what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, October 25, 2021

Mea Culpa

OK – message received! Readership figures have this month plummeted – despite posts continuing to come in every second day or so. I admit that too many are on the long side. So I will (try to) take a vow of BREVITY. After all, the blog is 12 years old – surely I’ve said most of what I need to? Except it’s not as simple as that – most blogs have a specialist focus, be it economic, political, sociological or cultural and apply that lens to the latest fashion of the day. This blog celebrates the butterfly approach viz it depends on what what catches my fancy – generally a book or article, sometimes an incident, painting or piece of music. And I like to offer excerpts from the books and articles I feel positive about – as distinct from offering opinions. 

It’s time clearly for another of these stock-takings about the blog. When it started – in 2009 – it set out three aims -    

·       “This blog will try to make sense of the organisational endeavours I've been involved in; to see if there are any lessons which can be passed on; to restore a bit of institutional memory and social history (let alone hope).

·       I read a lot and want to pass on the results of this to those who have neither the time nor inclination to read widely.

·       A final motive for the blog is more complicated - and has to do with life and family. What have we done with our life? What is important to us?” 

The first two objectives are still important. After 12 years, it’s fairly obvious from the unfinished nature of my books on administrative reform (“Change for the Better?”) and on social change (“What is to be Done?”) that there’s still work to be done – although I often feel I’m just going round in circles.

And I’m still finding fascinating books and continue to have this urge to share relevant insights with posterity. But I should probably stop imposing these rather forbidding reading lists.

But I have to recognise that the blog has been weak on the final purpose. Indeed a friend once queried the absence of the personal touch – feeling that the tone was too clinical and aseptic. And it’s certainly fair comment that the blog is a bit “scholastic”. A couple of other friends have indeed called me a “scholar” – which I used to take as a compliment. But perhaps they meant “bloodless!?

As I move through my “autumn days” and feel the approach of winter, the “settling of final accounts” (in the spiritual sense) should, certainly, loom larger. Charles Handy is a real inspiration here – someone constantly challenging himself and making fresh choices every decade or so about where to put the energies and skills he’s been endowed with. One of my favourite fellow-bloggers is Canadian Dave Pollard - a few years younger than me - who is constantly offering valuable insights from his life experience. A lot of this touches on inter-personal relations – one of my weak areas. In that spirit let me apply the Johari Window 


 strong                               Known to me                            weak




Known to others







“The Arena”




The “blind corner”



 “The Façade”



 Our public self is something we try to control – but rarely succeed at. People notice things about us which we ourselves are not necessarily aware of (our blind corners). Friends should be helpful here – but we often resent critical comment and they soon learn to shut up 

For 20 years I had a nomadic life – living in some ten different countries – generally leader of teams in which I would make a few new friends. Both the contexts and my particular role were very different from those in which I had spent the previous 20 years. But I was very aware of this – even so, it took me almost a decade before I was fully up to speed and confident that my skills were producing results. Those skills were broadly the same mix of political and scholastic I had used in my previous life - but the context was so very different. And my new skill was being sensitive to that and adjusting the tools I used appropriately.... 

As a Team Leader, I had, of course, to be sensitive the strengths and weaknesses of the members of the team – but it’s almost impossible to shake off one’s cultural assumptions and I carried the baggage then of a Brit still proud of what our democratic tradition had given the world (!!!). It's only perhaps in the past decade in Bulgaria and Romania I've really deepened my understanding of cultural contexts - and am still learning..... 

I write in English – but literally a handful of Brits read the blog. Americans are its biggest fans making up 30% of readers - with Russians, curiously, coming in next at 15% and no other country having more than 5%. But the scale of non-English readership is an additional argument for making the posts shorter. 

And because I have the time to read widely; live on Europe’s edge; and have been out of my home country for more than 30 years, I have perhaps developed a bit of the outsider’s perspective….But I remain painfully aware of my shortcomings in the inter-personal field - I learned so much when I first did the Belbin test.... 


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Triumph of the Spectacle

The United States of America prides itself on being the “leader of the free world”. In reality it is a deeply sick society whose only freedom is that of abuse (in all the senses of that word) and the multiplicity of perverse ways it chooses to keep itself entertained.

Of course, it has its decent side – but independent voices are increasingly difficult to find. You can find Chomsky on Youtube and in bookshops – but rarely quoted in the media. 

Chris Hedges is a rare voice of sanity whose articles I have been following this year on the brave Scheerpost site. His background is fascinating – a war correspondent who started out with the intention of being a churchman like his father and whose rebellious spirit saw him sacked from The New York Times for his vocal opposition to the Iraq War. He has become a fairly prolific writer – turning out since 2002 almost a book a year. His Wikipedia entry was clearly written by a corporate lobbyist! 

Somewhat belatedly I have been reading his Empire of illusion – the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle (it was published in 2010!) – which is a savage indictment of the depths to which the country has fallen in my lifetime,  

I used to live in a country called America. It was not a perfect country, especially if you were African American or Native American or of Japanese descent in the Second World War. It could be cruel and unjust if you were poor, gay, a woman, or an immigrant, but there was hope it could be better. It was a country I loved and honored.

