Where did the idea for the book come from?
I had a friend once who I wasn't really fair to. It really made me think about how I should try to do better next time, so it was personal experience that triggered me. Once I was triggered, I realised we see this sort of unfairness all the time. As I had kids and they were getting older, I started to think about the sort of lessons we want to tell them. Do we say look kids, it’s a rough world out there and you’ve got to use your sharp elbows? Or is there a way of showing them that yes it’s a rough world, but there’s a way to keep your soul and still advance? That’s what I think the book does: it shows you ten examples of powerful, successful people who didn’t have to use their elbows.
You devote a chapter of your book to the phrase ‘Nice guys finish last’. How accurate is that idea?
I suppose the thesis of the book is that, yes, nice guys will indeed usually finish last, but does that mean you have to be an incredible bully to get ahead? No. There's a position in between. Think of another old phrase, ‘Firm but fair’. Not everybody has to be your best friend, but if they’re fair, you should be happy to trust them and work with them.
Actually, that’s one of the nice things about family life. It’s a rough field out there and nice guys do often finish last, but family is where you can be nice and it’s okay – people won’t take advantage of you. In the real world though, it’s a bit like when you’re in traffic: it’s good to let people in front of you sometimes but, if you always let everybody in front of you, well, you might get by in England or Norway, but in a lot of other countries, you’ve got to push a little bit.
We’ve covered the meanness. What is decency to you?
If I get fired from a job, I'm going to be offended. After a while, if I look at it objectively and can say, you know what, the guy fired me in a fair way – he gave me notice, he gave me a chance to improve and I just wasn't that good at it, or the financial figures were going down and he had to let go of ten people – that guy behaved decently. If, after everything’s calmed down, both sides in a given situation can understand and accept what’s happened, that’s fairness in action.
Among the ten heroes of decency you profile in the book, who’s your favourite?
Probably Franklin D Roosevelt. He took a difficult position and just turned it around using these decent tools – without the tools of dictatorship. That’s really very impressive.