I'll never forget the night of February 22nd, 1980. My Dad and I are sitting in the family room watching the Winter Olympics as the US men's hockey team was taking on the Soviets. The Soviet Union team was made up of a bunch of professionals while the US team, a bunch of college and a few high school amateur players. The Soviets were a powerhouse and they had won 6 of the last 7 gold medals in Olympic hockey and no one I mean no one had given the US team a chance in hell to win. But on this night, the US team believed and they played inspired, amazing hockey and as the clock ticked down to zero and the announcer Al Michaels exclaimed: "Do you believe in Miracles? YES!" The U.S.A Olympic Hockey team had won 4-3! It was a miracle! It was such an inspiring scene as my Dad and I went crazy, jumping out of our seats and cheering at the spectacle we had just witnessed! I'll never forget how my Dad just grabbed me in a huge embrace and yelled out, "WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!" When we sat back down and watched the pandemonium and celebration continue on TV, my father turned to me and said, "Now that's the way to go thru life Son! You've got to be the BEST!!! You gotta be THE BEST!!! I was in eighth grade on that night and it had a huge impact on me. It made a lasting impression.
A year later I would be going into High School and I know my Father had high expectations for me. I was the 2x junior high school conference champion in Cross Country and my Dad could not wait to see what I'd do on the bigger stage of High School Athletics. Once high school began, my Dad was always on me to be THE BEST. To be the best in High School meant being the State Champion. So that became my goal. My Dad and I would argue quite a bit because he had a problem with my work ethic or lack there of. He wasn't the only one. My Coaches had a problem with me as did my older teammates. I was so lazy my freshmen year that the team gave me a nickname that stuck all the way thru High School. They called me "SLACKMAN” because I was without a doubt the laziest kid on the team and I was a “Slacker”.
My Dad was an extremely hard worker and he would constantly say, "To be the best, you have to work for it. There is no substitution for dedication and hard work!" My Dad would come to all of my races and in my first year although I wasn't training very hard, I was winning all the freshmen competitions quite easily. I felt that no one could touch me. I believed I was the best. It wasn't until we had a cross country meet with York high school at their home course. I again won the freshmen race rather easily. I then watched the sophomore race and witnessed this kid from York named Jim White win that race rather easily. It wasn't until after the race that I was told Jim White was only a freshman. That moment is where the rivalry began. I always thought I was by far the best freshmen runner in the state, but after witnessing what Jim White was doing I quickly realized I had some strong competition.
As the next few years progressed I continued to dominate almost all my races. By sophomore year I was named All State in cross-country. By junior year I began to notice the emergence of some other highly gifted runners. Names like: Mark Deady, Steve Miller, Tom Bellos, Jon Vanscoyoc and of course, Jim White. I also began to understand the benefits of hard work and I became the hardest working member of the team. I was now "SLACKMAN" in name only. Once senior year rolled around all the names I mentioned had the ability be the state champion. My singular focus was to be the best, to be that champion. I wanted to make my Dad proud. I remember the pressure mounting as the big race approached and I remember my Dad continually harping on what it takes to be the best. He was on me quite a bit. By now, I was used to it. Once the championship season arrived I was running better than ever. I won the conference meet and then I won the regional meet. At sectionals I placed third which was good enough to qualify for State. All that was left was the State meet itself. I was ready!
Finally, the big day arrived.
The IHSA State Cross Country Meet! I awoke to the Sun shining through the hotel window. It looked as though it was going to be a beautiful day. I was nervous, scared and excited all at the same time. The biggest race of my life was just a few hours away. After grabbing a light breakfast, our team loaded into the school van and we headed to Detweiller Park in Peoria, Illinois the official site of the IHSA Illinois State Cross Country Championships. As we drove, out of nowhere dark clouds started rolling in. It was beginning to look rather ominous. Then the thunder crashed and it started to rain. It was coming down like cats and dogs. The race officials huddled and decided that because there was no lightening that the race would go on. After slogging thru the warm up on the rain soaked course we all knew it was going be muddy and quite sloppy. No matter though, because everyone was in the same boat. We all had to run in it. As the runners convened on the starting line and the rain was still coming down. I stood there with about a thousand of Illinois’ best runners and we were all about to take off heading in the same direction. An important key to doing well in a cross-country race is getting off to a good start. With so many runners, if you don't get out well and near the front you can get caught behind the sheer mass of humanity. If that happens, it becomes next to impossible to work your way thru to the front. I knew I had to get out fast. As the starter raised his pistol all things in my universe stopped and for a brief moment I heard my Fathers voice deep within say, "BE THE BEST!" And then, the gun went off!
As the rain continued I put my head down and bolted off the starting line. I ran as fast as I could thru the raindrops and before I knew it, I found myself in the lead pack with about 7 other runners. I looked around and noticed that it was the 7 best runners in the State. All those names I mentioned earlier. We were all keenly aware of each other and we all had the same goal, to be the State Champion. As we approached the one-mile mark I don't know what happened but something stirred inside of me. A little voice from deep within spoke to me saying, "It's time to go! Don't wait any longer and don't wait for anyone else! This is your race! Take it to them NOW!” At that very moment I took off and put in a surge. Before I knew it I had opened up a 10 yard lead on the pack! I kept pushing the pace and in a few more seconds it was 20 yards. As I looked over my shoulder I noticed only one guy coming after me and that one guy was Jim White from York High School. One thing you need to understand is that York High School has probably the greatest tradition of cross-country teams in the history of the United States and Jim White had been my biggest rival since freshmen year. He caught up to me and together we continued to push the pace. As we came upon the two-mile mark we had 50 yards on everybody else! With a mile to go we knew the championship was going to come down to either him or me. We continued pushing the pace and alternating the lead. We both knew that it was going to come down to the finish to determine the winner.