It paid its workers wages envied around the world. It made sure these workers, thanks to labor unions and champions of the working class in the Democratic Party and the press, had health benefits and pensions. It offered good, public education. It honored basic democratic values and held in regard the rule of law, including international law, and respect for human rights. It had social programs, from Head Start to welfare to Social Security, to take care of the weakest among us, the mentally ill, the elderly, and the destitute. It had a system of government that, however flawed, worked to protect the interests of most of its citizens. It offered the possibility of democratic change. It had a press that was diverse and independent and gave a voice to all segments of society, including those beyond our borders, to impart to us unpleasant truths, to challenge the powerful, to reveal ourselves to ourselves. 

I am not blind to the imperfections of this old America, or the failures to meet these ideals consistently at home and abroad. I spent more than two years living in Roxbury, the inner city in Boston, across the street from a public housing project where I ran a small church as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. I saw institutional racism at work. I saw how banks, courts, dysfunctional schools, probation officers, broken homes, drug abuse, crime, and employers all conspired to make sure the poor remained poor. I spent two decades as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. I saw there the crimes and injustices committed in our name and often with our support, whether during the contra war in Nicaragua or the brutalization of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. We had much to atone for, but still there was also much that was good, decent, and honorable in our country. 

The country I live in today uses the same civic, patriotic, and historical language to describe itself, the same symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains. The America we celebrate is an illusion. America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father, and his father’s father, stretching back to the generations of my family that were here for the country’s founding, is so diminished as to be unrecognizable. I do not know if this America will return, even as I pray and work and strive for its return. 

The words "consent of the governed" have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system. During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner. The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good. America has become a façade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions.It represents a power and a democratic ethic it does not possess. 

Hardly surprisingly, the book was largely ignored by the corporate media – with one of the few (Canadian) reviewers lamenting that it didn’t really tell him anything he didn’t already know. But what I did appreciate – in the book’s final chapter – was the tribute to “those who saw it all coming! 

There were some who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, and Andrew Bacevich, writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, and Naomi Klein, and activists such as Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader warned us about our march of folly. In the immediate years after the Second World War, a previous generation of social critics recognized the destructive potential of the rising corporate state. Books such as David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd”, C. Wright Mills’ “The Power Elite”, William H. White’s “The Organization Man”, Seymour Mellman’s “The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline”, Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America”, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History” have proved to be prophetic. This generation of writers remembered what had been lost. They saw the intrinsic values that were being dismantled. The culture they sought to protect has largely been obliterated. During the descent, our media and universities, extensions of corporate and mass culture, proved intellectually and morally useless. They did not thwart the decay. We failed to heed the wisdom of these critics, embracing instead the idea that all change was a form of progress.

Other interesting titles of his which caught my eye were -

Wages of Rebellion – the moral imperative of revolt (2015); and 

Unspeakable (2016) a collection of interviews

Sunday, October 17, 2021

How our mind works

It was only yesterday that I noticed that the annotated bibliography on the global economic meltdown which has been included in my draft book doesn’t mention the management books aimed at business leaders – such as Stephen Covey, Charles Handy and Peter Senge.

At one level that seemed sensible since, with the exclusion of Handy book mentioned in the last post, the titles of these books don’t include words such as “crisis” or “capitalism” – preferring phrases such as “The Fifth Discipline”, “Gods of Management” or “The Seven Habits of Really Effective People”.

But, at another level, the books addressed to business leaders deal with the dynamics of social, economic and technological change – and how those in charge of organisations might best respond to/take advantage of these challenges.

So anyone interested in the ups and downs of our economic system should be following these books…But, apart from a few years in the 1990s – when Annotated Bibliography for change agents was drafted - I haven’t done so. My focus, since 2000, has been a narrower economic one

Having realised the gap in my annotated bibliography, I found my next reaction an interesting one. It was to start scribbling a DIAGRAM to identify how ideas circulate and the role of different groups in that process. I had missed the business leaders  - so who else should be in the picture? The result – in    my very bad scribble – I’ve called “IDEAS, INTERESTS AND ACTORS” although I do appreciate that the distinction between “ideas” and “interests” is a fine,   if not false, one.

The following groups can be distinguished –

- The Corporate Elite (Business and Government). These are the big beasts – with the most obvious and selfish “interests” at stake. But they employ others to articulate these interests through stories which are fed to the public via lobbyists and think-tanks in the first instance and, more subtly, via academics and journalists.

- entrepreneurs – of two sorts, doers and idea merchants. This is a neglected group – some of the “doers” eventually join the corporate elite. And some of the “idea merchants” eventually join the intellectual populisers

- Lobbyists – millions of them who do the bidding of the corporate elite

- So called Think-Tanks – those set up in recent decades funded by the corporate elite (by definition) and dancing to their tune. Generally plugged into academia the more useful of whose ideas they leach onto

- Academics; who have increasingly learned to communicate more clea rly

- Intellectual populisers; who have learned the real tricks of story-telling and are loved by publishers

- journalists; who come in all shapes and sizes and on whom the public used to depend as the intermediary between power and themselves                                

- activists; who supply the basic energy for democratic life

- citizens; an increasingly passive group 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

A Little Bit of History

I’m always fascinated by the ebb and flow of fashionable ideas as represented in best-seller lists. And have just been rereading Charles Handy’s The Hungry Spirit – beyond capitalism, a quest for purpose in the modern world – which took some courage to publish in 1997.

