vision.  After leaving the company I entered what I call my "decompression phase," letting go of 60-hour work weeks and 15 years of sleep deprivation. Genie and I traveled the globe, visiting friends in Norway, attending the summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia and exploring New Zealand and Tahiti. Exciting as it was, I still had the nagging feeling that there must be something more.

I'd taken up meditation some years before, after a close friend engaged me in the practice. I'd always found it to be a great stress reliever, and now, as I spent more time with God in meditation and prayer, a picture began to emerge, like shapes in the mist. But the path was still anything but clear.  "Is this it?" I'd ask, standing at the precipice.  "Are you sure this is where you want me to go?"  I'd stand there and hear nothing.  It was only after I took a step forward in faith that I heard a confirming "yes, My son."

TAKE A MOMENT   Have you ever taken a leap of faith? What were the results? Where might God be challenging you to a leap of faith now?

Genie and I always loved the mountains.  Six months after our wedding, we spent 10 weeks camping in the mountains of the American West.  At the time, I was unchurched and unbaptized.  God revealed Himself to me through the beauty of His creation in those mountains.  The scale and grandeur made me feel so small, it convinced me that there must be a God.  We yearned to live there, surrounded by the beauty of God's creation. But reality came crashing down on us.  With the arrival of our first child, we made a choice to submerge our dreams so that we could provide a stable environment for our kids.  We stayed in Atlanta for 25 years as I pursued a career in the family business.  With the sale of the business, we had the means to pursue that dream of building a real home place.

When the world didn't end on January 1, 2000, we called our real estate agent and asked her to help us find a property where we could build the log cabin of our dreams. I told our agent to be on the lookout for acreage with mountain views.  We could build our cabin over time. She had a listing on a property surrounded by national forest.  "I haven't seen anything better in 10 years," she told us.

It was a clear, cold January day as we drove up from Nederland to look at the property, which was surrounded by national forest near the Indian Peaks Wilderness.  We plowed through snow a foot deep on the road in to find it. We came around a corner and found a clearing at the home site with views of the plains in one direction and the Continental Divide in the other. As we walked around the property, taking in miles of aspen-filled meadow with snow-covered peaks in the distance, it just felt right.  I knew this was the right place. It was a piece of the puzzle, a part of the plan.

By nature, I am very deliberate, doing lots of research before making major decisions.  Not this time.  We wrote a contract without ever looking at another piece of property. The sense of peace about the decision was incredible. We bought the land and began planning the construction of our log home.

The land with foundations in place as we encountered it for the first time.

The previous owner had already constructed foundations for a log home and a separate garage. The garage foundation was almost as large as the home foundation, which we found curious at the time. When we designed the garage roof to hold our solar panels (we are off the grid), we found we had created an upstairs space large enough to accommodate small retreat gatherings.  Surely God's hand was in this.  It fit perfectly with my plans to launch a second career consulting and teaching.  Creating a retreat center became part of the plan that began to unfold.  We have used it a number of times for leadership and spiritual retreats, and clearly it was one piece of the puzzle that was our new life. 

View of Eagle Peak from the next ridge with a view of Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak.

Time in the mountains enjoying God's creation has always been life-giving for Genie and me, so spending half our life in the Colorado mountains would fit our design criteria of following the energy.

TAKE A MOMENT   Which things in your life are life-giving? Which are life-draining? What would it look like for you to follow the energy in your life?

Another goal for the second half of our lives was to invest significant time in relationships with friends and family.  A home place would be a great tool for creating quality time together.  Our grown children loved the mountains, and we had taken several vacations out West.  Our son settled in Colorado, and our daughter stayed in Atlanta.  Now that they were marrying and settling down to start families and careers, we knew how precious family time would be.  We wanted a home that would draw them together year after year for shared time.  And the wilderness location would reduce the distractions of city living and increase our time together.  Having a place to entertain friends and share this life with them would enhance those relationships as well. So, we began the construction of what we call Eagle Peak, a retreat for body and soul.

