3 Books That Have Had A Big Influence On My Life

piled up books
“Not All Readers Are Leaders, But All Leaders Are Readers” – Harry S. Truman

Before I let you in on the 3 books that have had a big influence on my life, I’d like to take you on a journey.

From a young age, I’ve always enjoyed reading and always felt at home standing up in front of large crowds of people. At age seven, I was chosen to be the narrator for our school nativity play. It was such a great honour and I couldn’t wait to do it, but I never got the opportunity. Why? Well, my whole family got whisked off to Nigeria, dashing the dream of my debut performance. I was in Nigeria for ten years and had many significant, character-shaping experiences before returning to the UK, but never got to narrate a play (maybe it’s not too late).

Anyway, although I missed out on narrating for the nativity play, I had many other opportunities to speak in front of people over the years. As for reading, I loved novels and adventure books. I loved the way books drew you into another world and captivated your attention and imagination. I loved the way they had (and have) the power to influence for good. The right words conveyed in a book or the right words spoken in person (or via video, podcast, etc) literally have the power to transform lives and nations. Just consider the famous speeches over the years, including the Martin Luther King Jr I have a dream’ speech or Sir Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches. Or consider the TED talks that have been downloaded by millions of people across the globe.

Despite the fact that I now speak, write, and coach for a living, my original and early career aspirations didn’t have anything to do directly with speaking and writing. I wanted to become a doctor, mainly because I wanted to help people. I also dabbled with the idea of being an architect and then a businessman, but in my early years I always came back to the dream of being a doctor.

I soon found out that it was quite a prestigious career in the eyes of many, which was both a good and bad thing for me. Good – because it meant many approved of my career choice and aspirations; Bad – because I latched onto a vision that didn’t suit my innate skills, talents, and abilities.

To cut a long story short (Hey… where’s all the drama?), I didn’t get into medical school and so went on to study engineering with management at King’s College London. I did it because I could and not because I was excited about it. However, while studying I hit upon an exciting course—Organisational Behaviour—and, more importantly, an exciting theory – Fredrick Hertzberg’s Theory of Motivation.

In summary, he identified factors that caused people to feel highly satisfied in their work (and therefore highly motivated) and factors that caused them to be highly dissatisfied (and therefore highly demotivated). There were other elements of the course that got me excited about the field of motivational behaviour. I won’t go into it all now. Suffice to say, I got an ‘A’ in that course and, above all, found a spark. I still didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but that course left me with a fascination for how people are motivated and how to bring out the best in people so that they maximise their excitement, contribution, and joy in life.

After graduating, I was full of zeal and some knowledge, but very little experience and somewhat uncertain about my life’s direction despite this spark. After attending a number of graduate assessment days, I received two job offers and accepted one with a London-based engineering firm to join their graduate training scheme. It’ll come as no surprise that I quickly navigated my way out of engineering into business performance roles and then later on left the organisation and moved into consulting.

To backtrack a little, while working with the engineering firm, I mostly felt like a square peg in a round hole. Even with a good attitude, I still felt like a nice square peg with a good attitude (most of the time) in an uncomfortable round hole. I tried to shake it off, do my best, and accept my lot, but the internal restlessness just wouldn’t go away. I guess you could say I felt like I was born to be doing something else. In engineering terms, I didn’t think I was fulfilling my true design— the purpose for which I was created.

During my time with the engineering firm, I was fortunate to shadow the Managing Director of our sister company for a period of six months in a pioneer role. It opened my eyes to what it was like to operate at a senior level within a company, including the challenges of motivating and getting a large group of people to coordinate their efforts in an optimal way towards achieving the overall goals of the organisation. That’s ‘consultant speak’ for getting everyone to do what they need to do, at the right time, in the right way.

All of that brings me to the 3 books that have had a big influence on my life, especially when I was at a crossroads about my career in 2005.

The first one was the late Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (I’ve shared about this book many times before – I first read it at 18 when a mentor of mine gave it to me). In the book he talks about climbing the ladder of success, getting to the top, and finding that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

The second book was Good to Great by Jim Collins. This book contained empirical research and evidence of what enabled companies make the jump from being good to being GREAT (you’ll have to read the book to understand how he defined both terms). One of the seven research discoveries was that the great companies had found what Jim called their Hedgehog Concept. To summarise, their Hedgehog Concept was the integration of the answers to three key questions:

  1. What can you be the best in the world at?
  2. What drives your economic engine i.e. how can you most effectively generate sustained and robust cash flow and profitability?
  3. What are you deeply passionate about?