With about 1/4 mile to go I knew it was time to give it all I had and sprint to the finish. It was amazing how many fans were lining both sides of the course screaming and cheering us in but all I remember hearing was the beating of my heart and my breathing. At that moment I took my gloves off and threw them into the crowd and took off! The only problem was so did Jim White. We went neck and neck for about 100 yards until I noticed he was pulling ahead. He had a step on me, then two, then three. I dug down so deep giving it everything I could but on this day it just wasn't enough. Jim White finished first and I was runner up.
As I walked thru the finish line chute I felt so disappointed. I had come so close to being the best. I was upset not just because I had lost but because I knew I had let down my Father. When I emerged from the finishing chute the first person I saw off in the distance was my Dad running toward me. He was weaving in and out of people and knocking some out of the way just trying to get to me. As he got closer and his face came into focus I noticed his eyes were opened wide and he had this huge smile. He rushed to me, gathered me in his arms and without a word gave me the biggest hug of my life. I remember thinking in that moment, "Oh no! He didn't see the finish, he thinks I won." When he put me down I looked at him with sad eyes and said, "Dad, I lost. I got beat. I was second.” Without missing a beat my Dad exclained, "I know! I saw the whole thing! What an incredible race! Son, you ran a fantastic race!" I was shocked and relieved all at the same time. He continued, “At the one mile mark when you took the race into your own hands and you just took off, that took such guts and courage! You were amazing! I was so proud of you! Today you didn't hold back and you went for it and you gave it everything you have! That's how you do it Son! I am so proud of you because today you did YOUR BEST!"
The words echoed in my mind...
"YOUR BEST!" My Dad continued by saying that all he ever wanted from me was to do the very best that I could. Hard work and dedication was key and he wanted me to live that way but he just didn’t know how to motivate me. He has always wanted me to be the best version of myself. It never meant being THE BEST it meant being YOUR BEST! My Dad knew that if I could figure out that one universal truth then I would do just fine in my life. To this day when I think about that memory it brings such warmth to my heart. I always thought while I was growing up that my Dad would not be satisfied unless I was #1, unless I was the champion. But I had it wrong. All we can ever ask of ourselves is to be our best. It never does anyone any good to compare themselves to others because we are each our own person. I was heard that comparing ourselves to others is the thief of joy. I couldn’t agree more. We need to discover more and more how to be BETTER. I believe we have an idea of when we are striving to be or to do our best. I believe when we do, the world begins to benefit from it. It is time to get acquainted to the better versions of you and what you need to do to stay true to that person...it really is all we can ask of ourselves.
What I've come to find is that most people are not fully aware of who they are when they are being “Their Best.” In order to achieve this it requires a mindfulness practice. When you take the time to envision the best version of who you are it is important to be as specific as you can. What exactly are you doing and what is going on within you that helps “create” this state of being? For example, how do you treat yourself? Sometimes we become so self-critical and the thoughts we have about who we are can be very negative. I firmly believe that we can only act upon and expand upon the thoughts we attach to. The thoughts we focus on become our living consciousness. If we find ourselves constantly seeing ourselves in a negative light, we will expand upon that and make negative choices that lead to negative outcomes. Sometimes we find ourselves in negative situations because we literally, through our choices put ourselves there. When a person habitually finds themselves in a “shit storm” where negative things seem to be happening all around them, I believe in many cases it's because deep down its what they believe they deserve and thus, they find a way to create it. It is the ultimate power of the unconscious. This is why the most important person you will ever LEAD in your life is YOU.
Leadership is not a noun.
It is not a person place or thing. Leadership is a verb. It is action. Leadership is a decision on how you will conduct your life. The word decision comes from the Latin root which means to "cut off from." When we make a decision we cut off all other options and we begin to move in that direction. When we can't make up our minds or "decide" we can become stuck. I've met many people in my life who are simply stuck in the mud because they don't know what it is they truly want. This is why the most successful people you meet are also typically very decisive people. They know that nothing changes without ACTION. One might not always make the right decision but at any rate a decision itself promotes action, which promotes some type of creation. Some sort of result will come from each and every decision and action we take. It may not always be the result we hoped for but something gets created in the process. When searching for leaders you want to look for decisive people to be in key management roles. You want people who see and experience the organization or Team as an extension of who they are. You want their identity to at least in part be intertwined with the vision and values of the organization. These are the people who do not see a difference between their time and the organizations time. For them, time is of the essence to be used to fulfill the goals and the vision of the team regardless of how long it takes! When it comes to determining what you want, its leadership that helps bring it to action. Thus, we must first learn to effectively lead ourselves before we can lead others. Know what you want and determine in your heart why you want it. This is the first step, the launching point. When we know what we want we can begin the next steps to making it happen. We will begin to create it.
Photo by Ian Stauffer