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Academic Insight: Charles Handy on leadership, work and well-being


Charles Handy, an author and philosopher who specialises in organisational behaviour and management, is described as a storyteller.

Over the years, he has written a number of books that contain rich tales and showcase his ideas on the meaning of life, business and purpose.
Here, he opens up the floodgates and asks each of us to share our own insights and how are we, as a collective group of people and business leaders, going to address the challenges that modern day society is throwing at us.
Charles Handy quotes: “It’s like the Irishman Frances Crick once said: ‘How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?’”
1. The future of capitalism
Charles talks about capitalism and democracy as bedfellows. “It’s not for us to destroy capitalism or to put iron bands around it to constrain it because this defeats freedom from which capitalism thrives. We have a duty to make sure capitalism works for the benefit for all but it isn’t working right now”, he argues.
“Society is only held together if we have sympathy and empathy and a mixture of self-interest and altruism. We mustn’t let self-interest drown out altruism. Much like animals who hunt for food but nurture and protect their young,” Charles adds.
He gives a potted history of how capitalism arose and cites Adam Smith who first coined the phrase ‘Invisible Hand of the Market’. His concept? If you pursue your own self-interest, it works to the benefit of all people. In the 18th century, the environment was different and in his day there existed a marketplace of traders.
However, with the legalisation of shares and then stocks, Charles believes this is where a fundamental shift occurred between companies making profit and furthering society as a whole and fuelling capitalism for the benefit of shareholders.
CEOs were encouraged to think like shareholders themselves and every action they took was to be in the interest of rewarding the shareholders. In the 1960s, no one talked about shareholders or about bonuses. Then came the bonus culture which distorted the whole managerial behaviour.
Redeeming capitalism
“It’s an extraordinary result in the history of capitalism,” comments Charles. “Nowadays, Europe is dominated by the invisible glass towers of corporations. The buildings are made of glass but you can’t see them.”
He continues: “The glass tower corporations are accountable to shareholders and to managers of pension funds who live in other glass towers, unknown to the people outside. And that’s very dangerous for capitalism and democracy if the glass towers are invisible and turned in among themselves and not concerned with community.
“So what’s the new capitalism about? We need new entrepreneurs, people who start things out of nothing, like Richard Branson. An average person who has created thousands of jobs. In the UK we haven’t produced a Google, Apple, or Amazon.
“People are rewarded for their contribution to finance and seen as more important than the people who contribute on the inside of the business, the ones who are actually creating the wealth. It seems odd. We need more places like John Lewis or maybe we need to go back to the glass towers and change the way they think and reinvent what they think they are about.”
Charles argues that today’s corporations are all focused on targets and companies have lost the human connection – connection to their own people by putting them under pressure to deliver goals, and in doing so people lose their spirit and love of carrying out their own work.
He asks us to ponder on this question: “If you had sole charge of your organisation, what would you do to redeem capitalism?”
2. The changing workplace and workforce
Charles talks about the concept of the flea and the elephant. Fleas are independent workers but need to ride on the backs of elephants to be able to earn their living (clients who pay for your services or products). He notes that 27% of the workforce are fleas. The difference is fleas get measured much more and are paid by results.
He says: “Why should you sell your ideas to an organisation? I think they are getting you on the cheap. More and more people are taking themselves out of organisations and selling themselves back into different organisations. People want to be independent, and to be fleas.
“Could you leave your organisation? Would you dare to do that? It means life is more uncertain – similar to the life of an actor who gains short-term projects with no guarantee of the next one. However you are free. More and more people are thinking like that.”
Reinvent your life: my recipe for your future
Portfolio life
“If you groan about your job or find it has become monotonous and boring, you need to ask yourself – what do you secretly want to do? Do it. You can have a breakpoint and reinvent yourself. Sensible people reinvent themselves every 10 years.
“You can have a mixed portfolio of paid work, gift work or voluntary work, study work, where you continue to learn, and then homework, running the home.”
“We need more of an acorn economy. We ignore acorns. Businesses that consist of less than four people. These Acorn businesses only contribute 4% of national GDP so the government ignores them. The people who earn money by carrying out a trade.
“Yet the people who run these businesses provide apprenticeships and train acorns. We could learn from them. If every company took on apprentices, it would solve some of the unemployment issues. Some acorns may even go on to become oak trees.”
School system
“We have a funny school system where pupils are judged on their mathematical and analytical intelligence, not interpersonal, creative or emotional intelligence. I believe everyone is intelligent in one way but there are many people who never find out what their talents are because schools put them into a narrow channel.
“Curriculum constrains a lot of children. So it’s up to parents, teachers and managers to plant golden seeds.”
Golden seeds
“The greatest gift you can give anyone is to water a golden seed; help identify in someone what they are good at, plant that in them and cultivate their talents so the golden seed will grow and flourish, then go on succeed.”
Waking giant – social innovators
“Whatever you’re going to be doing, you will be working. Money helps you put your toe in the water. I encourage leaders of organisations not to work your people so hard but to allow them to be able to dip their toes in other waters.
“If you don’t have your own portfolios, then create one. Practice reinvention as you go along. I wonder about people who are trapped. I urge you to dabble in the flea world.”
3. Leadership: What does it really mean?
Charles states: “Quite ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” He refers to the concept of the doughnut and talks about the space beyond the core. He says you can always do more to stretch yourself and keep learning but leaders have a duty to encourage their people to give them the space to do this.
He explains: “Enlightened organisations help their people to move out of the core of the doughnut and into the empty space. This is leadership. Leaders need to trust their people and imbue their people with the spirit, values and purposes of the organisation.
“Leadership in an organisation is about inspiring people, and letting their people know where it’s going and what it believes in.”
He asks the audience to discuss and tell someone else: “What are you most proud of?” Quite often we do not stop to think and celebrate our successes, but by doing this, allows us to build up self-awareness, self-belief and self-confidence that we can go on to take up greater challenges and take ourselves out of our comfort zone.
The Sigmoid Curve
Charles introduces the Sigmoid Curve which is representative of a business cycle. The life cycle of a business typically starts off with low growth moving into steady growth, wealth and success, and then the curve dips showing decline.
It’s at the point of the curve when it reaches its pinnacle of success that a second incarnation or reinvention is needed. He cites Steve Jobs and Apple as an example.
“Can you imagine, Macintosh was doing well, and then Steve Jobs joins Apple and says: ‘We’re now going into the music business. Now we’re moving into the telephone business’. Now, he’s got a new product in a new industry and then says we’re next going to start up our own shops and Apple stores.
“Can you imagine what any board would think if they don’t understand technology. ‘What on earth are you thinking about? You’re absolutely crazy’. Very quickly Apple stores became iconic and it was an extraordinary thing to do.
“Steve Jobs by all accounts was impossible. Why is he interesting? He was a lousy manager. He was insulting and dismissed people on the spot. However, he was the master of the Sigmoid Curve. He had imagination and created products that no one knew they even wanted until he created them.
“He only wanted to work with ‘A class people’ and he imprinted the values of the organisation on everyone else. Employees would tolerate him and everything that he stood for as they believed in what he was doing and felt they were working for something very special.
“Steve Jobs wanted to create a legacy and that means leaving something behind that lives beyond you. Where’s your organisation or career on that curve? We’re on that curve sooner than we think and it will ultimately turn down. It’s a highly depressing thought if you’re already past the peak, but there is hope.
“There’s always a second curve or a third curve but it has to start before the second curve first or second curve dips. You need to start reinventing, either within your organisation or life just at the point when all is going well.”

