Charles Handy: Management Philosopher (Part 1)

In my research for this article, I found an unreferenced remark, suggesting that it was The Economist magazine that coined the term ‘management guru’, and that they first used it as a description of Charles Handy. Handy rejects the label – and so he should. It almost belittles the breadth of his thinking. From organisational theory, to management trends, to social polemic; Handy’s thinking goes well beyond easy categorisation.

Charles Handy

Short Biography of Charles Handy

Charles Handy was born in a small town a few miles outside of Dublin, in Ireland, in 1932. He was educated in an English public school, and at Oxford University, where he gained his MA in ‘Greats’ – classical history and philosophy. He went from there to work for Shell, taking a number of operational roles around the world, where he had great autonomy as a young manager. Returning to London, he found headquarters life didn’t suit him. What did, however, was a transfer to the staff college, where he found teaching much more to his liking than corporate administration.

MIT Sloan School

Having taught himself the basics of economics earlier on, so he could take up a role at Shell, he moved briefly to Anglo American as an economist, before travelling to MIT to study at the Sloan School of Management. here he met and studied among some of the greats of US management theory: Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein, who supervised his studies. He was greatly influenced by them all, and also by the work of Douglas McGregor, who had also worked there and died a little before Handy arrived in 1965.

He returned to London to set up the Sloan Program at the newly founded London Business School, where he became a professor in 1972. It was there that he wrote his first book, Understanding Organizations, which has remained in print pretty much ever since 1976, with new editions updating it for modern readers. It is still a first rate introductory text, of which Handy says that he wrote it to get to grips with the ideas in it. He also (famously) recommends that once you have read it, you should re-write your own version and burn the original. In part, Pocketblog is my attempt at re-writing his book, though I never plan to dispose of my trusty 1993 fourth edition!

Handy finds his Voice

Whilst Understanding Organizations is very much a compendium and synthesis, Handy’s next book introduced his own ideas. 1978 saw the publication of The Gods of Management. We’ll take a look at the ideas in this book in part 2 of this blog.

In 1977, Handy left academia, in search of a somewhat more spiritually rewarding role. He found it in an organization set up by Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Church of England. St George’s House is an institution that encourages business and political leaders to come together, along with faith leaders, to consider contemporary and societal issues. His post as Warden allowed Handy to marry his philosophical and commercial instincts.

Portfolio Career

However, in 1981, Handy left, to pursue a new direction in his working life. This was a direction signposted in one of his most important books, 1984’s The Future of Work. In it, he signposted the development of portfolio careers, and the downshift from high-powered corporate jobs (the rack he had been on at Shell) to lesser-paid, but more congenial lifestyle careers. He embraced this downshift through the 1980s and started his own portfolio career that has served him to this day.

Handy further developed the ideas from The Future of Work in 1989’s The Age of Unreason. This book is full of ideas that we will explore further in part 2 of this blog. At its heart is Handy’s rejection of people as human ‘resources’. In modern organizations, we will want to assert our individuality.

A Stream of Ideas

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly prolific time for Handy. He contributed to Making Managers, which sparked a new focus on management as a professional discipline, rather than a simple set of tasks, and led to the growth in the UK of management qualifications, and wrote Understanding Voluntary Organizations. In 1991, he presented a BBC TV series called Inside Organisations, and published a book by the same name, which set out 21 management concepts or ideas. Handy chaired the RSA from 1988-89.

His more philosophical leanings emerged from 1994, when he wrote one of his biggest selling books, The Empty Raincoat, about the emptiness at the heart of global economic growth. In the US, it was called The Age of Paradox. This book may be the most prescient among many of his works that seem that way.

Handy has barely let up with a stream of new books with new and interesting ideas:

A Summing Up

Without a doubt, Handy is a prodigious thinker. He has done and written so much, that we have to consider him one of the few of our Management Thinkers and Doers for whom a single article is not possible. Like another great, Peter Drucker, Handy is one of our foremost commentators on the nature of organisations. And like Drucker, his ideas have ranged well beyond that field. In Part 2 of this article, we will focus entirely on some of Handy’s biggest and most important management ideas.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s