Moments in Life Turn Philosophy to Management
Shamrocks, empty raincoats, portfolios, elephants and fleas: Charles Handy has explored the metaphorical potential of the English language in his books and their titles for more than three decades, and he is not done yet.
While the images have been arresting, there was always a serious underlying purpose. As a “management guru,” Handy is not a showman in the Tom Peters tradition. His voice is quieter, less theatrical, but no less insistent.
In “Myself and Other More Important Matters,” Handy’s new, conversational memoir, he looks back at the lifetime’s experience that has inspired his writing on management and organizations.
He homes in on important moments of his life to illustrate larger themes. Thus we learn in quick succession about Handy the Anglo-Irish vicar’s son, Handy the Oxford undergraduate wrestling with Greek philosophers, and Handy the Shell graduate recruit lording it up in Southeast Asia.
Other landmarks are also sketched out: marriage to the remarkable Elizabeth, escape from Shell, founding the London Business School and the break into the “portfolio life” of the self-employed writer.
All this underpins the advice and insights that emerge in the book, which is not widely available in the United States but can be ordered. (Publisher William Heinemann is an imprint of Random House Group Ltd. in London.) Handy, even after writing several books, has a few more lessons to offer.
He returns to the classics and in particular draws on Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, usually translated as happiness, for inspiration. But, says Handy, the word “is better translated as ‘flourishing,’ or doing your best with what you are best at. Intriguingly, it also applies to organizations, although there our modern business gurus call it ‘optimizing core competencies.’ I prefer Aristotle’s version.”
Unfortunately, flourishing is hardly the word to describe many British companies in the postwar era. Handy’s take on this is interesting as he identifies the source of problems that destroyed many once-great British business names.
Many British managers in the 1950s and 1960s had been exposed to the management theories and practices of the armed services, and “for a time the businesses of Britain bristled with the equivalent of officers’ messes, where the managers enjoyed three course luncheons while the lower orders made do with the work’s canteen.... Business organisations operated in a different world, one where the right to command had to be earned and where they could no longer count on the ready acceptance of authority and the privileges that went with it.”
The other source of industrial underperformance in Britain, Handy suggests, lay in the dominance of the accounting profession.
Until the invention, by Handy and colleagues, of formal management education for British bosses, only the accountants among the professional classes could boast a properly recognized training.
“There is nothing wrong with the accountancy training for accountants,” Handy writes. But: “The accountancy profession had, accidentally, become the business schools of Britain.” Accountants can tell what you are spending but they should not tell you what or how to spend, Handy implies.
A more impressive version of organizational effectiveness can be found at the theater, Handy says. Everyone is listed in the program, no matter how small their contribution. “Theater companies don’t talk of their actors as human resources; none of them would work for them if they did.... The word ‘manager’ is reserved for those in charge of things, not people.”
And the biggest billing goes “to the people who are in direct communication with the customer, the actors. And they are directed, not managed, by someone who actually leaves the scene once the project is under way.
“He or she trusts the cast to go it alone and, often as not, they improve on the production once the director departs. Trust inspires.” There is direct feedback at the end from the people who matter.
This is Handy at his best: humane, thoughtful and serious. Indeed, he likes to describe himself as a “social philosopher,” practicing “the scholarship of common sense.” He would like to see businesses concentrating on getting better but not necessarily bigger.
“Organizations are not machines,” Handy writes. “That has been the central message of all my books. They are living communities of individuals. To describe them we need to use the language of communities and the language of individuals.” And keep things simple. “Management is not something mysterious or conceptually difficult,” he writes. “Its difficulty lies in applying the ideas, not in the ideas themselves.”
Stefan Stern is a columnist for the Financial Times, where this review first appeared.