By Randy Hain

“Research suggests that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink:The Power of Thinking without Thinking

During one of my recent afternoon walks I encountered several middle-school girl soccer games in progress on the local school playing fields. As I walked by one of the games, I observed several of the parents and the coach directing the players on the field. The coach, who seemed quite knowledgeable, was almost being drowned out by the well-meaning moms and dads encouraging their daughters to “get the ball,” “score a goal,” and “play defense.” The confused look in some of the players’ eyes because of so much conflicting direction was a bit comical . . . and oddly familiar.

I often encounter professionals at all stages of their careers who are overwhelmed with somewhat contradictory voices in their lives. In addition to mentors, coaches, family, and friends, the noise from social media, mainstream news, politicians, and influential celebrities can be confusing and toxic if not streamlined and harnessed in an effective way. To whose voices, if any, should you listen?

Through the introduction of a mutual friend, I met with a struggling senior leader a few years ago who proudly told me he had an executive coach, a life coach, a mentor, a therapist, and was considering finding a communications coach. My head was spinning at the thought of all these voices speaking into his life, and I asked him if this approach was effective. He looked at me strangely and then said he thought so but wasn’t sure. He then proceeded to share a business problem he was dealing with and asked me for advice. I helped him as best I could, but also asked him for his permission to share an observation. I respectfully told him I thought he had too many influencers in his life. I encouraged him to think about what he really needed in this stage of his career and streamline the number of people whom he sought out for advice.

He seemed nervous and a bit frustrated, but after a few minutes, he acknowledged that he had likely gone overboard with what he described as an addiction to having “lots of pros” in his life. We talked about his self-confidence, and he admitted it was low. I agreed to have a monthly call with him at no charge for a few months, but only if he would begin trying to stand on his own and let go of some of the people giving him counsel. Our calls were mostly me encouraging him, asking him tough questions, and challenging him to make decisions, as I could quickly tell he knew the answers and was more skilled and talented than he allowed himself to believe.

This leader eventually got back on track, not because of my coaching, but because he began to have confidence in himself and remove most of the well-meaning but often enabling and contradictory voices in his life. He began trusting his gut and own instincts. We still touch base over coffee now and then, and he encouraged me to share his story as a cautionary tale to others who may have fallen into the influencer trap.

If you are trying to discern who can and should be the key influencers in your life, consider reflecting on these nine key questions:

  1. Am I clear about what I really need?
  2. What are my strengths?
  3. Where do I want to improve?
  4. Who will challenge me and be unafraid to tell me what I may not want to hear?
  5. Who can teach me new skills I wish to learn?
  6. Who has walked down a path that I also wish to follow?
  7. Who can I trust to allow me to open up and share my authentic thoughts and feelings in confidence?
  8. Who shares my values?
  9. Who will ask me tough questions and force me to solve problems rather than give me the answers?

This is not the definitive list, but it is a good list to get you started with your discernment process.

The recent encounter with the girls’ soccer game and the senior executive experience from years ago made me think back to the lessons I have learned in my own life and the process of discernment I went through to determine who would be the most helpful and positive sources of influence for me. My parents have always been a source of wisdom over the years, for which I am grateful. My wife has also served as a wise and insightful voice throughout our long marriage. Early bosses and mentors who took me under their wing and helped shape me as a professional have a fond place in my memory. Since the beginning of my career, I have gravitated to friends and professionals who possessed and modeled the skills, values, and virtues I admire and wish to mirror in my own life. I find peace and direction in the practice of my faith, as I listen for the subtle voice of God in my daily prayers and those who He places in my path each day. Sometimes, simply taking the time to reflect on my past experiences can be a source of helpful wisdom as I ponder different ways to handle situations and get myself back on track when I struggle. There are days when a chapter in a helpful and timely book recommended by a friend is all I need to correct my course or experience needed growth in a certain area of my life.

This post may not seem relevant to where you are in your life right now, and that’s OK. But, if you have a suspicion that you have too few or too many influencers or the wrong voices speaking into your life, know that it is possible to make the necessary adjustments. Review the questions I shared and get clear about what you require in your life right now and then be intentional about finding the resources you need. Consider the experiences I’ve shared from my life and see if they resonate with you and spark useful ideas.

We all need help from time to time—just make sure it is the help you really need.

Reflect on what you just read for a few minutes. Make a list of all the influencers and influences from which you get help, direction, or counsel of any kind. Use this post to help you discern if you have the right list and make the necessary adjustments.