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Online Edition — December 2003

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In the Spotlight:
Matthew May
Author of Absolute Impact: The Drive for Personal Leadership

Have you ever asked yourself, “Have I made the most of what I have to offer the world?” Matthew May has, and he’s come up with three self-driven strategies that are designed to help each of us find a positive answer to this question.

Absolute Impact offers a view of leadership that moves beyond conventional notions, encouraging us to make the most of our gifts by positively impacting the lives of others—ultimately resulting in deeply meaningful achievement in our work and personal lives.

Unlike conventional self-discovery books, May blends ancient philosophy with modern science and presents his strategies by telling the story of three courtiers who are summoned to court to guide the prince’s heir toward a future filled with significant accomplishment. The discussions of the four main characters, each with a unique perspective, provide new insights into the challenges of personal leadership.

Now let’s learn a little about May, his understanding of leadership, and the book.

NFC: Why did you write this book?

May: Several events and ideas came together to prompt me. While conducting leadership workshops, I discovered that most of the participants felt something was missing in their work. That led me to conduct a nationwide survey of working professionals. The results were disturbing. More than 70% of the respondents indicated that they would rather be doing something else with their lives. Greater than 70% spent six out of eight hours bored, anxious, on autopilot, or in some way disengaged. Nearly 80% felt they could not bring their “true self” to work.

For the leader of an organization, that means losing the lion’s share of work force productivity. For the individual, it means work without meaning or mastery.

Beyond prompting the obvious questions of how and why so many end up on the wrong path, those results revealed to me that personal excellence was being withheld from work at virtually every level. I set out to help turn the situation around, focusing on the minority that are engaged creatively in purposeful work.

I began writing in 2001, which was an unbelievable year. We saw Silicon Valley fall. We began to see CEOs fall. Then came 9/11 and we saw the Twin Towers fall. We didn’t know what to do, so we did the only thing we could do: Focus on what mattered most. All of a sudden we hugged each other more, we let people in front of us in traffic, we waved to neighbors. We re-evaluated our lives. We saw extraordinary acts by ordinary people.

Leadership was revealed at many levels. Out of catastrophe came an undeniable positive impact. For a brief time, we were making the most of every moment. I asked myself, “Why don’t we head in that direction as a matter of course?”

NFC: Why did you choose to write your book as a fable? What advantages does that approach offer that a more traditional approach doesn’t?

May: Storytelling is an enormously more powerful way to get people thinking. Written well, fables allow the discovery process to take place and enable readers to make their own interpretations.

Most leadership books are essentially lectures or case studies in book form—heavy-handed and prescriptive. They generally offer “success recipes” based on some amalgam of visible qualities derived from some select study group.

Cookbook approaches don’t dive deep enough. They don’t work because what works for me won’t work for you. That’s why people keep buying the “silver bullet” books. It’s the process that yields the original recipe that holds the key. It’s not about getting the right answers, it’s about asking the right questions. Great achievement has no road map.

Additionally, most books offer only one perspective—the author’s. We’ve known for 2,500 years that human intellect tends to be exhibited in four distinct mindsets, and unless the views of each viewpoint are expressed, the themes discussed lack universal treatment. We also know that the “Socratic method” of learning, which is essentially logical questioning, is one of the most effective ways to get at the deeper truths.

I wanted to offer something different that would make people really think deeply; the only way I could figure out how to accomplish my purpose was through a fictional dialogue among four characters, divorced from reality to lend focus on the issues, each presenting a different take on the topic.

NFC: Can you describe the three self-driven strategies very briefly and tell us why they work?

May: All three are essentially learning challenges. The first entails releasing our personal energy by learning to govern our gifts. We must start there because our greatest source of power lies in our ability to fully capitalize on our native aptitudes and unique intellect. If we don’t get this right, we’ll wind up chasing jobs with no intrinsic meaning and dreams that may have no prayer of coming true.

The second challenge involves focusing outside of our self by learning to share our strengths. Our greatest source of fulfillment lies in our choice to employ our talents to the highest benefit of others. The most important choice we can make is the choice to serve others well. We are naturally self-centered, but our capacity for selflessness is infinite. This is the essence of a purposeful life.

The final challenge concerns creating a new reality by learning to anchor our ambition. Our greatest source of achievement lies in our capacity to create and commit to a clear and compelling view of the future that is tied firmly to our power and purpose. Anything else is pure fantasy. We need to learn to dream effectively!

It is through the combination of these three strategies—in essence, masterful work done for the right reasons toward a significant end—that we can make the most of what we have to offer the world. I’ve studied high impact individuals for nearly 20 years. These three factors account for nearly all the variance within that group. Most managers address one or two of these, but if we can do all three, that’s absolute impact—that’s personal leadership.

MATTHEW MAY has studied and worked with high impact individuals for nearly two decades. He is the founder and president of Aevitas Learning, an executive development firm focused on helping others improve their personal performance leadership. He can be reached at .

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