Familiar ideas in a new light

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh finds much to admire in the life story of working lives expert Charles Handy

Myself and Other More Important Matters. By Charles Handy. William Heinemann. pound;18.99

Ten years into headship, I went to an educational conference in York. It was a dismal affair and on the way back I detoured to sit and think in the cool of Lincoln Cathedral. Within a week or so I had taken the decision to leave my job. I knew I could put a package of freelance work together: a portfolio.

Charles Handy, writer and teacher on management and organisations, coined the term "portfolio career" in the Seventies. Then it was a new concept; now it's widespread. It's that ability to see what's coming that is characteristic of Handy. He also has the skills to set his ideas in context, pin down the practicalities, and describe the process in lucid prose.

A number of themes run through all Handy's work. One is that through the dramatic changes brought by technology, we cannot allow ourselves to lose the values that define our humanity. The "portfolio career" is another: a flexible package of part-time, self-employed work, building on skills and interests. There are those who dismiss management experts - "gurus" - as purveyors of what Basil Fawlty famously described as "the bleeding obvious". Indeed, Handy reminds us in this book that one of the first of the breed, Peter Drucker, said himself: "Journalists only came up with the word (guru) because 'charlatan' was too long for a headline." Most of them would presumably deny the charge. It's typical for Handy, though, that he holds up his hand to it. "If I am strictly honest," he writes here, "few of my ideas are that original. It is the words I use that make the difference."

That he relishes this analysis is clear from the way he so readily quotes (here, and in at least one earlier book) a 1976 review that stated: "There is nothing in this book that has not been said before. But it has probably never been read before." To admit to a career as a repackager of ideas is bold, and you'd only do it if you were confident that you were able to bring clarity to areas of life and work that most of us find confused and contradictory.

Can Handy really do that? There are seven honorary doctorates that say he can, and a list of bestsellers including The Empty Raincoat ("It seems to me that we're all becoming empty raincoats, shadows, silhouettes of ourselves"), Beyond Certainty ("Asking for help must be seen as a sign of responsibility, not a symptom of weakness"), and The Elephant and the Flea ("I suspect the Harry Potter books and text messages on mobile phones have done more to encourage the young to read than any number of literacy hours").

Any sort of achievement, the old cliche says, is the result of some combination of perspiration and inspiration. Handy's secret - it's a pretty open one - is that his books feed on both ingredients. That's to say his writing is both spiritual (though never religious) and practical: he makes you want to do something about your life, and at the same time convinces that you can, and furnishes you with some good examples of how to go about it. The fact that he's been a regular on Radio 4's Thought for the Day is another pointer to his influence.

Now, in his autobiography, we have the most complete account yet of where the man and his ideas have come from. So much of it will strike home. How many readers, for example, will look back and feel that for at least some of the time, they were living a dishonest kind of life, pretending to qualities and feelings that weren't genuine?

"For many years I lived a sort of lie, trying to be... someone I was not - an extrovert beer drinker for a time in my youth, a tough oil executive until I was found out."

That honesty - a painful trait he has in abundance - has its roots in his childhood as son of a Protestant minister in Catholic Ireland. He briefly flirted with the ministry as a young man, but instead there was Oxford (a first in classics) and the start of a career with Shell in South East Asia, making some horrendous mistakes. From Shell he went to the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, returning in the late Sixties to run the London Business School. In his mid-forties, he left his secure professorship for a four-year appointment as warden of St George's House, attached to the Chapel of St George in Windsor Castle, on a stipend of Pounds 3,500 a year.

After that he "went portfolio", and after the early euphoria, reality set in. "Building a portfolio, I was about to discover, was harder in practice than in theory, particularly if it was one's first attempt."

Eventually, of course, it all came good, and it's clear that Handy is now living out everybody's dream of a golden autumn with his wife and business partner Elizabeth. It's a story that teachers should love. For one thing, Handy's views on education, in a chapter called "Kennels for Kids", may well be largely in accord with theirs. "Schools are increasingly focused on getting their students good grades in their examinations. As so often, targets and league tables distort the real aims of the activity."

There's real inspiration, too, in the way Handy encourages the idea of striking out, as he has done more than once, into something new. He draws a learning curve that swoops up and over, and writes, "The right time to think about developing a new life, to start a new job or a new interest, is when things are still going well."

That's excellent advice, alone worth the price of the book. Of course, Shakespeare said it a long time ago ("a tide taken at the flood" in Julius Caesar.) Like the man says, "If I am strictly honest, few of my ideas are that original."

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