Book review: Tim O’Brien’s Inner Story

Disclosure: I’ve known author Tim O’Brien since university. We even share the same birthday (although, as I always remind him, he’s always older than me.)

So rest assured, this review has to be the most-objective I’ve probably ever written.


Looking to be a better leader, or improve team performance? Time to discard populist texts in favour of a learned one.

Time to buy this book and have it on your desk – whether you’re a manager, leader, sports coach, parent, or even international rock star.

Because O’Brien goes back to clinical, behavioural and observational basics about the psychology of the mind, and then makes it comprehensible and relevant to the rest of us.

Written in an accessible but slightly formal style, he establishes and explains, over 11 chapters, what’s going on inside your head, and how that necessarily affects everything you do, and everything you seek to do.

And then explains how you can change those internal references, world views and anchor points, and focus them anew on what you seek to achieve.

It feels like I’ve made a career of reading management books on performance and leadership. None comes close. How could they? Because every single one of us is an individual, so it’s impossible (for example) to corral us into one of four, or eight, behavioural or leadership styles. We, and those we work with, and those we manage, deserve better.

O’Brien explains why, and how.

His chapters cover the following subjects: the inner story your psychological sub-conscious creates inside your brain, understanding the behaviour it influences, where fear play its parts (as well as how to manage and redeploy fear), being more successful, happier, and confident, what being a better leader actually should mean, being a higher-performing team, and finally, a chapter on understanding how each of us changes continually – how none of us is static, but constantly reappraising what’s going on around us, and seeking to map those external inputs to our inner frames of reference.

If what I’ve described here sounds faintly alternative, rest assured, it isn’t. His text and experience is rooted in clinical psychological evidence and training.

A couple of examples: higher performing teams never get to “the end”, never get to being definitively “high” performance. and those which are truly high-performing understand this, as individuals within the team and as the more-complex, cohesive group. He also emphasizes the benefits (and need) for effective communication in high performing teams, and that lack of effective communication signifies a team not performing well.

But he also posits the concept of the “soul” of a higher performing team, that empathetic understanding between team members that allows them to construct a single team perspective, with mutual support. To achieve that requires every individual to understand their inner story, and for the team managers or leaders to understand how these various motivations and perspectives work together.

The second example is O’Brien’s analysis of how we construct personal perspectives in each of our minds, subconsciously and consciously. The subconscious perspectives are of course often submerged, and it takes work to identify what’s really going on there. This is important, because until the two are aligned, dissonance is likely.

He also asks the reader direct questions, ones he expects us to answer, and leaves space in the text for us to write down those answers. (I chose not to do this, not wishing to make my copy of the book untidy – I’m sure he’ll have a field day with this.) So he expects us to use the book as a training manual, and we should.

His style, as noted at the outset of this review, is slightly formal. No surprise, given O’Brien’s academic background rooted in teaching and research. That’s why his book makes you think, which is what I like about it the most.

Thinking is perhaps what all of need to do more: about what we want in life, what we want from our teams, colleagues, families and friends. Getting leadership and performance right is not a two-day seminar or a one-hour psych. test.

In any case, every team will, from time to time, fail, or not achieve its potential. Every performer, manager, teacher and individual will, occasionally, be faced with self-doubt. To assume it won’t happen, and to assume it’s a weakness when it does, is neither helpful nor realistic. None of us can predict what will happen next. What we can do is prepare ourselves to manage, overcome, and emerge from those moments better prepared and performing to our best. Understanding your inner story makes this possible.

Read this book. Then have it on your desk, and use if often enough to make it dog-eared. Its contents worked for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and rock star Sir Elton John, so you’ll be on good company.

My review copy of Inner Story was provided by the author. Published by Ideational, available from Amazon.)

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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