When I began my journey of interviewing some of the most successful people in the world, I was keen to bring together the common threads of knowledge and habits they shared. The main theme that I found in their stories (and something that anyone can immediately duplicate), is that they ask a little more of themselves consistently. They push a little more, stretching beyond what they had done previously. I found this to be true in business, politics, spiritual leadership and financial achievement. They simply took responsibility, not only for themselves and their own actions, but also when handling challenges and situations outwith their direct control.
The contrast in the ability of some people to overcome difficult circumstances when others cannot was shown starkly to me the day I met former Police Chief Superintendent and policy advisor to the Government, Brian Mackenzie. He serves as a working peer in the House of Lords and in this role he has the influence to help shape legislation that will become law. I was keen to track his career and in particular to find out why he has worked so hard to change certain elements of the statute book. Brian is proud of having shaped several key areas of legislation and in particular the change in the law relating to double jeopardy. This was the law that meant a person could not be tried twice for the same crime, even if new evidence came to light. Brian was a passionate advocate for the abolition of this law, which he saw as a persistent barrier to justice.
Brian told me that this had been on his mind ever since he served as a young police officer in Durham, at the time a man called Donald Hume had escaped justice for the murder of a business associate. He was tried for the killing but there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction and he was acquitted of murder. Hume subsequently admitted the crime and sold his story to a Sunday newspaper, describing in graphic detail how he had killed, dismembered and disposed of his victim. Given that he had already been tried, the law could not touch him. Hume then went on to kill a taxi driver in Switzerland some years later. The injustice of this stayed with Brian, so much so that years later he became the driving force behind the change in this law. That afternoon I had some downtime between interviews, so I did some research on Hume’s background.
Donald Hume endured a terrible childhood; this does not excuse his future heinous acts, but perhaps explains the psyche of such an individual. Hume was abandoned by his mother soon after birth and was sent to an orphanage. The institution he ended up in was bleak and no compassion was shown to the young residents within it. They were regarded as the sons and daughters of sinners and treated accordingly. Beatings and punishments were commonplace and the owners even kept a parrot that shouted out the word ‘bastard’, just to remind the children of what they were. The orphanage set the tone for the hatred that Hume would later admit to feeling towards the world. When, at the age of seven, Hume lifted an axe and attempted to attack a member of staff who was teasing him, he was transferred to live with an aunt. Life did not improve much over the next few years as his aunt indulged her daughters and treated him with coldness and contempt. Donald Hume’s hatred was compounded when he discovered that his ‘aunt’ was in fact his birth mother, who had abandoned him and did not now want to acknowledge him as her own. Hume left home as soon as he could and lived a life of petty crime and larceny, culminating in his becoming a double murderer.
This is not a pleasant story and inevitably we will speculate on how his adult life might have differed had he enjoyed a happy childhood.
I moved on to my next interview with a genial man in his sixties called George. He too had been abandoned at a young age. His mother had given birth to him just after the war and soon after she handed him to his grandmother who ran a boarding house in Sheffield. He was brought up in grinding poverty with several of his brothers and sisters. Of the five of them, only George and one sister lived beyond childhood. Chillingly, in later years George’s sister checked the death certificates of their siblings, which may imply that infanticide could have been the cause of their deaths. No charges were ever laid: such was life in the most poverty stricken areas of post-war Britain.
When he was still a toddler, George’s grandmother offered him to a travelling family who had happened to stay in her house for a few nights; George was given to these strangers and separated from his brothers and sisters. The family George lived with were kind to him, but the reality of their life was also one of harsh poverty and George’s life was itinerant and directionless. At the age of five he was enrolled in school, but he had kidney problems and also suffered from anaemia and chronic bronchitis, due in no small part to the penurious existence that he lived. These physical afflictions meant that he was not permitted to attend the local school (in those days any affliction could lead to segregation as a no-hoper and being sent to a special school for such cases). George therefore had a limited education and his tumultuous life became more complex when a woman claiming to be his mother demanded that the family he lived with hand him back. They duly did so and despite not even recognising his mother, having been away from her virtually since birth, George moved to a new home with her and the man she now lived with, who became his stepfather. But his mother soon left again, leaving George with his stepfather and stepbrother. From the age of eight George pretty much fended for himself as his stepdad was either working or looking for work. This lonely, impoverished life became worse when George’s stepbrother began to sexually assault him and he was regularly attacked by the older boy. George became adept at keeping an escape route available at all times when he was in the house, and he took to wandering the streets rather than risk further attacks by staying at home.
At the age of fifteen George left school with no qualifications. He secured an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer and he has an abiding memory of the man he was working with attempting to explain circuitry and the basic workings of electricity to him. George was stupefied. He simply could not comprehend what he was being told.
Personal Best People: George Buckley, Chairman and CEO 3M
“In life I decided that I could be a victim or a victor. I chose the latter.”
At this stage in his life, George had every right to hate the world and everyone in it. He had been born into poverty and had been passed from home to home throughout his childhood. He had suffered chronic illness, been denied a full education and had been subject to the most unspeakable assaults. He had no qualifications and had received no guidance. All he had was a belief that he held. George told me, ‘In life I decided that I could be a victim or a victor. I chose the latter’.
The teenage George enrolled at a College of Further Education and studied there part-time for several years while learning his trade during the day. He then went on to university where he gained a doctorate in electrical engineering and secured a management position with British Rail. Eventually George moved to the United States, after being offered a senior role with Emerson Electric, and in 2005 he took over at the industrial giant 3M as Chairman and CEO. Under Buckley’s stewardship the business has enjoyed sustained revenue and profit growth, with annual revenues of over $26 billion. George is now regarded as one of the world’s top business leaders, and needless to say he has been well rewarded for his stellar contribution. He was knighted in 2011 for his services to business.
Two very different stories. Why is it that two people can experience similar circumstances yet respond in different ways? Why is it that Donald Hume and George Buckley both grew up through frightening and horrific childhoods, but one grew up to be double murderer, and the other to be an extraordinarily successful businessman? The answer lies in the power of decision. The decisions you make today, tomorrow and on a daily basis define your life and your outcome.