The previous owner had built a road, drilled a well, and poured foundations.  We could build within that footprint under the permit we got with the property.  We received a set of plans when we closed on the property and incorporated some of the features.  We began to gather ideas into a notebook, and the vision of what we would build began to come together.  Large windows looking at the views, a front porch for entertaining, stonework with materials gathered from the property, and a solar power system were key elements.  Other elements came together during the design-build process, and we were off and running.  The one piece of reality that was not clear to me was the cost to build in these mountains.  When we don't see reality clearly, creating the desired outcome is that much harder.  I would have to say the biggest challenge I've faced in 20 years of pursuing personal mastery has been learning to see reality more clearly.

TAKE A MOMENT   What does your current reality look like? How can others help you see reality more clearly? What is preventing you from moving toward your preferred future?

As I have committed myself to living the Marks of Discipleship and moved toward the calling that has slowly emerged like shapes in the mist, the puzzle pieces have continued to fall into place. You know, there's a certain point where the pieces start to look like a whole picture.  That happened for me one night in the spring of 2005.

Genie and I had spent a week at the cabin, where I hosted a leadership development conference for my former industry. One night, while Genie slept next to me, I lay awake as God lit the next steps in the path. For three hours that evening, I could feel His presence in the room, and a path unfolded, providing more clarity than I've ever had about the call on my life. The pieces of the puzzle that became clear that night would guide me for years.  I came to the startling realization that God had me spend 25 years learning leadership and management in a secular setting so that I could bring my learnings to the church, through its future leaders.  Without the experience I got from my years in school and business, I would not be equipped to do what I hear Him calling me to do.  As I wandered through the spiritual desert wondering why God was so quiet, He was preparing me for my call.

TAKE A MOMENT   Think about a time when you really felt God's presence. What effect did it have on you? Was it fleeting, or did it stay with you?

Following God's faint path resulted in the creation of the Academy for Transformational Leadership in Atlanta and a web community, TransformingChurch.com.  I began to meet people around the country who came from incredibly different cultures and backgrounds, who were all feeling the call for renewal and reformation of the church.  At the core of TransformingChurch.com was a network of like-minded pilgrims on this transformational journey. 

From this mountaintop over the last decade, I have charted a way forward, seeking God's faint path and reveling in the joy of His creation and the love of family and friends.  Finding the courage to take the first step, to walk away from the business world and seek God's will and purpose for my life, has unfolded into the most fantastic adventure I could imagine.  There has been considerable pain along the way, but it has been the most deeply satisfying time of my life.  I've found a way to integrate all of my learning and experience, along with the gifts God has given me.  I'm drawn into a life of purpose, seeking the best out of me, living each day in God's grace.  In the following pages, you will see unfolding the lessons on leadership and life that have come from this adventure.

 TAKE A MOMENT   Are you ready to take the first step? What would it look like to move towards a preferred future?

Try this exercise: Take a deep breath, close your eyes and relax. Now, imagine it’s three years from now. Your wildest dreams have come true. It couldn’t be a more perfect day. Imagine you are floating on a raft with gentle waves of warm water swaying you, with the sun on your face. Picture in your mind: 

  • What’s home like? Where? Mountains? City? Seashore?
  • How would you describe your relationships? Family? Friends?
  • How do you picture yourself? What adjectives would you use?
  • What do your work environment and professional relationships look like?  What's the impact of your career?
  • What kinds of hobbies and play energize you?
  • What does your spiritual life look like? Your health?
  • What kind of church community attracts you?
  • How would you like to see your community change for the better?
  • What kind of world do you picture?
  • What’s going on that brings you joy?

Now take some time and journal the glimpses of vision that came to mind as you thought about each of these elements of your life.

Further Reading

Halftime Institute: Find Significance

Time in the Wilderness, Time With God

Partners in the Creation Story

Spirituality of Place vs. Journey