Parallel Reading


For years now I have had more than one book on the go at any one time. There is a danger with this however. It gets messy. I find it just too easy to stop reading a book without knowing why. Before I know it I have a house full of books with bookmarks buried somewhere in the middle of them. I’ve realised having those unfinished book gestalts all over the place is not a particularly calming thing to have going on. It is a mark of an indecisiveness I have grown tired of.

So I have decided two things. First I am either reading a book or I am not. If I have given up with a book I will treat it as read and I will not leave a bookmark in it. It is either not a book for me or, equally possible, the time is not right.

The second part of this decision is that the maximum number of books I am going to have on the go is two. I am also going to see if I can do what I have unwittingly started to do already; reading those two books consciously at the same time – in parallel. I’m going to do that because I’m beginning to see that two books together can work together for me even better than just one.


The first books I consciously felt working together as I read them were Niven and Dunn; the second coming of Jesus and the ascent of Usury. When I started this I was doing what I often do: I had one more factual book for alert mornings (Dunn) and daytime and another more fictional easier read (Niven) for evenings.

These books bounced brilliantly off each other. The rebirth and death of Christ in the modern world sat at counterpoint to the killing of Charles I and ascendancy of money.

Each book on its own would be great but together they gave me new thoughts and ideas. It’s more like parallax (two separate viewpoints) than parallel but that sounds a bit fancy.

Looking at my matches so far here I also notice I’ve gone from a red match to a green one. I am not sure yet how to make a good match between books but I do know that thinking about it too much is not the answer. Colour may be a thing. Or it may not.

Now I am reading Rebanks and Bly. The organic life of the shepherd and the challenge of Iron John.

I didn’t know when I started that they would bounce off each other so well but they do.

Oh but they do.


True Belonging and Strong Core


Yesterday I found myself caught by a  video posted by Richard Rudd, the brother of a friend. In the course of picking his kids up from school Richard had picked up something else. As I started to watch this video I thought it must be about finding your spirituality, the subject of Richard’s book. Then I realised it was about something else. It was about how Richard was taken at the school gates by the unexpected. Richard had found a real passion for something that was visible and present for him in the here and now.

It turned out that Richard had got talking to a mother whose own husband was out in a refugee camp at Idomeni in Northern Greece. By going to Greece and seeing for himself the horrific conditions in which people were trying to live, her husband had become utterly transformed. People had nowhere to shelter from the rain or to sleep so what they needed was a tent. A tent costs £370 so what he needed to do became clear. He and his wife bought ten tents on their credit card. In turn Richard did the same. Soon they set up a web page for donations and as I write they have raised £35,198. A tent houses four families so that is 95 tents and 380 families of four, nearly two thousand people, out of the wet so far. Richard is now out at Idomeni.

The reason for sharing this story is not to get more tents nor is it to make a point about the refugee crisis. It is about something else entirely. It is about what happens when people find where they truly belong and the incredible power that has. This is what I saw in Richard’s eyes. He had seen something and he was following it. That mission had a special beauty. Through his commitment to what he had found I knew Richard was finding his spirit. Out of respect for what I saw when I watched the video, I know that I can’t put Richard’s appeal into words here half as well as he does. To be fully felt this needs to come directly from Richard.

In Soft I call this out when I question where power really comes from. My contention is that we tend to misunderstand power and where it originates. It’s not an external thing but rather an internal thing that each of us hold as individuals. The problem is that we tend to give it up unwittingly to others. I see the process of realising this connection to where we truly belong to be an essential part of our developing what I call “Strong Core”.

As I wrote the book I was drawn at a key point to JK Rowling. There are many reasons why I could admire the successful author. Many are obvious and some, like being the writer whose books my wife choose to read to our son in infancy one by one, are not so obvious. None though are the reason though why I really respect Rowling nor why I write about her in Soft.

In June 2008 Rowling gave a Commencement Address to the graduating students at Harvard. In that speech this wizard storymaker, to my mind, not only shows us but also explains her strong core. She starts by admitting the weeks of fear and nausea that the thought of the speech has given her before embarking  on a simple but compelling story to explain how she got from the depths of poverty to where we see her now.

In her speech to these rather privileged students, Rowling talks openly about her own graduation and the way in which she found herself to be a complete failure some seven years later. Rowling then talks about the incredible power this gave her. She first acknowledges this deprived state and the realisation of failure she held there as being her “rock bottom”. At this point Rowling felt a “stripping away of the inessential” to leave her, with her greatest fear realised, free to rebuild her life. Contrary to our expectations of failure, the “stripping away” of structure and expectation that came with it gave her inner security and taught her the true power that she actually had.

