Key Power of Soft Messages

I just composed these key messages of the book so I thought I’d share them.

  • Fear and defence are bigger issues for us than we realise. Our behaviour is largely driven by our protective instinct. This means that our primary mode under any sort of stress tend to be to attack and defend. As a result, we often project a hard, aggressive front that is not at all helpful in modern life. This can shield a scared, soft childlike core. If we think of it as a dualistic model, what we ideally want is the opposite – not armour on the outside but a soft front instead – with a strong, well boundaried, core.
  • We see power in this way – as dominance of the attacker. Our ideal first move is thus to defend or attack and then to ourselves become the predator. We therefore prize the image of the lion, the eagle, the bear. This is a limiting model because it’s not how power really works. Power is something we all have through the act of living. When we are in fear, we choose to give it up to greater forces. To understand what power really is, and that we all possess it, changes what we can do with it.
  • When we defend, we defend our position. It’s difficult to be flexible or to change if we feel we are under attack. We defend our castle. We don’t see things as they are; we see them through our lens. Once we can accept that we are not under attack we can relax. Then we can start to understand others and see that our position is just that; a position, not a truth. There are other ways of seeing things but we hold many big structural assumptions to be truths.
  • The jewel here is what we each have at core. We don’t spend enough time respecting ours or other people’s true selves. Once we start to encourage growth from within rather than imposing from outside we start to see something amazing happen: we can self-heal. Once we can self-heal we can help others to do the same.
  • Soft is the natural default state. For example, rock is formed from soft flowing materials such as lava, being put under huge stress. Like rock, hard is just soft that has given in to pressure. Soft has strength because it is able to flex without loosing itself in a way that hard can’t. On contact with another, hard can only win or erode, therefore it is unyielding. This is why soft is stronger than hard.

Remember that this is about a movement from hard to soft that is still continuing. It includes lived knowledge of both states. Its not all soft. This book could very easily have been called “Confesssions of an Alpha Male” or something similar.

I also feel that if we are to change our relationship with the world we have to start with the monsters – that we fear – that separate us from it. Soft is a journey.


“Water is fluid, soft and yielding.

But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.


As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding

will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.

This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”


Lao Tzu (604–531 BC)





Why are Stories so important?


This morning there was a sharp frost and a mist. I went out early with the dogs and it is (still, as I write) one of those mornings of utter beauty and joy. The intense light of the low emerging sun coupling with the frosty crunchiness underfoot.

As I walked, from rising sunlight into mist, something registered. I walked on, into mist, still half asleep, on my usual route, not knowing what it was.

At the end of the first field I decided not to turn left, round it as I would usually do, but instead to turn completely, to head back; through the mist into the light.

Emerging into the light wasn’t one of those things that happened suddenly but instead occurred softly, through a gentle gradation of change. I knew when I was back in the light but I didn’t know where it had happened. Knowing the point of change didn’t matter though.

What did matter was the thing that hit me. As I went through the transition back into light the thing that I knew but had yet to surface became clear. It was about stories.

Story is our means to make sense of our world. I realised that there are essentially two kinds of stories: monster stories and love stories – the mist and the light. Monster stories are about a challenge of overcoming a beast in our lives; real monster or metaphorical. Bond, Breaking Bad, Jurassic Park, you name it.

Love stories are very different; a reconciliation of the separated. Boy meets girl, lost lovers reunited in some way. My ability to name a good love story straight off might tell me something…

We get used to telling and hearing stories. Myth is there to help us make sense and to carry learning. My real thought this morning was more than this though. It was that stories are really for more than just telling. Stories are ultimately for living.

We tell stories in order to be able to live them when we are ready. We live through the narrative to learn a different way of living.

I realised that we are telling a lot of monster stories. Our lives and our kids lives are full of them. The papers are full of them. Even Facebook is full of them.

Telling and hearing are all very well but the challenge is to stop telling the monster stories and to start living them. The shared myth-kitty of monsters is there to help us all see that the real challenge is to overcome our own monsters. Instead of re-living someone else’s story for entertainment, again and again, we need to face our own monster challenges and evolve through them.

In a world of separation monster stories are essential because they have a role of helping us to overcome the reasons for our separation. We are separated because we live in fear.


