I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

Playing to win

I’ve been thinking recently about how to ‘be’ at work. Not everything – or everyone – is easy to get along with. Working life has many pressures and frustrations. I’ve often worked too long or too hard in my working life and sometimes got cross, spiky and brittle because of it. So looking after myself better has been part of learning to survive in bigger jobs. But surviving isn’t good enough. Thriving is what I’m after.

One potential solution to overstretch and indignity is Stoicism. It’s certainly better than ‘passive aggression’, or another past favourite of mine ‘victim behaviour’. Stoicism gives you a handy detachment and a heightened ability to endure and ‘not take things personally’. That’s a good ingredient to have in my mix, but it’s not in itself very attractive – enduring is not leading.

So how about ‘attracting’. On my better days I can definitely attract people with concepts and ideas. On my very best days I can stir a bit of passion too. But mostly I’ve been reticent to put myself at the centre of situations or ‘put my chair in the centre of the room’ as a friend of mine puts it. Partly this is fear of everyone looking at me. Partly this is the fear of friends ‘jeering’. Not much of my attraction to attraction is narcissism, but I do like to be liked.

I was reading bits of the Illiad and Odyssey last night and seeing what Achilles would have done. Achilles is the ultimate action hero. In modern managementspeak he’d be a strong ‘shaper’ and ‘personal performer’. He was passionate and incredibly driven, but he was also selfish, undermining and reckless. He was playing for himself not for the team. But he was a hero and he did make and change history.

As Odysseus said to the ghost of Achilles when he encountered him in Hades:

“There is not a man in the world more blessed than you – there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we honoured you as a god, and now down here I see you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

But in return Achilles protested:

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

Achilles was a great talent, but he played for himself. He burned brightly, briefly. Then he was spent, and died carrying regret. Had he been a Stoic he would never have risen to the anger and fury which propelled him into history. But would he have been more contented in Hades had he stuck around and achieved more with – and for – others?

I will read more about Odysseus – or Ulysees. On first glance, he has a winning combination of courage, guile, teamwork and sustained leadership under pressure. He played to win for the team and the cause, not just for himself.

I re-read a useful piece of research today, which concluded:

“Leaders would do well to use the energy they have to attract people to the vision and purpose of the organisation, rather than themselves. The challenge is to have the organisation’s purpose ‘in your bones’.”

This crystallises the advice I’ve been following recently to consciously put the organisation’s “cause” at the heart of my choices and narrative. I’ve already found it gives me more courage and conviction to do the right things.

‘Playing to win’ means not being reckless, selfish, impatient, kamikaze, intemperate, self-indulgent, defensive or fearful. It means constantly re-focusing myself and those around me on doing better what everyone who works here – on our best days – believes in.

Why? Because what we do really does change people’s lives. And what I do has and can change the organisation greatly. So unlike Achilles, I should use that power for good not for myself.


Against the grain today I put on a smiling face. In so doing I added measurably to the sum of human happiness. So simple, yet sometimes so hard. Why don’t we all do it more?

I can’t take all the credit. I was kickstarted by two people – one I know well, one I don’t. After a shirty start and shouting at each other, my son and I made it to nursery on a cold, grey, damp morning. He was glum, I was in a bit of a rush. As I turned to leave he asked for a cuddle and I knelt down and gave him a big all body hug. We smiled. He was ok, I was ok. The cascade of smiles began. 

I smiled at my daughter in the schoolyard and at the teachers who smiled back. I chose a smiley stripy shirt for work and then whistled Christmas tunes through the drizzle on my bike in. I went to buy a coffee and as I waited the friendly young foreigner behind the counter gave me a winning smile and asked me how I was. It was such a winning smile, I gave him a winning smile back and exchanged jovial small talk about the coming snow and all the customers and servers joined in. We all smiled.

I walked round the corner to work whistling ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’. Once in the office I smiled at the security guards and receptionists and walked past the lifts to the seven flights of stairs I hack up every morning. I decided to whistle ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ as I climbed the stairs to see if I could a) not be embarrassed or cowed by reproachful looks into glumness and b) get a smile out of the random selection of people I might pass.