4. Happiness: Can it be a goal for life?

“One of the words Thomas Jefferson, who was a Latin scholar and studied Aristotle, was keen on was the word ‘Eudaimonia’, translated as happiness or sometimes translated as wellbeing. It’s the only thing in life pursued in its own end. To become successful in the hope it brings you happiness.
“What did Aristotle mean? He meant fulfilment, but I translate it as doing the best with what your best at. This is when you totally feel fulfilled. Philosophers never really provide an answer. What’s the definition of a good life? My life in many ways is in search of the pursuit of happiness. It’s why you must continuously experiment.
“When you have done, you are not done. The search for fulfilment is an endless journey until you die because you constantly have to move up a notch or two. It’s a search for what you’re best at. Who do you think you are? We are all acting out one or more aspects of our lives. What’s the most critical part of us?
“You have at least three roles. Which part of you is on the road to happiness? Stories are triggered by pictures. If you can work out what enough is in terms of money or success, you can get a lot of personal satisfaction.”
So how is Charles Handy’s pursuing his own happiness? On his desk he keeps a white stone.
“In the ‘Book of Revelations’, a particular verse struck me. ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth, saving he that receiveth it.’ Revelation 2:17.”
“If I live up to my potential, I will earn my name on a white stone. I keep a white stone on my desk as my symbol, in my search for happiness. Before I die I want to have my name written on a white stone.”

This article was written and first published by Natalie Cooper, editor of our partner, online jobs board, Changeboard.

2 Responses

  1. Handy thoughts

    Charles is indeed a great guy – I met him most recently in St Barnabas in Soho.

    Beatiful thoughts, concisely expressed.

  2. Charles Handy on Leadership. work and well-being

    I really love this article and absolutely believe it. I have tried, mostly successfully, to live my life and my career by many of the principles discussed in this article and so everything Charles Handy says resonated with what I have been trying to do in my life for the past 12 years.

    Thank you for sharing it.


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