How did they get there?;Career development;Interview;Charles Handy

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Charles Handy, 65, is still known to many as a management guru, but he now sees himself as a social philosopher. In the winter he spends his time writing, broadcasting and lecturing, supported by his photographer wife Elizabeth. In the summer he supports Elizabeth's work.

How did you get to where you are?

I come from a family of preachers and teachers and although my degree in classics and philosophy would have been a good qualification for teaching, it was the last thing I wanted to do.

So I ran away, became an oil executive with Shell and spent six years as a marketing executive in the Far East. It was the last days of the British Empire and I had enormous responsibilities. I made horrible mistakes but no one found out, and I believe you must allow people time to correct their mistakes.

On my return I was put in charge of the education of middle managers for four years. I learned more as a teacher than I ever did as a student. By chance the idea of the London Business School was being discussed and I was asked to set up part of the executive training there.

After three years as programme director, I decided to be a proper teacher and went away and wrote a book called Understanding Organisations. After that I became a conventional professor for five years, but when I fell asleep in my own lecture I decided I was no longer learning. I was also becoming disillusioned with business schools. I'd thought I could change the face of British industry, making it more humane and effective, but I was just boosting the salaries of young men and women.

I moved on to become warden of St George's House in Windsor Castle (a private conference and study centre concerned with ethics and values in society). My theory of education is based on "how do I know what I think until I hear what I say?" Forcing people to think out loud helps them articulate their beliefs. I decided a more effective way to influence people would be through writing and broadcasting. My major theme at Windsor had been the changing pattern of work. I had been arguing that it would be socially responsible to give up permanent jobs in your 50s, leaving room for younger colleagues, so I decided to practise what I preached.

For the past 15 years I have been a writer. I graduated from writing about organisations to writing about the world they inhabit and about education in particular. Little had been written about how to manage schools and I originally wrote books about this for the Schools Council. Schools should be seen as a workplace, and children as the workers, organised in small groups of about 10 with tasks that develop their competence and intelligence. Teachers would be consultants and advisers.

Would you have done anything differently given another chance?

Probably rushed through it a bit quicker. I didn't come into my own until I started being a writer and broadcaster.

What do you enjoy about your work?

When people say I've helped them think about their lives.

What's the most difficult thing you do?

Thought for the Day on Radio 4. You've got 2 minutes 45 seconds to say something with a philosophical and moral message that is interesting and sounds as if you've just thought of it.

Who or what inspired you or influenced your approach?

Sam Darby taught me classics at school. He had enormous belief in me, and because of him I got a scholarship to Oxford - unheard of in my school. You're lucky if you meet someone at that age who gives you that kind of confidence - it's what great teachers do.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology I met Professor Warren Bennis, whose writing and career I greatly admire. Another important influence is Dame Julian of Norwich, the 13th-century hermit. Her meditations are based on the belief that God is in everything good, and it follows that if you can make something good it will be holy.

Future plans?

I'm planning to move into a private arena. It's not right to impose yourself on other people in the last phase in life. I'm doing my next book, The New Alchemists, with my wife. It is about people who create something out of nothing. She'll do the photography and I'll do the text.

Professor Kate Myers is director of the Professional Development Unit, University of Keele.


7.45 Walk and plan day with my wifebusiness partner

8.30 Breakfast meeting with World Service interviewer

10.30 Work on book jacket word- ing for US edition of 'The Hungry Spirit'

12.30 Lunchinterview with The TES

3.30 Deal with correspondence

6.00 Finish work

7.00 Dinner at Tate Gallery

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