This, after all, was Britain’s top management thinker (if not guru) daring to suggest that there was something morally questionable about the economic system - which was then in triumphalist mood after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Empire 2 years later.

It’s true that the World Bank, for example, had started, with its World Development Report of that same year, to row back the strong anti-State stance it had taken just a few years earlier.

And Handy had impeccable credentials – he had worked for almost two decades years for the oil giant BP. And then moved to help set up the UK’s first School of Management – to prepare for which he took a year out to follow the Master’s programme at the prestigious Sloane School of Management at MIT in the US. Even during this time, he was starting to notice some problems in management practice which were brilliantly dissected in a later book by two highly experienced US managers called “The Puritan Gift 

I thought it would be useful to try to situate “The Hungry Spirit in the wider context of “best-sellers” of the period. Was its dissenting tone noticed? How did it compare with other management writers such as Stephen Covey and Robert Quinn who also had strong ethical concerns?

Interestingly, the very next year Handy was one of the lead contributors in Rethinking the Future  ed Rowan Gibson (1998) which included chapters from such leaders of management thought as Warren Bennis, Stephen Covey, John Naisbitt, Peter Senge and Lester Thurow – the last of whom had indeed just published “The Future of Capitalism

At the end of the day, I have to wonder, what impact did such writing actually have? Most of us – after the scandalous immorality of the 2001 Enron scandal followed by the global financial meltdown of 2008 – have become deeply sceptical of the possibilities of reform from within   

I was impressed with what I picked up from my reread of “The Hungry Spirit” – particularly with Handy’s ability to put complex notions into simple words; and to integrate important ideas naturally into the flow of the text.

The book has three sections – the first (“Creaking Capitalism”) deals with the limits of markets; when efficiency is ineffective; and what its good at.

The Second section focuses on the individual (“A Life of our Own”), starting with an analysis of “the age of personal sovereignty” and what he calls “proper selfishness”, exploring the search for meaning and ending with the argument that “I needs to be “we” to be “I”!.

The final section (“The Search for a Decent Society”) follows those – like David Korten, Paul Hirst, Will Hutton, John Kay, Paul Collier, Frederic Laloux and Colin Mayer – who have argued for a “stakeholder” (or more German) concept of the firm

One of the few criticisms I’ve come across of Charles Handy is here. 

As it happens, I keep a (running and annotated) bibliography about the global economic crisis in the annex of one of my draft books which starts in the 1970s; is reasonably up to date; and currently identifies almost 200 books. That may sound a lot but that’s only about 4 a year – which means I have been a bit selective! To make it easier, I’ve focused on the period between 1995 and 2003.

It gives a fascinating picture – although I’ve noticed it doesn’t cover the books directly aimed at business leaders! 

I’ll be interested in what my readers make of it. One of the questions I’m certainly left with is that all this critical writing and exhortation doesn’t seem to have had much effect. 

Key Texts for 1995-2003

- When Corporations Rule the World; David Korten (1995) the definitive critique of the modern American company which can be read in full here.

- “Everything for Sale – the virtues and limits of markets” – Robert Kuttner (1996)

- Short Circuit – strengthening local economies in an unstable world” - Ronald Douthwaite (1996). Very practical – but also inspirational….25 years on, it hasn’t really been bettered

- “The Future of Capitalism – how today’s economic forced shape tomorrow’s world” – Lester Thurow (1996). Thurow is another of these rare characters who can sniff changes in the wind

- The Hungry Spirit – beyond capitalism, a quest for purpose in the modern world; Charles Handy (1997) An honest man, famed as a management guru, expresses his moral outrage at the contemporary system

- Political Economy of Modern Capitalism – mapping convergence and diversity ed Colin Crouch and Wolfgang Streeck (1997) an elegant, if academic, treatment of the varieties and commonalities of the beast covering all European countries and the USA – with contributions not only from the editors but Philip Cerny, Ronald Dore, Susan Strange. One of the most serious collections

- Stakeholder Capitalism; ed Kelly and A Gamble (1997). For a brief moment in the mid 90s, the concept of “stakeholding” caught the imagination of UK leftists before Tony Blair slammed the door shut on it.

- From Statism to Pluralism – democracy, civil society and global politics; Paul Hirst (1997) One of the most articulate exponents of the idea of stakeholding 

- From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development; Greg MacLeod (1997). A rare and very useful-looking exposition.

- The Ownership Solution- toward a shared capitalism for the 21st Century; Jeff Gates (1998) This is an important book of almost 400 pages which, sadly, gets forgotten because its analysis and message is a moderate one. It satisfies neither the extremes of the left nor of the right

- The Trouble With Capitalism – An Enquiry into the Causes of Global Economic Failure; Harry Shutt (1998) A wide-ranging book to help the general reader put contemporary events in a proper historical context - and to challenge what Shutt calls the “organised indifference” which ruling interests try to encourage

- Natural Capitalism – the next industrial revolution; Paul Hawken (1999). A persuasive vision of how green technology could revitalize capitalism….

