Autobiographical Reflections of a Business Philosopher
Charles Handy fans will not be disappointed with his latest offering, The Elephant and the Flea. As always, Handy, the former oil executive turned management philosopher, explains in a few eloquent phrases the changes in our society and our organizations that has affected and will affect how we choose to live and work.
Possibility and Fear in America
Witness Handy's thoughts on America, where the gap between rich and poor only seems to be getting wider, and yet no American, including the poor, questions the capitalist system. "As I wander periodically through America's downtrodden city centers and then its manicured and often gated suburbs," Handy writes, "I wonder why this growing inequality, the thing that I imagined would be the Achilles' heel of capitalism, bringing it to an inglorious end, was not the worry for most of the poorest that I felt convinced it would be."
Handy concludes that America's Puritan and (later) immigrant roots, both based on hard work as the key to a better life, explains why "the envy that can be corrosive in other capitalist societies seems in America to fuel ambition and hope." However, he warns that it is "hope tinged with fear, because there is not much of a safety net for those who fail. Perhaps, I reflected, it is this very mix of possibility and fear that feeds the energy that is so palpable in America. If the mix changed, however, if the fear exceeded the possibility... then the American mode of capitalism would be under threat."
What Is Success?
The commentary in The Elephant and the Flea is loosely structured around Handy's autobiography. Fans of Handy's many books, from The Age of Paradox and The Age of Unreason to The Hungry Spirit, are already familiar with many of the steps in his career path and personal life. For example, Handy's reaction to the burial of his father, the rector of a country parish for 40 years, has been told before, but retains its powerful lesson on success.
Handy had been disappointed that his father had "settled for a humdrum life in the same little backwater." Then he saw "tears in the eyes of the hundreds of people who had come from everywhere to say farewell," and wondered: "What is success and who was the successful one, me or my father?"
Eventually, Handy left the world of organizations - the elephants of the title - and decided to become a freelance writer and thinker - a "flea." Handy was the first of what is today referred to as a "free agent." In a chapter entitled "The Problems of a Portfolio Life," Handy describes the three tensions that emerged from his decision to go independent: a lack of community, the need for a driving passion, and the need to keep learning and developing. The lack of community and the need for a passion were especially unexpected.
While Handy celebrates the life of the flea - flexible and independent - he also warns of a world of individualists endlessly competing with one another. "Life without belonging properly to anything, life without commitment, means life without responsibility to others or for others. The independent life is an invitation to selfishness and a recipe for a very privatized society."
A better choice is a combination of competitive and "varied" individualism - competitive individualism to drive innovation and creativity mixed with a varied individualism in which people make a difference in organizations or take responsibility for addressing issues of the local community.
Why Soundview Likes This Book
As in much of his later work - The Hungry Spirit is a stellar example - Handy shows how to explore the three interlocking threads of the individual, the organization and society to explain what is happening and what could happen to our world. This is vintage Handy - a book to savor slowly, giving the insights time to pile into your mind. One hopes that our business and political leaders are paying close attention to what Charles Handy has to say.