What made top leaders who they are today?

Can you narrow down one thing that made you who you are today? Perhaps it was a particular person, a piece of advice or a life-changing event.

Over the past decade, Bernie Swain, founder and chairman of the Washington Speakers Bureau and author of What Made Me Who I Am, asked 100 top leaders the same question. The majority of the leaders narrowed down their turning point to one of three things: people, events or environments.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Mr. Swain delved deeper into what made the leaders who they are today.

1. People. Forty-five of Mr. Swain's interviewees believed one person had the greatest influence in their life.

Madeline Albright, PhD, former U.S. secretary of state, said her father greatly impacted her. A Czechoslovakian diplomat, Dr. Albright's father survived the German occupation during World War II and the Communist takeover when the war ended. He later moved to the U.S., where he worked as a professor and maintained a positive attitude despite living in cramped quarters.

Journalist Tom Brokaw was most influenced by a political science professor he had in college. Durham, N.C.-based Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said he was greatly influenced by his mother, who only finished the eighth grade.

2. Events. Forty of Mr. Swain's interviewees claimed a single event was the turning point in their life.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was teased about his height — 4 feet, 11 inches — for his entire childhood. But a fellow classmate, Michael Schwerner, stood up for Mr. Reich and protected him. Years later, Mr. Schwerner and two civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The event forever changed Mr. Reich, who now serves as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and continues to advocate for social justice.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a rabble-rouser in school but his father's stroke changed his attitude. Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, changed her outlook when a superior tossed a dictionary in her lap because she incorrectly used a word in conversation.

3. Environments. Fifteen of Mr. Swain's interviewees said a specific environment — a place or experience — had the biggest role in shaping their life.

Condoleezza Rice, PhD, another former U.S. secretary of state, claimed her family's love of reading and education impacted her career. Dr. Rice's paternal great-grandmother, Julia Head, was a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation, but she learned to read. Ms. Head's son — Dr. Rice's paternal grandfather — had his sights set on going to college and becoming a Presbyterian minister. To help accomplish his goals, he frequently read, going so far as to buy nine leather-bound books on the works of famous authors. Dr. Rice's aunt has a PhD in Victorian literature and her father holds two Master's degrees. Herself a Doctor of Philosophy in political science, Dr. Rice now owns the five remaining books from her grandfather's set.

Political commentator Chris Matthews credits his life-changing environment to his time spent in Swaziland as part of the Peace Corps. For former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, his youth in the South Bronx defined him. He grew up in a neighborhood called Banana Kelley where he was surrounded by a community of family members and hard-working neighbors. "I owe whatever success I've had to ... Banana Kelley," Mr. Powell said.

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