There’s a problem here though – it’s often difficult to see what it is about the story that is important to us. Take our village goose – the Sandon Goose – shot dead in a “drive-by” incident on Sunday, a week ago. It has become an international story. What has struck me most so far was reading the comments on the Daily Mail website last Friday. We have effectively created a container here into which people pour their fear. For example, there were many comments online calling out how evil other people were. One, for example, said “I hate most human beings..” (122 likes and counting). Another – “This is the type of children raised today. Vile, evil creatures..” (92 likes). I could go on. Who are these people hating comments really about?

This story has become a monster story – a story about the monsters who killed the goose but then also about the monsters people see in society and in ourselves. Why else do people get so angry if they do not see something deeper for them that is kindled by the surface story? This is one animal, albeit with bags of character, in a small village after all. Lots of animals get killed in the countryside every day. There is a deeper reason why the shooting of the white goose becomes a much bigger story.

In order to re-unite ourselves we have to live and understand these stories first. The monsters have to be dealt with. To live the monster story we have to understand our own monsters and our fear of them. As long as these monsters remain in our lives, we will remain in fear and separation.

It’s choice we have but remember – victims of fear are easily manipulated – manipulation by fear is a common ploy – of politicians and bosses alike. If we don’t live the monster stories but instead just listen to the Disney version we are all a great deal poorer.

At the same time, we need to listen to and tell more love stories so that we, in turn, can start living them. We need more love stories so that more and more of us can live out stories that re-unite the separated in life.

With the monsters that psychologically dominate us finally gone, we can start living more of these stories of love.

That is why story is so important.


…as a Goose postscript today (5th March) it turns out (there was an exhumation and a post mortem) that the Goose wasn’t shot after all. So all these monster stories about the killers of the goose were actually about a goose that wasn’t shot at all. No shooting, no killers, no monsters but still a story. Still wondering what the story is really about?

Love above all

MLK Kennedy 2

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King both appear in the book and are captured here, reaching out to each other, in the “Landmark to Peace” memorial in Indianapolis.

The styles of leadership shown by both of these men is very different from what I’m seeing in politics here and in the US right now. I’m reflecting on that.

Kennedy is a particular character of interest to me. A tough fighting man born into a competitive family; RFK served as US Attorney General and was, at that stage in his life, ruthless in how he went after organised crime and the mafia. He negotiated hard.

Kennedy was however open to change and as his life developed his approach softened. His successful counsel to his brother JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that change of approach. To peaceably solve a situation where half of the US population believed Armageddon was inevitable is no mean feat.

In particular the impromtu crowd calming words he spoke from the back of a truck on the eve of King’s assassination in 1968 was one of the greatest speeches ever made. Kennedy and King were, at that time, both seeking to address some of America’s most intractable problems. This brought them together. Sadly the world also never got to benefit from RFK’s further development into a great world leader. 63 days later his campaign to be the next President was over, as he himself was shot.

One of RFK’s requests at that time was for us, in the words of the Greek playwright Aeschylus:

“to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”

I’d like to echo that.

In this world we live in we’ll never make enough money, ground or goods for everyone in the world but we can always make enough love.

The Guest House

Alot of things happen in our lives and we can all end up getting depressed by some of them.

What about treating everything that is sent to us – even the dreadful stuff – as an opportunity – a thing that is sent to us to help us grow?

If we can see the bad stuff in this way we start to see a positive side in even the most negative things.

How much control do we have over external events anyway?

What we can always control is our attitude.

Nothing reminds me of this approach better than this great poem from the Poetic King of Persia.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond

Jellaludin Rumi – Sufi Poet (1207-1273)

How to Crack Imposter Syndrome

Every year Olivia Fox Cabane asks the same question of the incoming class at Stanford Business School. To this highly talented, fired up collection of the United States of America’s finest young minds she throws the curve-ball: “How many of you feel that you are the one mistake the admissions committee made?” Every year the response is the same – about two-thirds of the students raise their hands. This kind of base statistic repeats itself wherever the idea is studied except that it is just that; a starting base. As we go up the corporate ladder the numbers only get worse. What starts at two-thirds or seven in ten goes on to become eight or nine out of ten and in some gatherings even ten out of ten. On a retreat I facilitated recently an outwardly highly successful US CEO in his fifties told his story and touched on the question of his own feelings of fear at being found out one day. In response I asked the group to raise their hands if they also often felt the same. I was not surprised when a hand of everyone in the room went up in quiet salute, including my own and that of my co-facilitator.

