By Bill Hellkamp

We are a product of our environment. How we were raised in our families, the neighborhoods we grew up in and the schools we attended all have had an influence on how we act and react, especially as leaders. However, we are mistaken to believe that these lessons from our past, be they helpful or harmful, cannot be repaired or improved. We are not helpless creatures, subject to the whims of life and circumstance, but thinking, growing and evolving beings that can choose to improve our condition through the decisions we make.

When you are in a situation that calls for you to dredge from the well of who you are, what do you think will come up in your bucket? Will it be useful, positive, valued insights, or will it be childish, selfish and inadequate nonsense. It will of course depend on what you have continued to pour into the well, day after day and week after week. The choices you make with regard to input will have a direct effect on what output you have available.pic

What we read – I know some people who decided at the end of their formal schooling that they were done reading anything that looked like a text book. They had enough of learning and they weren’t going to read that kind of book any more, perhaps some novels but nothing “heavy”! What a childish outlook and a missed opportunity to fill their well with good water. The information that one can gain from experienced and thoughtful writers is unlimited, especially when it comes to those most important of subjects, attitude and skill development. Less than a year into my professional career I remember reading the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. As I was absorbing his timeless wisdom, I clearly remember thinking, “Why didn’t they teach this in school? This is the information I need to succeed in life.” And I found myself immediately using the ideas in my business dealings with others – to great effect. Don’t reject the opportunity to learn, despite the fact that you found formal schooling to be less than applicable. Here are my top 5 recommended books:

  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
  2. How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling – Frank Bettger
  3. Developing the Leader Within You – John C. Maxwell
  4. The Magic of Thinking Big – David J. Schwartz
  5. The Slight Edge – Jeff Johnson

What we watch – With hundreds of television channels, thousands of web sites, and YouTube videos added at the rate of 300 hours per minute 1, there are plenty of viewing options that can keep us entertained for hours. As for myself, I enjoy watching funny and interesting TV clips, movie trailers, shows and films, and could spend hours absorbed in them. But we must all ask ourselves what are we learning and how are our ideas being influenced by the material we are watching, be it online or on cable? And don’t kid yourselves, you are being influenced. I find it interesting that when television executives are called to task for the violence, vulgarity and sexism of their shows, they maintain that it is innocuous entertainment and that people aren’t stimulated by it to act in negative ways. Yet they are happy to charge companies thousands of dollars to put their advertising on those same shows in an effort to impact what products people purchase. The truth is that these advertisers have results proving that we can be influenced by what we watch2. That means that we will be influenced to react and relate to others in ways that we see modeled by the characters we watch. So we must all ask ourselves if we really want our leadership model to be someone like Bart Simpson, Miley Cyrus or Walter White of Breaking Bad. Be cautious about what you are watching and don’t become too absorbed in television, movies or the internet. The goal of these media is seldom to enhance your life, but rather to get you to purchase something, whatever the cost.

Who we spend our time with – We were warned about peer pressure by our parents and have in turn warned our own children to be careful about whom they choose as friends. We hope that our warning will keep our children away from negative influences such as smoking or drug and alcohol use.   But the power of association is not relegated to our youth. We are still subject to it as adults. Think about the times when you’ve been encouraged to have a drink and were more prone to do it because it looked like everyone else had one. Or perhaps you’ve taken up a hobby or a sport because all of the other guys were doing it and you wanted to be part of the group. This is evidence of the power of association. On the other hand we can be “pressured” toward better behavior as well if the group we are part of supports this new conduct. For example, I used to have a pretty vulgar mouth, but I eventually found that the people I was spending time with had better manners than I did and frowned upon my behavior (even while not overtly correcting me). Bowing to this subtle pressure I eventually changed my ways and am pleased that I did. Interestingly, I have also found that people tend to exert a social and economic pressure on one another. So, if you want to change your circumstance, change the people with whom you spend your time.

In order to change your behavior and your reaction to situations, you must change your input. Read quality books and articles, limit what you watch and watch more affirming material, and spend time with people who are in life where you want to be. Change what is in the well so that what is good and kind can come up in the bucket.

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