- The cancer stages of capitalism; John Mc Murtry (1999). A much darker vision….. 

- “The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century” – Susan George (1999). A satirical piece which forces us to think where present forces are taking us….

- The Great Disruption – human nature and the reconstitution of social order; Francis Fukuyama (1999) An important book which passed me by until recently – it is a critique of the loosening of our social fabric since 1965…..

- Economics and Utopia – why the learning economy is not the end of history; Geoff Hodgson (1999) a clear and tough analysis by a top-class economic historian of why socialism lost its way – and exploration of what it will take for it to restore its energies. Not an easy read!    

- CyberMarx – cyles and circuits of struggle in high technology capitalism; Nick Dyer-Witheford (1999). It may be a PhD thesis – but it’s a great read…..

- The New Spirit of Capitalism; L Boltanski and E Chiapello (1999). Surprising that others have not attempted this critical analysis of managerial texts since they tell us so much about the Zeitgeist…..these are mainly French (and a bit turgid)….The only similar analyses I know are a couple of treatments of managerial gurus by Brits….

- Capitalism and its Economics – a critical History; Douglas Dowd (2000) Very readable bit of economic history – from the 18th century

- Anti-capitalism – theory and practice; Chris Harman (2000) A Trotskyist take….

- Debunking Economics; Steve Keen (2001) a fantastic and systematic taking apart of economists’ pretentious waffle – the first really to challenge the basic structure of economics

- Questions of Business Life; Higginson (2002) A fascinating summary of the various critiques of the economic system written for business leaders by the Dean of a seminary which organised  seminars for them….

Globalisation and its Discontents; Joseph Stiglitz (2002) is one of the best of its time on the subject - exposing the emptiness of economics orthodoxy….

- The Soul of Capitalism – opening paths to a moral economy; William Greider (2003) covers cooperatives and other options…

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Charles Handy - part II

When you get to my age, the urge to look back and take stock is fairly irresistible – what, you ask, has life been for?

David Brooks (in The Road to Character) identified two very different ways we answer that question – what he called “CV and eulogy values” respectively. The latter, the more thoughtful, evoked the values we would like to be remembered for - rather than the more partial CV stance we push at prospective employers….Few writers have given such a profound set of answers to this question than Charles Handy whose dozen or so books – many with “confessional” aspects - are constantly touching on the issue. The last post focused on a 2007 memoir of his which I had pulled out a few days ago from the great library I have in my Transylvanian mountain house.

Thanks to the Internet Archive website, I’m reading a Handy book I’ve never before had the chance to explore - Beyond Certainty – the changing world of organisations, a collection of essays he produced in the late 1980s containing the germs of “The Age of Unreason” (1989) and “The Empty Raincoat – making sense of the future” (1994) 

What exactly is it in Handy’s writing which has so captivated me since I first came across his “Understanding Organisations” almost 50 years ago??

·       Is it his blunt honesty?

·       The elegant and unassuming nature of the uncertainties he expresses?

·       The accidental nature of the life he describes?

·       The turning points he so vividly describes?

·       The clarity and almost spiritual quality of the writing? 

Of course, we are all different in the way we respond to writing – and so much therefore depends on what we grew up on. I’m of the generation raised on the likes of Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Koestler and EH Carr - with authors such as Ernst Schumacher, Robert Fisk, David Korten and even George Orwell appearing somewhat later

Looking now at Handy’s life, it suddenly becomes very clear to me that the reason his writing makes such an impact is that he was somehow motivated to change his career every decade or so - and therefore falls into the category of those who have crossed critical boundaries and who, as a result, have this capacity to see the world differently from the rest of us.

The boundaries I’m referring to may be geographical, intellectual or class – but somehow, when individuals cross them, they find themselves so profoundly challenged that they both make new connections in their thinking and express themselves with such clarity – perhaps because they have become more sensitive to the complexities of language. It’s the spark of originality 

That’s perhaps why he has the rare knack of anticipating the future – somehow he’s able to peer into the tea-leaves and help us make sense of the new worlds are emerging and to do so in the most crystal-clear and elegant of language. He did this first in The Future of Work (1984) when he coined the phrase “portfolio work” to describe how our careers in future would be a mixture of time-limited projects and also invented (in "The Age of Unreason” 1989) the phrase “shamrock organisations” to describe the form the organisations of the future would take – the (small number) of core workers; those on contract; and part-time workers. His books have had an increasingly chatty approach – helped probably by his experience of doing a lot of “Thought for the Day” pieces for the BBC which taught him, he says, to compress his thoughts into 450 words or so. For a very graceful assessment of Handy’s role and significance see this article 

He’s reached the advanced age of 88 – and I was delighted to discover that he produced what may well be his last book 21 Letters on Life and its Challenges which takes the format of short epistles for his grandchildren - summing up what he feels he’s learned about life. It’s such a delightful read that, for my own benefit, I made a note of the main points of each of the chapters – which you’ll find in the hyperlink in the title above. 

Chapter Title 

 Key Points

Things Will Be Different


List of some key words whose meanings have changed dramatically in a lifetime (“chip used to be piece of wood or fried potato”) and the scale of change in that period – not least work. We are now “Creatives, Carers or Custodians”

The Human Imperative 

But the really big issues and questions don’t change.