Essentially what the Stanford class need to know is both that this feeling is normal and not to expect it to disappear as we attain more. In conversation with a good friend we touched on his father’s recent retirement. My friend had asked his father what he was enjoying about being out of corporate life (he’d been a highly respected CEO for many years). The answer he got had shocked him to the core. Apparently the best bit was now knowing for certain that there was no risk any longer of his office door opening one day and someone walking in to tell him that they’d finally realised that it was all one big mistake. Only stepping down and away had given him final release from the fear that had dogged him and thus grown with him as he ascended in his career. This is a key point, further success and further promotion is not the thing that will save us from this. It usually only gets worse as we climb the mountain; not only are the escalating rewards harder to reconcile with our lowly view of ourselves, the mountain also becomes a more lonely place at the top. Like a child alone in a house at night, our fertile imagination about the fears that lurk in the dark loves to take over, if we allow it.

Impostor Syndrome ( spelled by me with an “e”) is a term coined by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. What Clance and Imes identified was the difference between the way we are externally evaluated by others and the way we feel about ourselves. Much as we might achieve success, we don’t fully believe we deserve it. Into that gap floods fear; fear that is primarily built around the high likelihood we naturally feel; of being found out. It is a fear and it is thing that exists in our heads. This is another key thing to know about it. It is not something that actually exists; it is something we create for ourselves that flourishes in the gap between what is and what we think should be.

One of the reasons for writing this now is that I recently watched a brave young woman have the courage to speak up about her own fears to a group. Being hugely talented often has a cost. If you are in the right environment you can get promoted fast. Her boss had left and her CEO, having clear confidence in her, had simply promoted her into the top job. She spoke of the resulting conflicting feelings this gave her: on the one hand huge excitement but on the other hand the fear of being totally out of her depth and of being found out. As she spoke I felt a huge wave of admiration for this woman. I later fed this back to her and the group. My comment was that what she had done by naming the fear was to raise my confidence in her massively (the converse of what she probably felt). Crucially, nothing she had said had any effect on my assessment, nor I put forward, any one else’s view of her ability. My judgement of her capability (necessarily limited in my case) remained the same. What she had done in spades was to make it clear that she was highly self-aware. The admission made it clear that she was thoughtful, open to self-reflection and thus up for change. This is why my overall view of her had shot up. What I saw was a highly capable person who was also self-aware. This is a killer cocktail. I don’t know about you but that is the sort of person I always try to recruit.

In this group we also talked a lot about change and being on a continual learning journey. In my perambulations through corporate life I have always noticed the difference between two different sorts of people; those who are prepared to challenge themselves, to learn from the experiences they have and be changed and those who aren’t. It strikes me, quite hard in fact, that the themes of challenging ourselves all the time, taking risks to learn and imposter syndrome are linked. If you never do anything that scares the living daylights out of you why would you ever have reason to think of yourself as an imposter? If you inhabit safety all the time, this syndrome is unlikely to visit you. If on the other hand you are always pushing forward, trying out new stuff, doing jobs that you might not be fully up to, learning and generally existing outside your comfort zone then it’s a sure bet that some version of this feeling is going to come knocking on your door. You kind of have to expect it, as a consequence of following your purpose in life rather than shirking it. We will feel slight imposters if we are always moving forward. Contrary to what we might think, it’s a good sign and shows that we are stretching ourselves. The dead feel no pain.

In further consolation, at this point, I would also like to call out what happens to the blind; a clutch of leaders who are not self-aware in this way and start to suffer from a thing called “hubris”. This is the thing that happens when someone starts to believe too much in themselves and to have little connection to either where they have come from or the needs of the people around them. This is the leader who suffers from too little awareness of the gap between what they are and how they are seen rather than too much. David Owen wrote about in his excellent book “The Hubris Syndrome” where he pointed out how badly that Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher in particular suffered from this alternative, which is almost a reverse of the imposter feeling. My question to you is which would you rather have: consciousness of the weight on your shoulders or immunity to it? Having a connection to who you really are is, I would contend, one of the things that makes a really great leader. Churchill may have had his “Black Dog” but it perhaps helped to make him as successful and impactful as he was; as he drew on his inner reserves to stretch ever further. As Bertrand Russell said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Which would you rather be? There is something here in balance between the extremes but overall I’d rather have a healthy awareness of humility rather than a lack of it.

It is also said by some that women tend to suffer more heavily from imposter syndrome than men. Many studies have refuted this but overall I would tend to agree. I think the reason for this is perhaps that boys on the whole are more likely to grow up learning to bluff, puffing themselves up and learning to get away with it. Women perhaps are more rooted in the truth of who they are and are not so prepared or practiced at pretending stuff. Women’s honesty may be something that makes this worse therefore. But why should unapologetic honesty be such a bad thing? As the world increasingly changes to a place of transparency and honesty, the ability to strut like a peacock is not as revered as it once was.

