(This blog first appeared on CNN.com)
Having been Tony Blair’s spokesman and strategist for a decade and more, having been at his side through election campaigns, wars and peace processes, political and personal crises, scandals galore, having spent thousands of hours facing down possibly the most questioning media on the planet, and having done thousands of talks and interviews since leaving TB’s side, I am very experienced in answering difficult questions.
But right now, I am struggling and I thought a little bit of crowd sourcing with the highly intelligent men — and especially the women — who visit CNN.com might help. This is something I would never have considered before the advent of the blogosphere and social media, but where better now to start than at the home of the likes of Christiane Amanpour and Becky Anderson.
So here is the situation. As you might know from a chat I had on CNN with Christiane last month, I have written my 11th book. It is called “Winners: And how they succeed.” It looks at hyper-achievers in sport, business and politics, interviews some of the biggest and most successful names alive — and analyses some who are dead — and tries to draw general lessons for all of us.
It is going very well thank you. Not least thanks to media interest and a host of events, at which it has been snapped up variously at gatherings for students, business people, football fans, environmentalists and political activists, it went within four days of publication to Number 1 in the UK hardback non-fiction charts.
I would be lying — something I am not prone to do whatever the haters may say — if I said I was not seriously chuffed about this. As my former Downing Street colleague, now of Portland PR, Steve Morris, said at the launch: “If you write a book called ‘Winners’ and it goes straight to the charity shops, don’t be surprised if people call you a loser.” Fear of failure being a bigger driver for most of my interviewees than any joy in success, this was not something I was prepared to allow.
So what is the problem as I look down from the top of the Sunday Times charts at those reviewers who said it was awful? (I would incidentally have preferred no stars in the Mail on Sunday to the one that they gave me. Please take note for next time.)
The problem is women, or more precisely how I talk about them. At every single one of the nine or so events I have so far done about the book, and in several of the many interviews, I have been asked — usually but not always by a woman — a version of this same question: “Do men and women win in different ways?”
And I don’t really know what to say. So help me please CNNLand.
At the first event, hosted by the Financial Times, my partner Fiona and my daughter Grace were sitting in the front row, squirming as I told how I had written a chapter on the Queen, named German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the most impressive current political leader, interviewed and profiled U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour as my main voice on leadership, done the same with Arianna Huffington as a great innovator, talked to gymnast Nadia Comaneci about her “perfect 10,” and presented Paralympian athlete and Tanni Grey-Thompson and Australian surfer Layne Beachley as two of the best interviews about resilience.
As Grace said afterwards — well to be honest she heckled me at the time with the words “shut up Dad, this is embarrassing,” — I was answering a question I had not been asked, namely “why aren’t there more women in the book?’ rather than the one I had been asked, “do men and women win in different ways?”
At my next outing, in front of the amazingly bright international postgrad students at Hult International Business School, with Grace not there to heckle, but Fiona sitting three yards from me, the same question came again almost word for word. As the above names were reeled out once more I sensed I needed something more than a list. I needed an argument, the likes of which I used to specialize in framing and honing.
So I waffled a bit about glass ceilings and how Fiona’s generation had won the battle for women’s equality in the eyes of the law but Grace’s generation needed to win the battle in terms of the culture of the land.
I thought that was quite good, and dare I say a rather decent soundbite. But moderator René Carayol clearly didn’t agree and handed his microphone to Fiona to ask her for her view. She said it was still a man’s world and women had essentially to do twice as many jobs as men. Men also didn’t appreciate either that reality, or that it therefore becomes harder for a woman to win than a man in many sets of circumstances.
She got a round of applause before the twitterati took to social media to say she had put me in my place. The row in the car on the way home was reasonably good-natured, considering my partner of 36 years was basically confirming I was not a new man and suggesting I talked absolute tosh about whether men and women win in different ways.
At my next event, a Labour fundraiser, thankfully neither Fiona nor Grace could make it. So when the same bloody question came up again I started off with my list of names but stupidly mentioned the Queen first promoting a left-leaning chorus of “for heaven’s sake she is hardly typical,” so that by the time I got to Fiona’s point, I was struggling again. God knows what would have happened if I had said Margaret Thatcher was in there, in the section comparing her leadership to David Cameron’s (sic).
But here is the thing. Afterwards a woman who shall be nameless — but she does work for Harriet Harman, the chief architect of Labour’s new feminism and the proud leader of the pink campaign bus tour (which I love by the way) — said this to me: “You have to come back and do more in the campaign. Because I think there is something of a crisis of masculinity in UK politics right now.”
In other words there’s me trying to get the right answer to a question that has genuinely been troubling me, and an arch feminist says I need to do more of the Alpha Male thing. You can’t win, said I.
So come on. Help me. This question has come up everywhere I have been. I have more events to do. I have more interviews. And the next time I sit down with CNN’s woman winners, Christiane or Becky, I need to have a better answer than the ones I have been deploying thus far.
Free signed book and invite to a future event for the best suggestion. Either here in the UK now or in what I believe Americans call the fall when it comes out there.