What makes a great person great? That’s a question Bernie Swain, founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau, sought to answer.
Swain, who represented Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the years after they left office, has interviewed nearly three dozen people at the top of their fields — including Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair. He compiled their stories into a book, “What made me who I am.”
He spoke to Yahoo Finance’s markets correspondent Nicole Sinclair about what he learned.
Yahoo Finance: What inspired you to write this book?
Bernie Swain: “Back in the mid-1980s, I represented Alex Haley, who wrote ‘Roots.’ And Alex used to come in my office and spend hours just sitting and obviously talked about family all the time. And he used to repeat a phrase to me, ‘When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning.’ And what he meant was that all our experiences in life, the turning points in our lives, are like the pages in a book. And he said, ‘Take a look around you to look at the people that you’re representing and understand what made them who they are.’ So I kind of sat on the idea. He persisted and after about 10 years, I wrote the book.”
Yahoo Finance: And a fascinating subject that happened to you as well, right?
Swain: “It did. I was two months away from my dream job. I had a 15-year career in athletics and I was going to be the athletic director of a major university. My wife read an article in Fortune magazine where the largest speakers’ bureau in the world walked into the Ford White House to pick up Ford, Kissinger and Haig. And in the article, Henry Kissinger says, ‘You know, I don’t like your 33% commission rate. Why don’t I sign with one of your competitors?’ Harry Walker says, “I don’t have any competitors.’
My wife knew I was frustrated with university life and the bureaucracy of it. And she says, ‘Well, they don’t have any competitors. Why don’t we do that?’ And so we put a second mortgage on our home. We now had $55,000 in mortgages on a $60,000 house and we rented a closet with Chuck Hagel who later became Secretary of Defense. And for a year we sat in that closet, writing letters to people, trying to call people.
Yahoo Finance: Let’s start off with Alan Greenspan. He was going to be a jazz musician. What made him change? What insight did he give you?
Swain: “Very interesting. One of the things I learned about this was that passion is often much more important than talent for successful people. And he used to play in a jazz band. In fact, he was in his 20s still playing in a jazz band where one of his jazz musician mates was Stan Getz; he felt that he could never be as good as Stan was. And ironically he used to keep the books for the band. So he figured that, ‘Well, if I can be as good as Stan, then maybe I can do something else’. And that was the only thing he was doing was keeping the books for the band and that’s what started him on his career.”
Yahoo Finance: What about former Labor Secretary Robert Reich? He had an interesting experience. He, of course, went to Yale Law School with his future boss, Bill Clinton and with Hillary Rodham Clinton. What was his story?
Swain: “Well he’s 4’ 11” so he was teased and bullied from the time he was in preschool. And so one of the mechanisms he used was that he would find an older boy who could walk with him and protect him. And he found that when the older boys walked with him that the bullies didn’t pick on him. One of the people that protected him was Mickey Schwerner.
And he lost track of Mickey over the years. Mickey wanted to be a veterinarian, ended up [going into] social justice and during the civil rights [movement] in the South, what he did was go down South to protest and was killed by the sheriff’s department along with two other people. Upon learning of the death of Mickey Schwerner, [Reich] totally changed his life. He wasn’t interested in politics and he suddenly became interested. He figured that if Mickey tried to protect him, he wanted to spend his life trying to protect other people.”
Yahoo Finance: One person who isn’t in business or economics is the great football coach Lou Holtz. How did he get made?
Swain: “I always thought, imagine how amazing it would be if you had a CEO who took six companies that were all not profitable and by the second year you made them profitable. And not only made profitable, but you gave them a big name. And that’s what Lou Holtz has done. He took six failing teams over his career made them all successful. They’re all winning records by the second year. And he took them to a bowl game by the second year. And all of that was based on a theory of how to treat people correctly. And we’re going to do the right thing in life. And that’s been his philosophy. And all the kids that have played for him live in the same philosophy: ‘Is this the right thing to do?’”
Yahoo Finance: From the experiences and the stories, is there anything that stands out or a theme that runs through?
Swain: “The interesting thing that Alex Haley made me pay attention to was that the people in the book were not successful because the way I thought they were successful and I think the way a lot of people think they’re successful.
“They weren’t given opportunities that are not available to the rest of us. Most of these people that are in the book came from humble and modest beginnings. And what they learn from is they learn from the influences of the defining moments, the turning points in their lives, the forks in the road. And that’s what gave them the wisdom and the strength and made them successful in accomplishing things in life. “