As Rowling points out, poverty is one thing but climbing out of poverty by your own efforts is something to pride yourself on. Rowling’s life story from then on self-illustrates this essential truth. Secure in her ability to survive, she was able to create. As Rowling puts it “had I really succeeded at anything else, I may never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged”.

This realisation of where we truly belong comes to each of us in different ways. Even in desperate situations such as poverty it is not always obvious to us what it is. Nobody told JK Rowling to be a writer or what to write. Nobody told Richard to make a video or to go to Greece. The insight into our belonging may visit us but we don’t always see it or follow it.

As Rowling points out success can also blind us. Being more secure and privileged in where we are right now can provide a surrogate comfort blanket. If we take sustenance from our position today that same sustenance can mislead us. This is the problem with external measures. In the end external things don’t matter but if we choose to build on them their falling away can leave us devastated. The comfort of position is much overestimated in its usefulness and can even be a prison. That is maybe why Rowling continues to be happy to use a pen name for her “adult” writing and in the early days to even submit under that name getting rejection letters. The only thing that does matter is that internal feeling of knowing where we belong and then following it, damning the consequences.

In this belonging lies our real power. In being true to that power we are being true to ourselves. In that truth lies the key to success; internal success. That in turn, drives the external.




Change – from where does it start?


Early in my career I made a mistake. It was quite a big mistake and it was a significant factor in us loosing a billion pound deal. It hurt. Today it’s not the mistake that guides me so much as the feelings I had in the moment of realisation and what it did for me, to start a process of change.

I was part of a team negotiating an outsourcing deal and the acquisition of two companies. We were all staying in a country hotel and were together as a team from Monday to Saturday most weeks. The problem was that we pumped ourselves up and started to believe our story. We saw our position as the truth and stopped seeing that any other possibility existed. Our metaphors were of war and our language was foul. In our view, we were right and all others were wrong. We were fighting for what we believed in. That felt good.

What I realised is that I had become tribal. Tribal was a great feeling but that was all it was; a feeling. I had lost any perspective. From my partisan point of view I was unable to see that where we were and what we had come to believe was simply a version of the truth. It was far from a complete or honest picture. It wasn’t until I got home one Saturday night that I started to realise this blunt reality. In my home context the fog suddenly started to lift. Soon after I walked through the door my then partner expressed horror at my warlike language. Later she took me to task, quite rightly, for what I was saying about the people we were negotiating with. I had taken a limited perspective and I was the poorer for it.

It can be quite a step to realise the real truth here – that any perception of truth is simply a question of perspective. Seng-ts’an was the third patriarch of Zen in China in the sixth century and in his great poem “The Mind of Absolute Trust” he said:

“If you want to realize the truth, don’t be for or against.

The struggle between good and evil is the primal disease of the mind.”

This was the mistake we had made. By believing that there was a truth we had adopted our version of truth for our side and as a result had become blind to any other possibility. We were “for”, the others were thus “against”. We had fallen into the same trap that George W. Bush fashioned in 2001 when he famously challenged us all with:

“You are either with us or against us in this war against terror”

Being on one side or the other immediately means that our perspective is segmented. Our particular version of the truth becomes a fixed and limiting thing. Our unquestioning loyalty is expected in this battle of sides. In turn, we expect others to change and generally they don’t. We are blind to the possibility of there being any other way of seeing things. No change is possible, only escalation.

Change can only start when we begin to realise that there is no such thing as the truth. Conflict exists to prove this to us. Others see things differently. If they didn’t there would be no problem.

The crux here is to see that there are only ever versions of the truth; one of which we tend to hold. Even our supposed objectivity is in practice subjective. This may be a hard thing to take, especially where the “other side” of the conflict has gone so far as to be seen as evil. Where we see evil, holding onto the idea that we are not so can be comforting. The principle remains valid nonetheless.

Leading in this context means that we have to build understanding of everyone’s truth, intent and purpose and start to build a vision round that wider possibility. That might seem like an obvious thing to do. In practice it is too easy, in the cut and thrust of our daily negotiations, to miss this essential opening.

In difficult situations this opportunity needs to be seen by both parties. It’s usually the case that one party needs to take the lead and show the way. If I am open to change then perhaps you can be also?

As long as we believe that our version of the truth is the truth we are stuck. We will defend that position and then, if we have a chance, we will attack from it. The Victim’s journey forward can become one of simply becoming a blind Villian. The bombed becomes a bomber; doing exactly the same to the other believing it is a right thing to do, because they are right.

The challenge here is not even just getting the logic – it is to apply it. If this does all makes sense to you in theory then the next thing to do is to try the principle out, particularly where it is uncomfortable to do so. Try applying it to any situation where you see conflict; particularly where that conflict is entrenched. It may be that either you or the belief system you are part of feels it knows the truth of that situation. If that is so then maybe you have fallen into the trap and need to question the reality you hold and the way you see the situation. The fact that the truth might seem obvious just makes the challenge and the need for change more true.