“Trust but verify”

Life’s Biggest Question


Emerson’s advice – “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded

Doing the best you can with what you’re best at

God or What?


In the new diversity, can we tell right from wrong?

Aristotle has twelve virtues: 

1) Courage – bravery and the willingness to stand up for what you think is right;

2) Temperance – self-control and restraint; 

3) Liberality – kindness, charity and generosity; 

4) Magnificence – radiance, joie de vivre; 

5) Pride – satisfaction in achievement; 

6) Honour – respect, reverence, admiration; 

7) Good Temper – equanimity, level-headedness; 

8) Friendliness – conviviality and sociability; 

 9) Truthfulness – straightforwardness, frankness and candour; 

10) Wit – sense of humour; 

11) Friendship – camaraderie and companionship; 

12) Justice – impartiality and fairness

Everyone Can Be Wrong 

Closed and open answers; Galileo and Copernicus; Handy’s portfolio/clover idea – and the initial reaction against it

Curiosity Does not Kill the Cat

Travel with curiousity in your backpack

How Clever Are You?


Different ideas on the subject (Howard Gardiner). Schools have a strange notion

“I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who” (Kipling).

Life Is a Marathon not a Horse Race

Defects of competition; Be your own master

Who You Are Matters more than What You Do

His wife photographs subjects with 5 objects to illustrate their different identities. 

Idea of “street wisdom”

Keep It Small


Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” Robin Dunbar’s organisations of no more than 150 and key groups of 5, 15 and 45. Federal systems best

You Are not a Human Resource

Pity Drucker used the management word – “work should be organised; things managed and people led”

You and Society


Complicated letter – suggesting we have excessive regulations; that rep democracy should be upheld

Life’s Changing Curves 

We should start afresh before we are forced to

Enough Is as Good as a Feast

The Bushmen had a 15 hour week – then money poisoned everything (Rousseau)

Handy separate NEEDS from WANTS (concept of free work)

It’s the Economy, Stupid 

His father’s “stipend”; His wife’ separation of “investment” from “consumption” “Money and fulfilment are uneasy bedfellows”

‘We’ Beats ‘I’ all the Time

If there is a common purpose; Never take friendship for granted

When Two Become One

He confesses to selfishness in how he treated his wife

What You Can’t Count Matters More Than What You Can

“McNamara fallacy” means that much of life gets pushed into 3rd or 4th place.. eg love, hope, kindness, courage, honesty and loyalty

The Last Quarter 

future generations can look forward to last 25 years of their life being free of financial worried

You Are Unique

We have 3-5 identities

My Last Words 

What he recommends for his grandchildren - Learn a foreign language, a musical instrument, a sport (individual better); write a diary and fall in love

 Some Videos

There are all too few videos of the man. But this is one which starts with an appreciation of Peter Drucker and then makes some great points including the importance of listening to what people say – not least oneself!

And then a more recent one whose sub-titles valiantly try but completely fail to catch what his faint Irish brogue is actually saying.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Salute to exemplary writing

Charles Handy has been one of the few writers who has really touched and inspired me on my journey of the past 40 odd years. The first book of his I became aware of was “Understanding Organisations” (1976) - written after 5 years’ experience of helping establish the country’s first business school and was indeed one of the few books on management available in Britain at the time. When the huge new Strathclyde Region set up a small group to review its departmental structure, the Chief Executive gave us a Peter Drucker paperback to give u.s ideas – it was the only paperback on the subject available….  

Handy’s “Understanding Organisations” came a year later and was written for the practising executive – management “students” didn’t exist then! Unlike the humility and moral power in Handy’s writing, technical smartness and artifice are the basic features of most management books. His next book - “Gods of Management” (1978) was a shorter one which told the story of the 4 types of organisational culture. It was a superb read and was reflected in presentations I subsequently did in Central Asia in the early 2000s to help officials set the “one-man management” principle they were familiar with against alternative systems…. 

I have just been rereading his little autobiography - Myself – and other more important matters which is so delightful and thought-provoking and has such a superb review here by someone who knew him that I thought I would reproduce it in its entirety 

If we have any British management gurus, Charles Handy must head the list, although he doesn’t really like being called a guru. This book is the nearest we shall get to his autobiography, including, as it does, much of his understanding of key management issues. He describes himself as a social philosopher, weighing up the social implications of management and employment matters. We also meet him in this book as a humble person, who, while knowing that he has something to offer, doesn’t “think of himself more highly than he should”.

As well as many insights into a life well lived, there is much food for thought here about life/work balance, about career paths which emerge rather than get chosen, about how experience teaches us, about the purpose of a business, about the way in which our identity is shaped and success is defined. 

Career philosophy

Charles Handy traces his career from early life in an Irish Anglican vicarage, to classical scholar at Cambridge, to Shell executive struggling in the jungles of Borneo, to business school professor, to public figure and broadcaster, traveller and world circuit lecturer. But as in most careers there is a great deal of the unplanned and unexpected in it. We also meet some of the non-public Charles Handy and see him wrestling with personal dilemmas and the implications that we all have different personae, depending on the circumstances of time and place. What is identity? Do we remain the same person throughout our lives? For example, was he the same person at work as the one his family knew at home? 

