In 2008, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program after many years of resisting the entreaties of my parents to “do a Ph.D.”. I had finally found a topic (Leadership) that I was passionate enough about to want to become a subject-matter expert. When I shared this news with a friend of mine who had earned his Ph.D. a decade before me, he informed me that this journey would change me in profound ways. I was skeptical: “What do you mean”?

“You will start thinking differently and even talking differently as you go through the program”, he replied.
“Okay,” I said. Which really meant “I don’t believe you, but I do not have the energy to argue with you right now.”

I did not realize that he was right until 2014 when I visited some friends whom I had not seen for almost a decade. One of them commented to me that I had become a deep thinker. I wasn’t sure what he meant and asked him to explain. He said, “When you talk, it is obvious you have thought deeply about what you are talking about; I notice you now quote or reference the sources that influence your thinking, even in normal conversation.” The interesting fact about that conversation was that I had not yet finished the Ph.D. program by then…I completed it in 2015.

At a United States Military Academy (West Point) 20-year reunion in 2014, I was approached by a white classmate who had been a former roommate of mine for a semester. He came from an upper-middle-class family with strong Army ties and when we met as cadets in 1990 we had very little in common; I vaguely recall that he had not been very nice to me during my time at West Point. I had not seen him for 20 years since we graduated. He approached me and said “Modupe, it’s really good to see you. I was really mean to you while we were at West Point, and I feel bad about it. I was pretty stupid at that time and simply did not understand where you were from or the challenges you had to deal with and because you did not fit my expectations I simply behaved like an ass. I am sorry for that. I am really glad to see you again and hope we can have a good relationship going forward.” I was floored. I accepted his apology and we kindled a friendship.

The lesson in these stories is this: every day, everyone is changing. In small, sometimes unnoticeable ways, you are changing. Who or what you are changing into depends on three things:

  1. The books you read.
  2. The people you spend time with
  3. The videos you watch/audios you listen to. 

Let me rephrase this: Who you are going to become five years from now depends on what you choose to enter your eye-gate and your ear-gate. These are the gates of your mind, and through these gates, you will nourish or malnourish your mind; you will enrich or impoverish your thinking; you will determine your future and the future of the organization that you lead. You will be influenced by what you see and hear. Whatever you choose to feast your eyes upon and harken your ears to will determine who you become because it will influence how you think, the decisions you make and therefore the outcomes you experience. 

The beauty of this metamorphosis is that it is similar to slow-boiling a frog. It happens so gradually that you might not notice it yourself. However, someone who has been away from you for five years may comment that “you’ve changed”. This is why we become more like our spouses after many years of marriage. When you and your spouse first got married you were very different people; however, after years of seeing each other every day, talking to each other every day, and hearing each other every day, you become more influenced by each other than realize, until your siblings start to tell you that “you’ve changed”.

So what are you feeding your mind?

One of the many daily decisions we have control over is how we spend our time…who we spend it with and what we listen to and what we see and read. Those are our choices. Like many choices, they lead to outcomes. Leaders, if you feed your mind with junk, you will become a junkie leader. Your organization needs you to propel it to the next level, and to do that, you need to be transformed and grow so that you can transform and grow your organization.  Your organization cannot outpace your rate of growth as long as you are its leader. What are you hearing/seeing/reading that is infusing you with the knowledge and skills to lead your organization to the next level? 

Let me share with you what ISN’T going to get you there. Consider this a JUNK LIST: 

  1. Hanging out at the bar/nightclub 
  2. Watching fiction on TV/computer
  3. Reading fiction books
  4. Binge-watching sports
  5. Watching porn
  6. Reading lifestyle magazines

Don’t get me wrong; these activities are fun. They produce a short-term positive stimulation. Like eating potato chips and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, they make you feel good for a little while, but in the long run, they stagnate your mind and influence it in a direction that is not conducive to positive growth. So, for the sake of your family, your community, your business, your non-profit organization, your constituency, or your country, dear Leader, resist the urge to feed your mind with junk. You will become what you consume. The people who depend on you for leadership deserve the best leader that you can be. 

In Conclusion:

President Paul Kagame is not the first military leader to come into a position of political power in Africa, but he is one whose country has experienced the greatest amount of growth during his tenure. Like President Jammeh of the Gambia or President Campaore or Burkina Faso or President Bashir of Sudan, Kagame assumed the position of head of state through military power, and on the day he became head of state he lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to govern his country into growth. The difference between President Kagame and the other military leaders mentioned here is what he chose to feed his mind. By reading the right books, hanging out with people who were smarter and more experienced than him, and choosing to avoid intellectual junk food, President Kagame transformed his mind into the mind of a skilled political and economic leader who has consistently made wise decisions to guide Rwanda from a shameful past to an envious present. By contrast, President Jammeh spent his time hanging out with sycophants of moderate intelligence who could not expand his thinking and preferred to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. The contrasting fortunes of the Gambia and Rwanda during the past two decades provide evidence of the benefits of feeding a leader’s mind with good intellectual food and the dangers of feeding a leader’s mind with junk food.

Dear Leader, for the sake of the people who lives and livelihoods depend on the quality of your leadership decisions, be intentional about what you feed your mind.