What Helped Shape Top Leaders into Who They Are Today?

What Helped Shape Top Leaders into Who They Are Today

Can you identify the one person, event or influence that made you who you are as a leader and a person?

Over the past decade, Bernie Swain, founder and chairman of the Washington Speakers Bureau and author of What Made Me Who I Am, sought to find the answer by asking 100  top leaders. Madeline Albright, Tom Brokaw, Colin Powell, Terry Bradshaw, Condoleezza Rice, Mike Krzyzewski to name a few. Hoping to better understand what helped to shape leaders into who they are today by narrowing down what they felt were the turning points in their lives.

“Identifying the foundational moments of our success allows us to maximize our potential, uncover our passions, and become better leaders,” said Swain in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

Among his interviewees Swain discovered that turning points fell into three broad categories: People, events, and environments. These categories helped shape these top leaders into who they are today.


Forty-five of Swain’s interviewees believed that a single person had the greatest influence on their life.

For legendary Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, it was his mother, who had only an eighth-grade education. Her advice to always, “get on the right bus…filled with good people” became the moral cornerstone of “Coach K’s” life and career.

For journalist Tom Brokaw, who dropped out of college twice, it was a strict and caring political science instructor.

Events. Forty interviewees identified one event as the turning point in their lives.

After spending most of his childhood being bullied for his height— 4 feet, 11 inches— former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich found an older classmate, Michael Schwerner to help stand up for him. Years later, Schwerner and two fellow civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The event sent Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, on a lifelong course of public service and commitment to social justice.

Environments. Fifteen considered a place, a time or an experience, as having the biggest influence in shaping who they are today.

For Condoleeza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, her family’s love of reading and education had a powerful influence on her career. Rice’s paternal great-grandmother, Julia Head, was a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation, but learned to read. Rice’s grandfather, born in 1892, strived to attend college and become a minister. To help reach this goal, he read voraciously and once purchased nine leather-bound books on the works of famous authors for $90, a large sum at the time. Rice’s father earned two master’s degrees, her aunt got a PhD in Victorian literature. When Rice received her PhD in political science, her father gave her the five remaining books from her grandfather’s collection.

Political commentator Chris Matthews cites his time in the Peace Corps in Swaziland that took him off his path to academia toward a career in political journalism.

Swain writes that while there wasn’t a consensus on the defining moments that largely shaped this highly successful group, they do share similar qualities: a strong self-awareness and inner voice. Something all of us, even if we aren’t the U.S. secretary of state,  can tap into.