One of the problems of being a manager is that you may be required to try to change what a person really is to what the company or institution wants. For this reason Handy inclines to the view that we should not mix friendship and work zones. Also personality tests, while not devoid of meaning, should be treated with some reserve, because we do change through life and we are usually a mix depending on situations which arise. As he reflects on his experiences, Handy sees that his genetic inheritance did not determine his actions and that if you care passionately about something you discover elements within yourself which you didn’t realise were there and which get filled out under the pressure of experience. The influence of his wife, Elizabeth, herself a professional photographer, is credited with making him more of a “connector” and “salesperson” than he would otherwise have been.

One could say that Handy believes that success does not come from knowing where you want to go. Rather by action, experimentation, questioning and re-acting we discover who and what we are.  This might help us to a sense of reality when we read these “how to” books that give a clear guide on how to plan and implement your career. He doubts whether even now he really knows who he is; he quotes T.S.Eliot “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” 

Early development

Charles Handy looks at the various stages of his life in terms of their relevance to making him what he became and, indeed, what he is. He grew up in an Irish society where there was little social mixing between Catholics and Protestants, though there was little overt hostility in his early experience. His family, whose forebears had lived in Ireland for 300 years,  was part of the Anglo-Irish community which has now largely vanished from the Republic of Ireland.  Regardless of the religious divide, and in spite of an upbringing which deeply respected the British monarchy, he never ceased to feel Irish; after 40 years in England, Handy does not really know whether he is English or Irish in his inner self, though temperamentally, he says, he lacks the Irish gregariousness.

Ireland as the fourth richest country in the world by per capita income has moved on, economically and culturally since he left, but he regrets that many aspects of life which had an Irish charm have diminished. He muses on the mixed blessing which globalisation brings and wonders whether the seductions of consumerism and the pulling apart of old communities have been for the best. He speaks of a seminar he and his wife ran in Dublin where participants expressed regret that good features, like the friendliness, the sense of timelessness, the easy-going life with the family as the centre, had gone, as well as the factors that were not so good like extremes of poverty, false religiosity and island mentality. In all this, Handy is looking back from where he is now; not at what he would have perceived as he was growing up.

So also in relation to his education; he went to Oxford as a classicist, having attained good pre-university Latin and Greek, by a series of fortuitous circumstances rather than by design. Frequently he refers back to his university experience as he sees its effect on his career. He quickly realised that he was being exposed to a different form of education from anything he had previously met. In his first week, his tutor asked him to prepare an essay on “What is Truth?” – this initiated him into a different intellectual world.

Languages per se did not attract him, but they opened the doors to the study of the great philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. He was learning to think rigorously and rationally. Plato left him with the awareness that so much of what we think of as reality is but our perception of reality. In later years he found this a valuable understanding in the teaching of management. (Perhaps this is why business schools like Dartmouth and Aspen have included in their programmes a course for managers and their spouses on the great thinkers of all ages.) Handy learnt that the world was not a simple place; he became a habitual sceptic or at least a thoughtful person. 

The Greek philosophers anticipated many of our current problems; Socrates probed underlying assumptions. Handy finds that using a series of “Why? questions” often gets to the heart of a matter. Aristotle’s Golden Mean – not too much or too little of anything – has influenced his choices in life, which have not been to be as rich as possible. Aristotle had a lot to say about eudaimonia, a Greek word, often translated as happiness, but which really means doing your best with what you are best at, which, with its ethical undertone, is more profound than “optimising your core competences”.

Handy muses on his time at university, that education is not passing on to the new generation what has worked in the past; it is not a matter of merely memorising the great minds of the past and regurgitating the results at exam time. He learnt the value of talking in learning, quoting an Irish saying, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” He looks back on university as a time of learning to think cogently and coherently and applying the reasoning to all aspects of life. “The proof of the educational pudding is in much later life.” 

Handy’s early business career

He wanted to see the world and have a wide range of experience and got a job with Shell whose interviewer told him “You have a well trained, but empty mind; we’ll fill it with useful knowledge”.  There followed two 3-year tours of duty as an executive in South East Asia, beginning as an economist in Singapore, where he got himself started by reading a little book Teach Yourself Economics. Quite soon he was subjected to development by immersion – “throw them in and they will have to learn to swim”. His main activity was in Borneo, devoid of roads and Western amenities, where travel was mainly by alligator infested rivers and where he had just one expatriate assistant to help him administer a vast area of oil activity. 

It was no good merely working by the manuals. You learnt as you went along, especially by mistakes. It was obvious that “warehoused learning” wasn’t going to be of much use. Getting the right people was the most significant road to success. He was not really happy with the Borneo experience; it did not give him the outlet for his personality that he needed. There was scope for making mistakes from which you could learn if you were honest in your subsequent reflection; this remained valuable for the rest of his life. But a career with a big multinational was not for him.

He came back to London where he was given a non-job, which taught him that to be under-loaded can be more destructive than over-loaded. He had no positive responsibility, but plenty of negative responsibility. He could stop things happening, and from this he learned to understand why people lacking positive responsibility could be obstructive, such as the official who refuses a planning application without reason, or the airline employee who closes the gate just as you are rushing up, the waiter who ignores you and so on. For some, it is the only way they can create meaning in what they do. 

