How Leadership Turning Points Can Change Your Direction

Fork In The Road

Make the Most of Leadership Moments

Turning points. Leadership moments. Whatever you call them, all of us have experiences that change us.

Bernie Swain has had a backstage pass into the lives of numerous public figures ranging from US presidents to business leaders to sports legends. As the founder of Washington Speakers Bureau, he has interacted with, listened to, and learned from many celebrities and leaders.


“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” –Richard Bach


His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, takes us behind the scenes of these incredible lives to ask them about their turning points.

As we listen to their stories, what can we learn about our own lives?

What lessons of our own potential can be gleaned from these experiences?


Control Your Destiny

You open your book discussing turning points, those moments in life when everything changes. Your book is about these moments. Tell me about that moment in your life.

Funny thing about the turning points, they can be obscure and go unnoticed if we don’t pay attention. That happened to me. It is the lesson I learned.

Bernie SwainAs a graduate student, I’d worked as assistant director of a local community swimming pool. It was a good job, and the summer income was important to pay for graduate school. About once a week, usually a Friday or Saturday, we would keep the staff after closing and have a few beers. It wasn’t exactly allowed, but the director of the pool, who I had known since I was twelve, saw it as a morale booster and looked the other way. One night we decided to invite more friends than usual. About an hour into the party, a member of the board who lived nearby noticed the overhead pool lights and called the pool director. When he arrived, he closed down the party. I was fired the next day and replaced by the daughter of the board member, who had arrived home from college the day before.

Although I routinely dismissed the incident and had my share of laughs about it over the years, my wife Paula understood I was troubled by it. She knew I’d never really be happy unless my success or failure was in my own hands. “You will never be truly happy or confident in your future if you can’t make your own decisions and control your own destiny,” she told me.

That was all it took to undo a 15-year career on the verge of being a success; the power of passion.


“Follow your dreams. They know the way.” –Yohi Yamada


Imagine your life if you had lived your childhood dream and become a baseball player. What wisdom would that Bernie Swain be sharing? Do you think your life would have been as fulfilling?

I was happy with my career in athletics. Would I have loved being a baseball player? Yes, of course. But then what? Maybe I would have transferred my passion to doing something else, but maybe not. Life has a way of taking us to many forks in the road. Our lives are full of influences and defining moments, turning points. A mentor in high school put me on my career path, and one seemingly unimportant event at a summer swimming pool changed everything. All things considered, I found a passion that made me wake up every morning excited about a new day. And nothing is more important than that.


“All dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” –Walt Disney


Combine Passion with Honesty

Your incredible business had humble beginnings. Go back to that closet for a moment. Why was it that your agency took off and endured when so many competitors disappeared? What can other entrepreneurs learn from your experience?

Agencies like ours, even Hollywood agencies, don’t stay on top for long. In the lecture business, it is about 10 years. Why did we become No. 1 and remain there for the last 27 years? Honesty and trust! Whether it was because we mistakenly agreed to a handshake deal with our first speaker and then with all speakers, or we had a built-in desire to do things the right way, we were honest, hardworking and trustworthy. The lesson for other entrepreneurs? Find your passion and always do what, in your heart, you know is the right thing to do. Passion and honesty, it is a great combination.


Learn a Powerful Lesson from Robert Reich

You’ve interacted with some of the most successful people in the world for over 25 years—presidents, sports heroes, actors and authors, on and on. The book is full of their stories, a peek behind the curtain. Off the top of your head, is there one story that you consider a ‘must-read’? Why?What Made Me Who I Am

There are a number that I love, but probably the story of Robert Reich. 4”11” tall, he was bullied through his school years. Uninterested in current events and politics entering college, he devoted a life to equality and justice for others to honor the life of another boy who protected him and who was killed during the civil rights movement in the south.

“When I was a vulnerable child, Mickey protected me from harm. I, in turn, feel a responsibility to protect others. I was honored to know him, and I hope, in some small way, that my life’s work honors his idealism, his courage, and his sacrifice.”

It is an amazing story of a life dramatically changed.


Use Failures to Win

Failing is a turning point for many. When I talk about failure, who comes to mind? What did you take away from that?

In my book, I write this about Lou Holtz: “I’m not special, and I’m not particularly smart. I haven’t found any magical formula for success. But what I do know is, adversity is part of life, no matter who you are, what your age, and what you do. You will never outgrow or outlive it, but you can be motivated by it. As I have learned along the way, you have two choices in life: you either stay down or pick yourself up. In life and football, you can’t count on anyone else picking you up. Georgia or Michigan State isn’t going to call and say, ‘Coach, you don’t have a quarterback, let me send you one.’

Rarely can you find a truer statement. Almost every day in our first year could be described as a failure. We could have given up at any point. If you can find your true passion in life, and that takes some soul searching, you develop a never-give-up attitude. I never thought once about quitting. But that will not be true for entrepreneurs who lack real passion.


“Failure is good as long as it doesn’t become a habit.” –Michael Eisner


5 Common Traits of Successful People

What common themes do you recognize across all of the people you’ve represented? Do they share common traits?

  • Passion. It is the antidote for failure and adversity.
  • Leadership. Good leaders provide guidelines (a path) and a moral standard and then give others the freedom to make decisions and take risks.
  • Humility. People reflect the values of those who lead them.
  • Focus. Those I represented were universally determined and focused on a goal.
  • Honesty. Do things the right way and for the right reasons.


“Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” –George S. Patton


3 Points of Advice for College Students

If you were to give only three points of advice for college students, based on all of your interactions with so many successful people, what would they be?

  1. Know yourself. You can’t be a leader until you know yourself; understand your own strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Find and follow your passion. Don’t follow the crowd.
  3. Never give up. Trite but true. Most of us give up on our dreams too quickly.


“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” –Lao Tzu


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What Made Me Who I Am
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