In late 1984, as the captain of our small town high school basketball team, the pressure was mounting. We were supposed to win
a lot of basketball games – but we weren’t. As a boy, basketball was everything to me. And, as the tallest high school player in the
region, I felt pressure – obligated – to deliver. After yet another loss, I drove through the frozen Minnesota night to our farm house
that glowed through the trees.
I had hoped my parents would have gone to bed, but mothers have a way of knowing when to wait up for their children. She was
standing there in the kitchen, and as I walked in I lifted my eyes to hers – the tears came instantly. And more came. And I collapsed
to the floor, my back against the oven, and cried as if I wasn’t going to stop.
Mom slowly eased herself to the floor and sat next to me. But like most teenagers, that’s not what I thought I needed. So I got up,
threw my coat on, and walked out into the star-filled barn yard. The tears streamed down, and then froze on my cheeks. “Why was
this so hard? What’s wrong with me?” I wondered.
Mothers can be persistent, and thank heavens, mine is. It was just a moment later that I heard the snow crunching behind me as she
approached. With her arm around my side, we stood there in silence.
After a bit, I said, “I don’t understand it, mom. I feel like there’s something inside of me. Something that has to come out. And I can’t
figure it out.” I looked up at the sky. “Mom, I can’t tell you what it is, because I don’t know what it is. It’s just something that’s telling
me I’m better than this. Like,” I paused and looked at my mom, “Like I’m going to do something special someday.”
My mom smiled warmly at me, the kind of smiles only parents give. And she said, “I know. I can feel that in you, too.”
It was nearly twenty years later when I realized the gift my mother had given me that night. For two decades the belief that I had
something special in me, that I was going to do something special one day, fueled me through what many would consider a string of
successes: earning a college and post-graduate degree, being high school teacher, and then a college basketball coach, a marriage, a
purchased home, new cars, and then the birth of my daughter.
But life isn’t scripted, it’s created. And after one-too-many losing seasons, both on the court and at home, I found myself at the
bottom. Unemployed, divorced, and scared. I started to drink more than I wanted. And I started to wonder what it might be like to
end it all.
Maybe there wasn’t anything special about me after all.
That’s when a friend gave me a copy of Steve Vannoy’s The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children. Skeptical, I read it. Surprised (and
inspired), I read it again. And something happened. I began to feel it again. I began to wonder – but quickly doubted…no. I had
fallen for that trick, that illusion that I had something special in me before. I wouldn’t do it again. Because the evidence was now
overwhelming: There wasn’t anything special about me.
That’s when a person needs good friends, and as fortune would have it, one of mine introduced me to Steve Vannoy. I figured I
would just be another guy passing through this man’s busy days. He was, after all, a legend in our city. Having built a multi-million
dollar talent agency, and then losing everything – the business, his family – it was well known that he was back…but differently
now. Instead of building a business, he was building people. And that’s when I got to experience it.
Within a few seconds of our conversation it was back with a vengeance. It came crashing into my thoughts and then, it rushed into
my heart. It was the thought that was not going to be denied any more. It was a thought that was now showing up as wisdom: I’m
meant for something special. I’m going to do something important.
I started working for Steve the next day.
My first week on the job, we went for hike in the foothills outside our Denver, Colorado, office. I felt like a Labrador puppy,
prancing and jumping with energy. There was something about how this man, my new friend, was leading, was thinking, was living
that immediately brought the best out of me. It was as if he had a vision for my own greatness – but rather than talking about what
it might look like someday, he was calling it into now. I was experiencing my future on the trail, right in that moment. The greatness
was instantly present. I had never felt so alive. I had never known with such certainty that significant things would be achieved.
And I asked him – actually, I told him, “I need to know how you’re doing this. I want to be able to do this for others.” As we went
further up that trail, I explained to him that he was doing something I hadn’t experienced since that bitter night back in Minnesota.
This is when Steve taught me something I needed to know if I was going to do what I felt I could do. “You know,” he said, “Over the
years I’ve hiked this trail with a lot of people. And you remind me of every single one of them.”
What? Really? I was just like everyone else? I admit: this hurt. I had just told Steve that I felt as though I was different, as though
there was something special inside of me. And he was informing me that I reminded him of everyone else?
Steve sensed my confusion, and continued, “In my entire life I have not yet met one person who didn’t want to be great. Who didn’t
have that ‘something’ in them, that desire, that knowing that they’re capable of so much more, capable of their own greatness.”
I stopped. What was this I just heard? I looked down at the city of Denver. Everybody felt this way? I looked back at Steve, who was
crouched over and inspecting a wildflower. Everybody felt this way. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t unique – everyone was unique. I wasn’t
capable of something significant – everyone is capable of something significant.
I confess. I took me a while to adjust to this new thought. And as it became clearer, I was suddenly embarrassed. My ego – it had
fooled me. It had duped me into thinking that this desire to be great was somehow only generated in me. I sheepishly walked up the
trail in silence, until Steve broke the silence. And, as I would learn in the years to come, he sacrificed himself so that I could grow
faster. He said, “I remember when I learned what you just learned. Man! Was I embarrassed. I had been functioning from this idea
that it was just me. It took me a long time to realize that such an ego-based perspective was what was limiting me all along.”
“What happened when you switched? When you realized that everyone has this feeling within them?” I asked.
“Everything happened. It changed how I saw people, our progress. And something else even more significant. It changed the role I
saw for myself as a leader, a spouse, and a father.”
Steve was clearing the trail for me, as he would so many times moving forward. He was telling me it was okay that I had first fallen
prey to my ego as I grew in my understanding. And now, he was inviting me to take the next step forward.
I did with gusto. After all, everybody felt this way! “Steve,” I said. “Do you realize the significance of this? If everyone feels this way,
if everyone knows they have this greatness in them, what would be possible if people could access it? What would it be like if more
could live and lead from that space, that understanding?” I paused, and then said, “Steve. This…this is huge.”
Steve smiled, said, “Huge indeed.” He turned and sat on a large rock. “It changes everything. It accelerates our ability to transform,
to grow and change and be a greater expression of ourselves.”
Right there, on a trail that had no real destination, is where I learned what it meant to live and lead in Degrees of Strength. In the
ten years since that hike, Steve and our entire team have logged over 500,000 hours of flight traveling to six continents putting
a name on something leaders inherently intuit, but haven’t been practicing as often as they want or can. That is, until its form
appeared in the shape of this tool known as Degrees of Strength.
Before you read further, a caution: This book, this tool, won’t appeal to everyone. Some people – too many people – have given
up. Maybe they thought they lost too many games. Maybe they started believing the criticism others were giving them as feedback
– the criticism they were telling themselves. Maybe they thought they were unbreakable, and then life broke them. Maybe they
Craig W. Ross and
Steven W. Vannoy
are, respectively, the CEO and
Founder of Verus Global. They coauthored Stomp the Elephant in the
Office (Wister & Willows, 2008 - Best
Books Award Finalist, USA Book
News). Steven is the best-selling
author of The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give
My Children (Simon & Schuster,
Verus Global partners with inspired
leaders on six continents who are
evolving how work gets done – and
thus, are transforming lives and
accelerating performance. These
same leaders prove organizational
success is determined by the extent
to which companies leverage the
greatness that exists within team
members. Techniques such as
Degrees of Strength develop the
skills necessary to create a culture
where people can be their best in
every interaction – both at work and
Visit www.verusglobal.com for more
information and valuable resources.