Handy was then transferred to the Shell Management Training College and felt he had found his vocation in preparing managers for their next assignments. But in a short time he was required to leave that and prepare to go to Liberia. So he sat down and wrote his letter of resignation, not knowing what would happen and after only a year or so of married life. Elizabeth, his wife, receives frequent mention in the book. They have been real partners who complemented each other. Her drive and skill as a connector with people has been a major contribution to his own success. 

The turning point

Behind the scenes, someone who had been observing him in Shell initiated a situation as a result of which in 1965 he was offered a post at the new London Business School, which led to a full professorship, without all the normal procedures. He became responsible for the Sloan Management Programme in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the development of which he spent a year in the USA and found himself enlivened by the flexibility and energy he experienced there – an attitude that the future is ours to create and that initiative should be encouraged, that anything is possible if you care enough. 

The move to London Business School was the turning point in his life which ultimately led to the Charles Handy we know. He comments on the way in which people can influence your path in life and reflects on the opportunity that the work he was then embarking on gave scope to influence others. He talks, from the receiving end, of the chance remark which can have momentous consequences, helping people to believe in themselves. In contrast, he recalls cases where some managers seemed to think that if they were not actively and negatively criticising people that should be enough to indicate satisfaction with performance. He advocates the sowing of seeds in the right quarters which can create opportunity for people to progress; also seeds can be sown in their own minds which can lead to personal development and seeing the right openings.

Whilst he enjoyed and valued his year at MIT, he subsequently realised that, in one sense, he had no real need to have gone. Most of the value of his learning experience lay in the fact that what he knew intuitively and implicitly became explicit and useable. (I found myself very responsive to Handy’s thought here. When teaching I often say to the participants that I will not tell them anything they don’t already know – only they don’t know they know it.)

At MIT and in his work at London Business School, Charles Handy learnt to see management as a practical art, rather than as an applied science. It requires ingenuity, imagination and character. Beyond analytical skill it requires insight; concepts emerge from experience rather then preceding it. He humorously suggests that the MBA programme ought often to be called “Master of Business Analysis”, for this is what the daily working on case studies at many business schools leads to. Like Henry Mintzberg,  Handy emphasises that learning about management should take place in tandem with practical experience – a kind of apprenticeship process.

Consultancy and banking firms tend to value the analytical skills, but if you are a practical manager, you require people skills, perseverance, courage, an ethical stance, self-knowledge – a range of awareness encapsulated nowadays under the term “emotional intelligence”. The teaching at London Business School in its early stages was not based on this perception, but Charles Handy tried to introduce ethical awareness by the study of the Greek classic Antigone, where the main character was torn asunder by a clash of loyalties. After a trial run he had to drop it. 

This concern to emphasise practical management led in 1981 to his involvement in the Open University programme "The Effective Manager". He wrote much of the home study text and was able to marry classroom material to the realities which the students would be facing in their daily work life. They were earning while learning. The programme developed into the Open University MBA programme which now has some 3000 students, more than any other business school in Europe. (Perhaps I might be allowed a comment that the Ashridge MBA programmes and its consultancy services share the Handy philosophy and even earned a pat on the back from Mintzberg.)

This experience of business school teaching in 1987 led to Charles Handy’s role as chairing the production of the report The Making of Managers, in which he proposed a two-part MBA programme, the first, in the classroom on the language of management, and the second, part-time and related to current experience and involving mentors from the participants’ organisations. It did not catch on immediately, but its influence is perhaps seen in the later proliferation of part time programmes for working executives. 

A new direction

We have jumped ahead and have to return to a sad, yet transforming experience in Charles’ life. His father, a 74 year old retired vicar in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), died unexpectedly. People from all over Ireland flocked to the funeral, a testimony to a quiet but deeply concerned life to which many owed much. Handy saw into the depths of purpose and meaning in life and resolved to do something more meaningful than climbing career ladders.

He consulted two bishops as to his prospects of entering the priesthood. They felt the rough and tumble of parish life would not suit him, even if he might make a good bishop ultimately. However they knew that there was a vacancy coming up as warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle. This is a “college” within the grounds of the castle, just by the beautiful St George’s Chapel, where some surplus accommodation was taken over to enable training courses for the clergy to be run and where, also, especially at weekends, what were called “consultations” took place. 

The consultations gathered together people from all walks of life, who might have a contribution to make to working through the social dilemmas of our time. (I was privileged to attend a number of them under the wardenship of Charles Handy’s successors. They are unforgettable, mind-stretching occasions in unique surroundings. The ideas shared are usually summarised to contribute to the literature of the particular theme.) Out of these consultations grew the writing of Charles Handy on the Future of Work. The little summary of the consultations on that theme is still the best piece of writing on the topic, which he has developed further in works like "The Age of Unreason" and "The Empty Raincoat". 

Particularly he has popularised the idea of a portfolio life. The four components of the portfolio life are “paid work” (fee or waged work), “gift work” (voluntary), “study work” and “home work”. These may operate simultaneously. An associated concept is that at different stages of life one may be a core employee of a company, a contracted specialist, a part time worker or freelance. No longer is work a matter of a lifetime of 40 years or more with one firm. Rather there is the freedom to move through a variety of work experiences without having to be subject to the lifelong discipline of being a fulltime employee. And with this approach is the opportunity to go on sharing, even into old age, any wisdom one has acquired. 

