Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Steve McKee Is Helping To Change Our World

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The key to effective leadership, I believe, lies in understanding the difference between power and influence. Either one can move people, but one does so via coercion and the other inspiration.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve McKee.

Steve McKee is the author of the new book, TURNS: Where Business Is Won and Lost, and co-founder of McKee Wallwork, a nationally recognized marketing advisory firm. He is also the author of When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck and What to Do About It, an award-winning business book now published in four languages, and Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World’s Best Brands, which one reviewer called “the definitive book on modern branding” that “should be mandatory reading in every business school in America.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in Wisconsin, then moved around the country with my parents to Denver, Albuquerque, Honolulu and back to Albuquerque. I was an average kid from an average family who went to public school and then a state university (UNM, which is the University of New Mexico but is also known locally as the University Near Mom). I married young and my wife and I moved away to go seek career success, but we found the lure of our hometown to be too strong. So once we had our first child we made our way back to Albuquerque where I ultimately launched my firm.

I can honestly say after 37 years of marriage and 26 years as an entrepreneur that there was no way I could have written the script of my life, but I’m grateful to God for how it has unfolded — despite many twists and turns, some of which were pretty uncomfortable.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I always loved The Little Engine That Could. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” that always inspired me to try. I guess it got baked into me because perseverance through trials has been a common thread for me professionally.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh, that’s easy. My first job was as a Field Marketing Manager on the Pizza Hut account, which was at that time owned by Pepsico. I went out to lunch (at a Pizza Hut) with the executive vice president of Pizza Hut, who was as intimidating as he was important. When the waitress came to the table, I made the mistake of ordering a Coke. I was mortified. He was gracious (he could tell that I immediately realized it was a mistake) and gently allowed me to correct my order. The lesson? Always prepare — not just for the big things, but the little things as well. It pays to think ahead.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

TURNS is a book about destiny, but also about agency. We can’t control all the turns we come to in life, but we can always initiate a new turn. I think we often look at the challenges we’re facing as if they’re inevitable, and insurmountable, and we discount our role in the process. I’m fond of saying that determination beats determinism, and I think it’s true. If we all take personal responsibility, the world will be a better place.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Ooh. There are so many. I think it’s fascinating how the “meta turns” I cover in the book all interrelate. The Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution are all interdependent on one another. We tend to think of them as these big, discrete events, but one couldn’t have happened without the others. And the personal and professional turns each of us make in life are derivative of these meta turns, in many ways. All turns in life are interconnected in some way.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

My company’s specialty is helping what we call “stalled, stuck, and stale” organizations turn around. I was initially interested in writing a book about turnarounds, but I wanted to do something original. I began contemplating why we use the word “turn” in that specific context, which led me to consider all of the various kinds of turns we go through in life and how they affect us. I was fascinated by the idea of taking a topic that is so in front of our face every day that we don’t even notice it and expounding upon it.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’ve been delighted by what early reviewers are saying. One said, “Have you ever read a book where you struggle to figure out what NOT to highlight? Well, bring an extra pen to your time with Turns because so much of it is gold.”

I love that, but I also got a great kick out of this one: “I was nearly halfway through this book before I really ‘got it’….Reading the second time around now, with the same feeling as after I first watched The Matrix :).”

Well, “Neo” does mean “new.” Given that contributing something new to the world was one of my motivations, I’ll take it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, take responsibility for the turns you make. Second, approach them with humility. And third, consider the unintended consequences. So many of our problems are compounded by the fact that people with even good intentions don’t consider the second- and third-order impacts of what they propose.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The key to effective leadership, I believe, lies in understanding the difference between power and influence. Either one can move people, but one does so via coercion and the other inspiration.

The extent to which you’re a leader in your organization or community means you have some power, and there will be times when you need to exercise it. But I suggest you use it sparingly because, as ironic as it sounds, the more power you exercise, the less influence you will maintain. By contrast, the more influence you gain, the more power you will effectively have. History is rife with examples of powerful dictators who, once they were deposed, lived on only in infamy. By contrast, the legacies of those who pursued lives of influence (from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill) continue to inspire us.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You are what you write.
  2. Always return your calls promptly.
  3. Perseverance is underrated.
  4. Everyone can be creative.
  5. No need to take your problems home with you. They’ll be waiting for you when you get back to the office!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Joseph Stowell said, “The world is what it is because we are the way we are.” That has haunted me (in a good way) ever since I first read it decades ago.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m a big fan of David Bahnsen, the founder of the Capital Matters podcast. He has a wonderful perspective on the moral foundations that underlie our market economy that I’ve heard few other people express so articulately.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Hundreds of my columns on marketing and strategy can be found at my website, And the site itself is a great way to reflect upon one’s own situation; it’s not about us, it’s about those we serve.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Steve McKee Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.