Tricky start. First up I bumped into a chap who hasn’t made eye contact with me for 6 weeks since my new organisational strategy consigned his section and personal passion to frozen assets and deep cuts. He’s furious with me, and how ever much I’ve tried he won’t acknowledge me if we pass in the building. The whistling got him though. He looked, I captured his curious and unsuspecting gaze and flashed him a winning smile and a cheery salutation. He couldn’t resist smiling back and finally saying hello.

Next I whistled past another urgent faced, rushing, anxious looking senior colleague. He was equally surprised and switched from frowning to smiling. I passed another person I don’t know who also by the alchemy of Christmas went from neutral to smiling within nine whistled notes ‘Walk-ing in a win-ter won-der-land’. 

By the fourth flight of stairs my whistling was getting a bit uneven as I ran out of breath. By the fifth I gave up. On the sixth I bumped into another colleague and told him what I’d been up to. He was both bemused and amused. But it got him smiling. Onto the seventh flight and into my office and I was full of good cheer. The day started well, I performed well, did some important things and remained cheerful throughout. 

I ended the day with a woman I work with who can be challenging and confrontational. She is also a person of genuine conviction and intelligence. We were on the topic of making an impact and being true to yourself whilst speaking the truth to power. I told her that whilst being far from the finished product myself on this, sometimes a lot hinges on how you decide to ‘be’. If you decide to be high energy you can bring energy, if you decide to be aggressive you can scare people, if you decide to be warm you can attract, if you decide to be cold you can chill. 

We are all affected by how others are ‘being’ too but to some degree we have a choice about how we are. She had been open, supportive, thoughtful and measured when we met in an important meeting earlier in the day. She had got much of what she wanted without confrontation or a furrowed brow. As I said to her, when I was asked, my main memory of her in the meeting was relaxed and open with a smooth forehead, high eyebrows and a smile. We had all warmed to her. Maybe I had helped a little as I gave her a big encouraging smile when she came in the room.

If so, it had all started with a big hug from a small boy and a smile from a complete stranger. Smiling, it’s powerful stuff.


I was talking today to a nice person who cares a lot about the organisation I work for about how we are doing. We face some big challenges in the next few months, but I’m pretty confident we know what we need to do and we’ll be stronger for it.

She was anxious that we might not seize the opportunity, and that people and personalities might get in the way. I said after a good break in the summer I realised there are somethings you can’t fix or tackle until the moment comes and rather than worrying sometimes it’s best to save your energy and trust yourself to perform ‘in the moment’ and do what is needed when it’s needed. She looked at me with some empathy, but I suspect was also wondering ‘is he ducking some stuff here’.

I then said to her that since my excellent summer holidays with the family I’ve found myself caring a little less about my work. I still care, and I still work hard, but it’s a bit less all-consuming. I don’t think about things so much, worry about them or try to arrange and fix things – especially around people. I’ve started saying what my gut tells me, not worrying so much about being right, asking for help and admitting to uncertainty and irrationality. It’s working a treat.

She said she sometimes realises she’s guilty of curling – the game with the stones on ice where you polish and polish and polish the ice furiously with what looks like a garden brush to get your stone to the target. I said to her I’d felt she’d been really effective in a meeting with us recently when she ‘bowled’ and said exactly what she thought and cleaned out all the skittles or smacked clear the blocking bowls depending on your type of bowling.

The conclusion was sometimes by caring a bit less at work you can be a lot more effective, more spontaneous, less anxious, more authoritative, and more able to seize the moment. I find I also have a lot more mental energy left for me and my loved ones at the end of the day.

Here’s my quick list tapped out on the iPhone of problems I’m not currently suffering by caring a little less about my work:

Gripping too tightly
Being anxious
Focusing on what I might lose not what I could gain
Driving not attracting
Running down my batteries
Sweating the detail
Been seen to meddle
Taking the responsibility away from where it lies
Confusing people
Strobing (rapid jerky interventions with no linking narrative)
Appearing tricksy or political
Guessing not asking
Not seizing the moment

Best of all though I simply feel better and that’s reason enough.