If we continue to believe that there is a right and a wrong and that there is one version of the truth, there can be no change.

That is why the place that change starts from is the place of seeing that there is no one truth; least of all the version of it that we tend to hold.

Diversity – a Soft approach


Is Diversity the same thing as Equality? Do the two get confused?

I’m reminded about what I’ve learnt about the Spanish Olive Harvest. In the process of harvesting olives, men and women know that they each have strengths. The men have learnt that they are good at the heavy lifting and the women tend to be better at the gathering. If they play to these strengths they can get the job of harvesting the olives done together. This is what they do – and they tend to have a good party together after.

This is real diversity – we appreciate positive differentiation between people – the things that make them different – we honour each and work together to make the most of those diverse talents in service of the whole.

In many workplaces I see equality being pursued as an output measure. In this quest we are missing out on two things that are far more important. First, the opportunity to spend more time understanding both how we are different – genuine diversity – and to make that work for us. Second, to spend time understanding the beliefs and assumptions that drive the behaviours in the current workplace that are causing output inequality of which we complain.

If we are honest with ourselves we know that the outputs we want to achieve are a result of the behaviour in the workplace itself. These are in turn caused by the beliefs and assumptions we operate under. By concerning ourselves more with these latter things, at the base of the diagram below, we can drive the former, the outputs, at the peak.


The real point of equality is that we should treat each other with equal respect and provide a place of work which welcomes all. For equality to really work it has to exist in the base layers of the diagram rather than being strived for by the people who measure these things in the top layer. Equality at the input level is what matters. We all have to care about these issues whatever sex or gender we are.

Measuring the gender mix of the heavy lifters – output equality – might not help us to achieve equality but making sure that everyone enjoys the harvest and contributes as they wish – input equality – might.

I’m worried that we have created a working environment – particularly in high value professional services like law firms – that is overly suited to one type of worker – the dedicated workaholic – and not particularly friendly to others who work differently. We’d like the others to be more present but the reality is that everything that is done in terms of behaviour drives them away. There is little point in thinking of equality as a output measure if the behaviours all around you ostracise the very people you need encourage.

Soft is a way of having a conversation about these things and starting to appreciate why we get ourselves in this bind so that we can change it. Soft is also a welcoming behaviour to all. Hard simply fights and inevitably looses. Which would you rather do?


The Solution Conspiracy


This week I met socially with a client who has now read the book. The conversation we had was exciting and fascinating. Diversity, leadership styles, beach volleyball, the environment and politics all mixed with gentle helpings of philosophy. One thing however that he particularly talked about struck me, and that was a thing I call the “Solution Conspiracy”.

The problem, as he put it, is a preference to see the answer and go straight to it. I call it the solution conspiracy because its what client and consultant often do in a sales situation. We tend to conspire to go too quickly to an answer, instead of fully exploring the problem and fully understanding the pain before we ever think about what to do about it and building the resolve to do so.

My client cited a parallel situation he experiences – the case of working with a strong leader who is particularly smart and pretty much invariably knows what the answer is in any situation. He said that the problem isn’t that the person makes bad decisions, it was simply that no-one else felt included in them. This leader actually makes excellent decisions which are widely respected and nobody disputes that. The thing is the inclusion part. This question of inclusion has also come up in a number of other conversations this week. It seems many of us are suffering with over-strong leaders.

Achieving inclusion, buy in and ultimately support can be a problem if we have a particularly strong judgement. Our ability to see the answers and make decisions is excellent but others may not fare so well in that environment. In the downdraft of the smart parent’s helicopter blades sitting just above every situation what ability to consider and make their own decisions emerges in the younger talent?

This strong judgement or perhaps a sense of a lack of time tends to cause us to race to a solution. Yet within that race who do we loose? If the people who will implement our strategy are not allowed to have their say will they then do a good job of implementing the strategy when we decide it? What tends to happen is that a strategy “air gap” emerges between leader and the implementers. As a result the strategy will not implemented.

Our conversation this week on this topic led to the observation that perhaps it is a more traditional female thing to allow time for a discussion; to see that it is more of a extended thing, and that women perhaps have more of a sense of evolutionary time in the making process. Men might be drawn on the other hand to see their job as quick, fast and decisive; their contribution more a one off. This could be seen a mirror of the gender contribution to sex and the process of begetting and rearing children.

Never have I seen two things together as leadership and the support of children, that so much both need to change. Heart and good judgement is important but there is more than one heart in a team, the true King or Queen takes counsel, taking the time that needs to be taken. The true leader is not only shrewd but a listener who gets engaged.