I applied the Hedgehog Concept on a personal level to consider my natural talents and abilities, what value I could bring to the marketplace in exchange for money, and what I was most passionate about. The answers were… (Wait. I’ll come back to that.)

The third book was Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve got to say, this was the clincher. There was a particular quote in the book that made me realise I needed to stop the ship and change course. It was a quote by the philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman that goes like this:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

When you’ve seen the light, so to speak, it’s hard to accept anything else. I wanted to come alive and finally had a good idea of what that looked like. So, as you can imagine, it was smooth sailing from then on. Oh, I wish! I remember chatting to a friend around about that time and telling this friend that I wanted to become a motivational speaker who inspired people to be the best they could be. The response I got was that I needed to have something robust to speak about and more experience. That was a bit of a downer, but also true in some ways. The journey began all the same as I moved into consulting and focused on working with businesses to improve their business processes and increase their capability to manage change. At least I was able to do more presenting and training as a consultant. I was getting closer to my dream and passion, but I still knew I wasn’t quite there yet.

My 2005 answers to the Hedgehog Concept questions will explain why. They were:

What I am deeply passionate about:

  • Bringing out the best in people
  • Bringing out the best in organisations
  • Leadership development
  • Investing and developing my own talents and maximising my potential

What I can be the best in the world at (my natural talents):

  • Speaking
  • Writing
  • Organising

What I want to (and can) get paid for:

  • Equipping, training, empowering, and motivating people to maximise their full potential and utilise their greatest strengths at work and in life

After two years of business change consulting, I eventually decided enough is enough. I took the plunge and set up my own company, Motivatem, with a vision to equip, train, empower, and motivate leaders to… (you know the rest). Again, that was on the back of tons of zeal and only some knowledge about how to build and grow a business.

I’ve learnt lots of things the hard way and the road has been rough, but I’m glad I took the plunge when I did. I don’t think I would have written my first book, The Magic of Monday (published October 2012), or have developed the inner strength to focus on the vision I’ve got for my business over the years ahead. I’ve had some very exciting and rewarding successes as a consultant, and some very deep lows too, including under the Motivatem banner and while working for a fantastic award-winning employee engagement agency, and all of that set the stage in 2019 to relaunch Motivatem as CORE Leaders International and focus more exclusively on my updated Hedgehog Concept and do what I love best – equipping leaders to lead more purposefully, more authentically, more courageously, and more effectively than they ever thought possible.

And so we come to the present day. In all of my job roles and consulting roles over the years, I’ve been known and commended most for my speaking and writing ability, confidence, drive, and passion. I don’t say that to impress anyone. After all, they are simply innate talents I’ve received as gifts.

Ultimately, I love speaking, not because I love the sound of my own voice or because I’m the life and soul of the party. Ask my wife; at parties, I prefer to hover around the food table, not that it shows mind you. (Okay, okay. That’s not completely true about preferring to hover around the food. I’m just trying to say I don’t go into a room and feel I absolutely must be the star of the show.)

However, I absolutely do love speaking, writing, and coaching. And there’s a reason why I’m committed to working at these skills every single day. It’s because I get one of the best jobs in the world – reminding leaders of who they really are and reminding leaders that they are able to grow and achieve far more than they currently imagine possible. In reminding leaders of these things I hope to transform lives, organisations, and, who knows, maybe even communities and countries.

Why do I use the word remind? Because when we were young we didn’t place the same limitations on ourselves as we do today. We imagined great possibilities for ourselves. Almost anything was possible. Then we grew up and far too many of us lost our dreams and zest for life in the process.

Buckminster Fuller put it this way:

“Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

We all have unique talents, abilities, passions, and strengths. I simply love to remind leaders of that and the amazing possibilities that lie within them.

As Dr Seuss said,

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

If you put a gun to my head and said you’d kill me unless I said I didn’t believe that we’re all uniquely gifted with talents and abilities, I would have to ask you to give me one last phone call to tell my wife and kids how much I love them. I believe it that much. [By the way, there’s no need to put that to the test. I love my family!]

So there you have it. 3 book that have had a big influence on my life.

What about you?

(Feel free to leave a comment or send other inspiring book recommendations to me. I’d love to have them.)

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