A further danger of this is the idea that one of the ways through the imposter feeling is to work harder to make it more likely that we are not caught out. Now this is a wider trap and an additional red flag to us all. It is not only a reason for overwork it is also a reason for bad career choices. If we see the need to work even harder to solve this problem to be a reason for pulling back from pursuing the career we might have liked then that is a live issue. This unreal fear has a real effect on career progress. Given the view that women suffer from imposter syndrome even more than men, if this one of the many reasons we see less women reaching for what is justly theirs and consequently at the top then it is another good reason to talk out about the craziness of what is at play here.

Being able to manage this gap between who we really are and the image we maintain out in the world is a vital tool. Awareness is everything – being alive means we should feel pain from time to time. Talking about this openly will help. Welcoming in the things that trouble us and speaking to them rather than hiding them in the closet is the route to feeling successful in life.

At the end of the day who would we rather have in the workplace: bluffers in danger of hubris with no self-reflection or the honestly self-aware with a tendency to feel overstretched at times? I know which I prefer.

Follow Your Soft Animal..



You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver – Wild Geese



The title of a book is pretty important. So, too is the cover. With those things done and obvious, the next bit is usually the subtitle; that little bit of short text, also on the cover, that tells us what the book is really about.

So what about “How to get what you want without being a ****” ?

What is the ****?

What do you think the word is and do you want to hear how it came about?

Initially the subtitle line was based on kindness – something like how to get what you want and still be kind. Kindness is after all something we like; a positive thing to aim for.

The thing is none of us, when talking about the book to people, tended to use this approach. We talked instead about getting what you wanted and NOT being something else. That thing was a negative wish not a positive one; something to avoid. The words we used were interesting also – they all came from that middle part of the body, male and female. The nicest one we had was “arse” (or “ass” – even the spelling here was different for different people). This was about not being an arse (when we were being polite – which wasn’t often). Usually it was much worse and sometimes we used names of people we somewhat negatively admired – you know the kind of people…

Instead of heading for kindness we found it too easy, to focus on the bad. It could be the bad boss you don’t like, it could be the boyfriend who resorts to violence, it could be the bully or it could be the colleague who takes a swipe when he doesn’t get what he wants. So, this became our ready focus. This is about not being the person you don’t want to be. Sometimes that is hard because we look for role models and good role models can be difficult to find. There is also a strange attraction in these villains; they survive and they can even get their own TV shows and their own political candidacies.

From these various words we struggled for a bit with the idea of what would go on the cover – which word and which letters of it should we asterisk out? Then I realised, this was a different word for each of us. My “Arse”, Your “Shit”, his this, her that… It went on. I realised that by simply having four asterisks we could cover most people’s definition of what they least wanted to be. This was about our felt villainy in its widest sense. It’s YOUR word. It might be any word (except maybe a kind one). When I first showed the cover design to my daughter she told me off. “Daddy..” she said, “you can’t use a swear word on the cover of your book!” “Who said it is a swear word?” I asked.

The thing is it’s not even as simple as that. I realised this one evening, many years ago, when I was stopped for speeding. It’s one thing to have a great job that makes your Mum proud but if you have shit days because you get bullied by your bosses there is a danger that you pass on that dominance and anger to others. I’d had a bad day at work and as a result I’d been driving like an idiot. As I sat there waiting for the policeman to come and talk to me, looking at the blue lights in my rear-view mirror, I realised that is exactly what I was doing. The **** wasn’t just out there, someone I didn’t want to be, the **** had become part of me. It was important because it was starting to mess up my work and my life. Just because someone was awful to me didn’t mean I had to take it out on the car, the road, the world around me. In that moment I felt another realisation hit home; I had to get to grips with the **** in me. This was about a journey back from that terrible thing I was myself become. Villainy was all about me but I had a choice whether I passed on the villainy or not.

This external but also internal focus is why the **** is such a key theme. The book so easily have been titled “Confessions of an Alpha Male” or such, because its also about a journey back from and away from this tyranny of dominance, co-ercion and violence in our own lives. It’s not just the people we don’t want to be. It is also speaking to the bit of us that might already be this – to a greater or lesser extent. To get what we want we sometimes make compromises and can end up becoming a bit of a **** ourselves. Soft is also about those blue lights of warning and the journey back to a more human route.