CHARLES HANDY Biography - Educators, philosophers & public speakers


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Charles Handy (b. 1932) was born in Ireland. He was brought up in the genteel             
penury of an Anglican parsonage in a still rural part of County Kildare. He               
pursued his education at Oriel College Oxford and then joined Royal Dutch Shell.           
The prospect of a posting to Liberia caused Handy to leave Shell in favour of             
the position of Professor of Business management in the newly-founded London               
Business School. In the mid ?70s he worked in Windsor Castle, before deciding to           
plough his own furrow in life as a writer, lecturer and consultant.                       
Handy coined the term ?portfolio worker? for someone who worked independently of           
an organisation and whose living was drawn from a number of differing elements,           
as in a share portfolio. This future looked many people in the face. The growth           
of small, individually run firms, especially in the UK has borne him out.                 
His first book Inside Organisations (1976) was an account of contemporary                 
business structure. Some critics said that he had put forward old and accepted             
ideas in a new way.                                                                       
It was only when Handy parachuted out from the world of secure employment that             
his talents as a writer on management (and much else) blossomed. In The Age of             
Unreason (1989) he proposed the Shamrock organisation as a business model. Many           
have tied the symbol to his Irish background. The shamrock has long been                   
powerful in the Anglican Church of Ireland because of its apocryphal use by St             
Patrick as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. For Handy the first of the three leaves           
represented the professional managers and administrators ? the organisational             
core. This leaf is shrinking in size. The second leaf contained the contractual           
fringe. Its contributors to the organisation were vital, but they were outsiders.         
In the third leaf were those including the portfolio workers, as well as                   
temporary workers and part-timers. They contributed much, but they could never             
be considered part of the organisation. Many didn?t want to be. They wanted jobs           
but not careers. They frequently worked for a number of disparate organisations.           
In Handy?s language they were like fleas feeding off elephants. The latter were           
the large organisations. This was an analogy he pursued in the autobiographical           
The Elephant and the Flea (2001).                                                         
When he writes about management he is never prescriptive. It is a fallacy to               
believe that there is one, correct style of management. In Gods of Management (1995)       
he isolates four different management styles or cultures. He draws an analogy             
between these and religious cults in ancient Greece. The partisans of Zeus he             
compares to those belonging to a ?club?-like organisation. The partisans of               
Apollo followed a rank culture, found in bureaucracies and large organisations.           
Followers of Athena believed in a task-based culture, often working in teams;             
while the Dionysians were bigger than any organisation to which they might                 
belong. They are typified by professionals like barristers. None were better               
than the others. They were simply better-suited to certain contexts. They could           
all achieve results. Their presence had to be respected. But they should never             
be forced on an organisation that had a different culture.                                 
Reading Charles Handy is like having conversation in a leafy vicarage on a                 
Sunday afternoon. Handy dominates the discussion but not in a domineering way.             
His contributions are peppered with opinionated and frequently amusing asides.             
His comments are made in a deferentially certain manner.                                   
Handy does not see himself as a management guru, but a social philosopher. He             
laments that blind greed still motivates too many. ?We have created a mercenary           
society. Getting richer and richer, and bigger and bigger has become a                     
substitute for not believing in what we are doing?.                                       
Handy?s writings and activities are far-flung. He has always had much to say (frequently   
critical) about education. His own education did not prepare him for ?life as a           
flea?. He believes that little has changed since. The flea existence looks many           
people in the face, but they have been given neither the emotional nor the                 
intellectual tools for it. People will have to craft their own futures. He helps           
those who try. He was involved in the development of the Open University?s MBA             
programme, insisting on the incorporation of practical, ?on-the-job? elements.             
He is a frequent broadcaster, this includes his accessible series for the BBC             
World Service ?The Handy Guide to the Gurus of Management?.