How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.”
— Maya Angelou —
At a campaign stop in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2012, President Obama got into some trouble for using the phrase, “You didn’t build that.” He was making the point that many successful people and businesses owe their success, in part, to someone who helped along the way, as well as to the government that invested in roads and bridges and other types of business support such as guaranteed loans. If the former president had simply finished the sentence by saying, “You didn’t build that alone,” it would have been much clearer and more widely accepted—since most successful entrepreneurs and business owners have some help along the way from either a teacher, mentor, partner, or friend.
Steve Jobs acknowledges the influence and importance of Steve Wozniak and Steve Lasseter to the success of Apple and Pixar. Bill Gates and Paul Allen gratefully acknowledge the influence of Ed Roberts, the developer of an early personal computer. Joe Lacob could not have engineered the turnaround of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors into the league’s elite team without Peter Guber and other Silicon Valley investors, who provided not only funding but also advice on areas such as real estate and marketing.
Our research indicates that you don’t have to be famous or wildly successful to have benefitted from an influential person in your life. You don’t get to be a highly regarded schoolteacher, doctor, corporate manager, or fitness instructor without some help along the way. Every person that we interviewed had no problem identifying a person, often more than one, without whom they would not have made it.
The Myth of the Rugged Individualist
When you think of the Old West, perhaps you conjure up an image of a lone cowboy on his horse riding across the prairie. It was assumed that, in order to be successful as a cowboy, a rancher or farmer, you had to be self-reliant and independent because you were on your own. If you came West for a better life, you had to work hard—because no one was going to help you.
Not true. For example, a single man could not operate a farm or ranch alone. He needed the help of a hard-working wife and many children. So it was that families working together contributed to the success of the family farm. Beyond that, communities of farmers often came together to help each other out with barn raisings, building a school or church, fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property, or collaborating on a potluck dinner or a community social. The Federal Government helped too, providing land to settlers under the Homestead Act and supporting the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Even in the Old West, people did not do it alone.
Most 19th century entrepreneurs who developed western mining, agricultural, and railroad empires lauded themselves as rugged individualists who strongly opposed government regulation of wages, hours, and working conditions, while at the same time lobbying for government subsidies and tariffs to protect their products from foreign imports. These entrepreneurs may have launched their businesses by themselves, but they did not build their businesses alone. In addition to the government, they had a team of managers, supervisors, and workers who came together to create and grow the business.
And that collaborative tradition continues to this day. Talk to any 21st century entrepreneur and you will hear her say, “I have a great team and we are successful because of them.”
As our research has proceeded, we found that many successful people have benefitted from multiple positive influence leaders over the course of their life and career. Growing up, that positive influence might have been a parent, a coach, or teacher; however, as they matured and entered the world of work, they encountered a workplace leader who motivated them to chart a different path or found a role model who served as a positive influence example, from whom they could learn what it takes to be successful.
For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).