Successful Leaders Know What Made Them Who They Are

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Strive Masiyiwa, a London-based Zimbabwean businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He is the founder and executive chairman of diversified international telecommunications group Econet Wireless.


By Bernie Swain

Can you identify the one person, event, or influence that made you who you are as a leader and a person? Over the past 10 years, I’ve put that question to one hundred of the eminent people I represented as chairman of the Washington Speakers Bureau: Madeleine Albright, Tom Brokaw, Colin Powell, Terry Bradshaw, Condoleezza Rice, and many others. I was curious to find out what they felt were the turning points in their lives — the defining moments and influences from which they draw motivation and inspiration.

Identifying the foundational moments of our success allows us to maximize our potential, uncover our own passions, and become better leaders. In my case, the defining moment in my life was the realization that I was never going to enjoy working for other people — a recognition that paradoxically came to me right at the moment when I was on the verge of being offered my dream job (which I eventually turned down to become an entrepreneur). The realization helped fuel me even during periods of uncertainty by reinforcing my will to succeed and comforting me that I was on the right trajectory. Everyone has such an event and can usually identify it after some reflection. Among my interviewees, turning points fell into three broad categories:

People: Forty-five of those interviewees identified a person as the single most enduring influence on their lives. For Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, it was her father, a serious man with far-ranging intellect whose career as a Czechoslovak diplomat was short-circuited twice: by the German occupation in World War II and by the Communist takeover after the war. After the family moved to the U.S., he became a professor living in cramped faculty housing — quite a step down from an ambassador’s residence — but worked at his job cheerfully and diligently. She says that being secretary of state was challenging, but she never had any trouble staying focused: “I just had to picture my father in his flooded basement study, working away with his feet up on bricks.”

For Tom Brokaw, who had been student body president and a three-sport athlete in high school, but who then dropped out of college twice, it was a strict and caring political science professor. For legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, it was his mother, who had only an eighth-grade education. Her homespun advice to always “get on the right bus…filled with good people” became the moral cornerstone of “Coach K’s” life and career.

Events: Forty of my one hundred interviewees identified an event — a failure, an injury, a death, or the like — as the turning point in their lives.

What defined former secretary of labour Robert Reich, at first, was his height. “I am 4’11” and have always been short,” said Reich. Starting in kindergarten, he was teased and bullied, and he learned to find someone bigger who could act as a protector. One of those who watched out for him was an older kid named Michael Schwerner. Years later, in 1964, Mickey Schwerner and two other young civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan — a crime that shocked the country and horrified Reich, who had just graduated from high school. The event galvanized Reich, setting him on a lifelong course of public service and commitment to social justice. “Mickey protected me,” said Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley. “I, in turn, feel a responsibility to protect others.”

For Tony Blair, a rebellious troublemaker in school, it was his father’s stroke, cutting short the elder Blair’s promising political career and evoking in Tony the discipline and diligence that would eventually make him prime minister of Great Britain. Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, found the drive and passion to succeed as her unpretentious self when a boorish social superior threw a dictionary in her lap because she had misused a word in conversation.

Environments: Fifteen of my interviewees considered environments — such as a place, a time, or an enveloping experience — as the most powerful influence in their lives. For Condoleezza Rice, it was the love of reading and education that was passed down through her family, beginning with her paternal great-grandmother, Julia Head, who learned to read as a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation. Rice’s grandfather, born in 1892 to Julia and her sharecropper husband, was determined to go to college and went on to become a Presbyterian minister. One day he brought home nine leather-bound, gold-embossed books — the works of Shakespeare, Hugo, and others — which cost $90, a huge sum at the time.

“My grandfather believed in having books in the home,” Rice told me, “and, more important, he believed in having his children read them.” Rice’s father earned two master’s degrees, and her aunt Theresa got a PhD in Victorian literature. In 1981, when Rice received her PhD in political science, her father gave her the five remaining books from her grandfather’s set. They sit now on her mantelpiece.

For Chris Matthews, it was his stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland that took him off his path to academia and sent him toward a life of engagement in politics and journalism.

Colin Powell’s enduring influence comes from a neighborhood in the South Bronx called Banana Kelley, where he grew up among caring family members and a multilingual, nurturing community of hard-working people. “I owe whatever success I’ve had to…Banana Kelley,” he says.

Successful leaders are self-aware. That’s the overriding lesson I’ve learned from working and talking with some the world’s most accomplished people over the past 36 years. For some, like Powell or Albright, identifying and owning the turning points in their lives comes easily. But for many people it can be difficult. It took three increasingly painful conversations for Terry Bradshaw to fully get at his: As the number one pick in the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he paid little heed to his coaches, goofed off in practice, and exhibited a bravado that masked his deep insecurity as a southern country boy in a big northern city. But as the losses piled up on the field and the boos rained down from the stands, he could no longer sustain his devil-may-care façade. One night he broke down crying in his apartment, prayed, and heard a gentle voice telling him to get real. “I went to practice the next day,” he said to me, “and I set out cultivating a new attitude.” He went on to become one of only three quarterbacks to have won four Super Bowls.

Highly accomplished people have an inner voice and pay attention to it. They understand the defining moments of their lives and thereby better understand their own strengths, biases, and weaknesses as leaders. And that understanding provides them with a deep well of energy and passion that they draw on throughout their lives. We may not all have careers that match the 100 people I interviewed, but we can all share their ability to grasp — and harness — the turning points of our lives and careers.


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