When Soft is Hard: An Interview with Dr. Tom Peters (Part I)

Holding ourselves back.

We do this in conscious — and unconscious — ways every day.

When I met Dr. Tom Peters on his trip to Iowa, I was made aware of how I was holding back an important piece of myself.

Perhaps my light-bulb moment will shine some light for you.

Tom is the best-selling author of In Search of Excellence, The Little BIG Things and a dozen other books.

Primarily trained as a behavioralist, he studied under pioneers in our field, including Daryl and Sandra Bem, Albert Bandura, and Philip Zimbardo. These master puzzle solvers showed him that there is a science of human behavior. There are ways people and groups predictably interact and behave.

So Tom is a brilliant scientist who observes and studies human behavior.

And…he is unapologetically, unabashedly passionate about people.

Why was meeting him such an eye-opener for me?

Because when I went through a life threatening illness a few years ago, I came out of the experience softer.

I didn’t know what to do with parts of my identity.

The scientist felt too hard. And the lawyer felt downright harsh.

I felt called to my Best Life Design work and it was an important part of my healing.

Yet, at the time I went to hear Tom speak, I was feeling a growing dissatisfaction with how ‘soft’ this work was beginning to feel. Although I continued to consult with select private athletic and corporate clients, I had drastically cut back on my work as a performance psychologist using science to help individuals and teams optimize performance.

And in one moment (…when the student is ready, the teacher appears) it all came back together for me.

What did Tom say that opened my eyes, reminding me of what I’d forgotten?

1. What’s hard is soft…and what’s soft is hard.

We tend to think of people and life design as soft. We throw values and relationships into that mix, too. Then we have the magic category of hard things, like research, systems, and strategies.

This is why I’d been struggling bringing the science of success that I know so well to the mushy place I’d been sitting in since my recovery. I’d been delighting in the preciousness of living and helping others design their life in a way that supports the greatest use of their gifts. Meanwhile, my inner scientist was shaking her head, questioning why I would walk away from real science and real tools that work.

Tom showed up as a people-loving, performance-enhancing, corporate-training scientist (out-geeking me with his PhD, MBA, and engineering background AND out-loving me with his passionate interest in people).

Watching him in action, the false distinctions I had created were held up to the light for what they were…artificial.

Take a step back and look … what artificial walls or ceilings have you constructed in your life?

2. Commodity is a state of mind.

Tom framed the word commodity as an obscene word. There is nothing that is not open to exceptional growth if your head is in the right place. He pointed out that treating yourself or your work as a commodity simply means that you haven’t figured out how to differentiate yourself.

Have you been using the ‘there’s nothing special about my work’ as an excuse for not making more money or helping more people? Enough of that. Get creative. Identify your unique strengths and play to them big time.

Anything can be differentiated in numerous ways – and it’s your job to connect these dots for your prospective clients.

The best place to start? How you treat people.

Tom gave example after example of how the power of listening, apologizing, smiling, and fully engaging not only built fortunes, but changed the course of world history.

You are unique. Show up fully as yourself. And then get busy using the whole package of your talents, education, experience, and creativity to help more people get what they want and need.

3. Leadership is a sacred trust.

Organizations exist to develop people and leaders exist to serve people. Businesses thrive when they give people enriching, rewarding lives.

Profit is critical…and it is a simple derivative of what you do and how you treat people. Over time, the decent and right thing to do is the profitable thing. Caring brings repeat business, which brings greater profits.

In the business world, the cycle of caring begins with how you treat your team – the people who care for your customers. The most significant factor in an employee’s job satisfaction, retention, and effectiveness is their direct supervisor. Just as it would be unimaginable for a kindergarten teacher not to know her students and their parents’ names and the smaller details of their lives, so should it be for direct supervisors not to know these things about their people.

You must show you care, and you can’t give away what you don’t have. If you don’t love your work, it’s better for everyone for you to walk away. But if you care and you get it right in showing this, it will create ripple effects throughout your team and organization.

As Tom says, “Leaders love, care, and serve. If you don’t truly believe this, then don’t be a leader.”

For an exclusive dose of Dr. Peter’s wisdom, here is Part I of a personal conversation we had after he delivered his speech. He graciously allowed me to record it to share with you.

I found this interview so compelling that I prepared a one-page Nuggets of Wisdom with Tom’s reminders.  If you’d like a printable copy, click here. You also may want to check out Tom’s resource page — one of the coolest, thought-provoking giveaway pages on the web: http://www.tompeters.com/freestuff/index.php.

Did our conversation prompt thoughts on role integration, leadership, or other ideas? Please share them below.

To view Part 2 of this interview with Dr. Tom Peters, please click here.

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Leave A Reply (5 comments So Far)

  • Great interview Dr. Mollie.  I was greatly influenced by Tom Peter’s In Search Of Excellence years ago and still am influenced by his no nonsense approach today.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • No nonsense approach is a great descriptor – and it’s part of why I got so much out of our time together and felt strongly about sharing it with our Best Life Design community. Our styles are very different. As I mention in the article, watching his fiery passion for people was a wake up call – and invitation – to me. Glad you found this helpful!

  • Excellent. Thought provoking. Has me thinking about the “lead with your eyes” factor. Baby girls by the age of three are making more natural eye contact – really connecting. If you combine that with the understanding that we can learn those human dynamics, it means I can add that “lead with my eyes” ability. I can learn to make that connection with people and be clearly present. 

    I was reminded of Zig Ziglar as I listened to this. I watched him once with a line of 100 people all waiting for a signature and a moment of his time – he was so engaged with each person. Even though there was multitude waiting, he was with the person in front of him. It was awesome. 

    Thanks again Dr. Mollie. 

    • I share your memory of time with Zig – he was so wonderfully present to each person!. In my new book about my mentor, I write in great detail about this type of presence, which I believe to be a hallmark attribute of a servant mentor. Even knowing this…I still have to remind myself of this so many times throughout the day. #WorkInProgress

  • Excellent!