Allow me to describe the early beginnings of a particular woman:

  • She was born to unwed, teenage parents in the 1950s
  • At birth, with her father away in the military, her mom moved away leaving her to live with her grandmother
  • She was so poor that she often wore dresses made of potato sacks, leading to local children ceaselessly poking fun of her
  • If she failed to perform her chores or misbehaved, she was hit with a switch
  • Moved in with her mom at age six, living on welfare in an inner city ghetto
  • Starting at nine years old, she was molested by a cousin, an uncle and a family friend
  • She repeatedly ran away and got into trouble
  • She became pregnant at age 14, but the baby was stillborn
  • At age 14, her mom, unable to enroll her in a detention home, sent her to live with her father several states away

Surely, by anyone’s definition, this early childhood was no picnic to say the very least. Fortunately, most of us don’t experience and cannot even imagine such an upbringing. Now let me share a few other facts about this same woman:

  • She became Nashville’s first female and first black TV news anchor in 1971, at age 17
  • She won the Miss Black Tennessee competition at age 18
  • She got her own TV show in a major market and won 31 Emmy Awards after just a couple of years
  • She is the first black woman to host a nationally-syndicated television show
  • A couple of years later, she won Broadcaster of the Year, the youngest recipient ever to receive this award
  • Nominated for both Oscar and Golden Globe awards
  • She has won countless awards within the broadcasting industry
  • She became the first black woman to own a production company
  • She launched a magazine that was dubbed “the most successful startup ever in the industry”
  • She was the first black woman billionaire in world history
  • She was the world’s only black billionaire in 2004, 2005, and 2006
  • She has been named the world’s most recognized person, being watched by over 35 million people each week in the U.S. alone and is broadcast to over 110 other countries
  • Finally, she has been called both the most influential woman and the most influential black person of her generation

By now, it may be apparent that “this” woman is Oprah Winfrey. Determined not to have her life dictated to her by such a heartbreaking childhood, Oprah’s story teaches us an invaluable lesson about how to overcome great adversity. And to be sure, the answer is a bit simplistic in its words, but phenomenally powerful when put into practice within our lives. Take a look at her website to see the end point of this transformational story – “ is your destination site for expert advice on love, life, and relationships”.

One lesson that I learned from Oprah’s story has become a pseudo mantra of mine – “while we cannot choose what happens to us, we can choose how we react to what happens to us.” This is an important lesson and one which I repeat to myself on nearly a daily basis when dealing with everyday occurrences – traffic or bad drivers, mistakes in a restaurant order, work challenges, and the like. We all experience life as it comes at us and must decide, whether consciously or unconsciously, how we will respond. This may seem obvious, but I’ll bet we can all recall times in our lives where we can Monday-morning quarterback our reactions to certain situations and envision a better response which would likely have resulted in a better outcome.

Oprah, for all that she suffered in her childhood, chose – this being the operative word – to respond with drive, ambition and a relentless will to succeed. She could have simply buckled under the stresses that she experienced as many others in similar circumstances do. But this was not her reaction and the success that she has achieved by leveraging her power of choice is truly extraordinary. Oprah’s tale clearly demonstrates the ultimate power – the power to control our reactions.

Oprah is also clearly in possession of what Umair Haque would call “strategic imagination”. That is, Oprah has the ability to imagine fundamentally new possibilities despite the inertia of a current situation or crisis. In this post at Harvard Business Online, Umair looks at two steps of strategic imagination – taking a naive approach to your own situation (ie taking a certain course of action which may appear foolish to others) and making a leap of faith which is “being able to see and then believe in a vastly different, radically better future – and not being limited to seeing and believing in a grainy, washed-out future that seems depressingly inevitable.”

By pursuing the tenets of strategic imagination, Oprah demonstrates (and reminds us) that it is not our current situation, but the outcomes, the results and the impact that is important to the leader.

For in our careers, as in our relationships, we all must start somewhere; but the interesting thing is not necessarily the starting point, but rather the paths we choose to pursue, and ultimately the ending point that we reach. To be sure, we don’t always know where life will take us, but we can rest assured that we are not merely pieces of driftwood in the river of life. We have the ability to control the direction we go by making choices as circumstances arise. It is this power of choice that separates leaders from followers. Leaders choose to strive higher while followers choose to follow a leader.

Nina nets it out: Don’t let your starting point dictate your ending. Leverage your ultimate power to control your life’s direction. After all, we all start somewhere, and that somewhere is often out of our control. However, where we end up is, in large part, determined by our actions. I’d love to learn of some of the choices you made which have helped you arrive where you are today.