In taking on the work at St George’s, Handy dropped his salary considerably and had to watch the pennies, yet felt that in other ways he was enriched and a wider world was opened to him by which he has been led into paths he could never have sat down and planned. He was uplifted by the spiritual elements of the experience of being associated with the royal chapel, with its contrasts between the pomp of human prowess and the humility of service. He is what he calls a cultural Christian; not strong on the formal doctrines, though powerfully affected by the underlying significance of the Biblical stories, finding in the spiritual experience of St George’s a peace and sense of values which will always be with him and which is reflected in the regular talks he has given for the BBC on the Thought for the Day programme. (Some of these are gathered together in a little book Thoughts for the Day.)

The search for deeper meaning which was prompted by his father’s death took a step forward when he felt he ought to apply the principles of the portfolio life to himself. So when his stint at Windsor ended he did not seek formal employment but decided to become a freelance, no longer imprisoned by organisational life, but ready to follow the path as it emerged. 

Living the portfolio life

There was considerable risk involved in going freelance. He was a successful author, though not all his works sold well, and now there would be no monthly cheque coming in. With the full support of his wife, the next phase of life’s adventure started for him and them.  We have already referred to some of his activities in the early part of his new life – with the Open University and “The Making of Managers”. But for the first few years there was also some anxiety about whether the income would be there to pay the bills. Activities like being the chair of the Royal Society of Arts would not have sufficed, though they were good for his image. (A thought he would not have welcomed, feeling uneasy about self promotion; his wife became his agent eventually and she had fewer inhibitions about ensuring that some of his value was recognised in a practical way.)

However, had he allowed the risks to dominate his thinking he would have been the poorer and so would all of us who have been influenced by his writings. But one is glad that he shares in this book the difficulties of ensuring a roof over their heads, ensuring that cash was coming in and taking care of the education of two teenage children. He did a lot of lecturing. Indeed it was in this period this author first met him at Ashridge and saw for ourselves the humility of a man whose fame was spreading. He discovered during this period that if you “care deeply about what you are doing, then nothing else matters too much”.

In time, he and his wife achieved a good measure of professional stability. How they have organised their portfolio lives makes fascinating reading. He undertook world lecture tours on which she joined him, and they rationed them to enable them to gain pleasure and experience from them, which was of greater value to life than accepting all the offers he received and the money that would have gone with them. They also planned how many days they would work on their two professions and on how many they could enjoy their freedom, with an allocation for voluntary work. They worked separately, yet with a deep interest in what the other was doing. He also became an accomplished cook. 

Their experiences of living within their means, particularly in the early days of the freelance phase, also caused him to reflect upon how the consumer society is not satisfied with enough, but is always seeking more and more. It is said that the goods on offer add to your power of choice. But what is the value of such a bewildering range of choices in the absence of a criterion of choice? They simply add stress. Handy refers to Adam Smith’s view that while economic growth was obviously a good thing, making life easier for everyone, too much of it for too long would result in a surfeit of unnecessary things. But Handy, as a social philosopher, also asks whether we have the right to determine for others what is necessary and what merely clutters up the streets with discarded packaging. He also recognises that all these luxuries create work for others. So he gets us questioning rather than providing unambiguous answers. 

Thoughts on capitalism

His experiences linked with his social philosopher role led him into some thoughts on capitalism (more fully dealt with in his book The Hungry Spirit). At one stage by a variety of circumstances he and his wife found themselves the owners of three homes, which made him feel guilty. He felt that the business culture may have become distorted. He evinces reservations about the American culture “that argued that the market was king, that the shareholder always had priority, that business was the key engine of progress, and that, as such, its needs should prevail in all policy decisions.” He considers that what is called for is to retain the energy of capitalism without its flaws.

Shareholders tend not to be owners in the sense of taking a pride in their property; more often they are just investors or even punters. They are there for the money. But if money is the purpose of business activity, it is like living to eat instead of eating to live. “The purpose of a business is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit in order to enable it to do something more or better. What that something is, becomes the real justification for the existence of the business.” He quotes a speech by the head of a large MNC, stressing that all the stakeholders benefit from a profitable business. Handy agrees, so long as the benefits are fairly balanced. 

In his concluding remarks Handy looks back over his life experiences and asks questions such as why do we need such big organisations when most of us don’t relish working in them. While he approves of the open market, carefully regulated, as a means of making the world a better place, he regrets that the phrase about making the world a better place is often missing from the capitalist narrative. Capitalism too often takes selfishness to be its driving force, where dog eats dog. Yet he believes that there is an altruistic gene in most of us. Why then when reporting their yearly results do companies tend to report the results just for themselves, rather than including the results for the customers or the world at large? 

We can let him sum up his social philosophy:

"I believe that organisations are, in a broad sense, the servants of society. They exist to provide us with the things and services we need or want. We rely on them to do so efficiently and effectively. Ideally, their interests and ours should coincide, but they will prosper most if they define their purpose as something bigger than themselves".