McNeil is the 12th child in a family of 17 children who were raised in the province's scenic Annapolis Valley. Politics wasn't a great focus in his early years, although the idea of public service was, something he attributes to his mother.
Many of his 10 brothers and six sisters set examples by choosing paths in public life aside from politics. His path saw McNeil graduate from community college before managing a small appliance repair business.
It was a gradual interest in public issues that eventually saw him make the leap into party politics.
McNeil first ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the riding of Annapolis in 1999. He says he was lured to run again four years later because of his admiration for former party leader and friend Danny Graham.
"I wanted to represent the riding of Annapolis and serve in Danny's government in some meaningful way," says McNeil, who won a legislature seat in 2003, although the Liberals finished third across the province.
After Graham's sudden departure as leader shortly after that election, McNeil won re-election in 2006 when Francis MacKenzie was the party's leader. The Liberals finished third again.
It was when MacKenzie stepped down as leader that McNeil says he was encouraged by supporters to consider running for the top job, which he won in 2007. Two years later, McNeil led the Liberals to a second place finish as Nova Scotia became the first province in Atlantic Canada to elect an NDP government.
McNeil says the example set by his late mother Theresa McNeil is never far from his mind as he contemplates the challenges posed by a province with a lacklustre economy and a shrinking and aging population.
He recalls how his mother faced raising a large family after his father suddenly died in January 1973. Theresa McNeil went on to become the high sheriff of Annapolis County — the first woman to hold such a position in Canada.
"I can't imagine the pressure she would have felt," he says. "Not only did she take on the challenge but she flourished in that role."
McNeil said the trials faced by his mother taught him to have a sense of perspective about his political life.
That's been challenged at times. He has a reputation for sometimes having a short fuse, something he showed during a televised leaders debate in this election when he snapped at one of his opponents.
It's something McNeil says he's aware of as he tries to maintain an even keel.
"I've had moments in time where my passion shows up," he says. "I can tell you I don't take well to misrepresentation of the facts and I don't take well to people who say one thing and do something different."
McNeil lives in the Annapolis Valley with his wife Andrea and has two grown children, Colleen, 23, Jeffery, 21.
He has an avid interest in sports and is a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, although his most relaxing moments come while he is working his small hobby farm outside Bridgetown.
"I have a small tractor I enjoy using and it's my time away from all the stuff that's happening in what is sometimes a pretty intense profession," says McNeil.