Q&A with Charles Handy: Modern Day Alchemist

Self-proclaimed social philosopher describes the importance of fleas, career mistakes and bringing the poor into the marketplace

What does it mean to be a social philosopher?Philosophers seek to clarify the tricky problems of the world to help people find their own answers. Philosophers don’t, on the whole, have the answers because the questions are so particular to each situation and person. I apply this approach to the problems of organizations, careers and working lives, to education, religion and faith, marriage and, yes, death and the meaning of life. No answers, but, I hope, some clarification.

In your book, The Hungry Spirit, you ask individuals to step back from a primary focus on profits to better understand the role of work in their lives. You left your first job (with Shell Oil Company) to pursue this balance, and become what you term “a flea,” or an independent worker. Given the drive for success in our culture, is this balance a realistic goal for most workers? I often think that money is rightly called “compensation,” meaning that we make it our goal to compensate for the fact that we haven’t worked out what we really want to contribute in this life. Yes, you need “enough” money, but more than enough costs you a lot of freedom – of time, thought and action. The elephants (big businesses) need the fleas because they are often the most creative people, but they can be irreverent, troublesome and awkward.  Fleas need space – to do their thing, to experiment without too much interference, to be allowed to criticize and to argue. To be allowed to do this inside the elephant they must be excellent in their skills and committed to the goals of the organization. Many fleas aren’t, so they should leave or be pushed out to become independent free agents. The danger then is that the elephants lose their itch – and die.

Speaking of elephants, in the last few years we’ve witnessed a series of scandals and financial exploitation at the hands of corporate America (Enron, WorldCom, mutual funds, et al.). What conditions have led to these scandals?People just got greedy and forgot that morality and doing the right thing is bigger than the law, which can be a bit vague in corporate matters. It seemed for a while to be a victimless crime – while the market was booming, no one really lost – but when it turned down the receding tide left a lot of dirty stuff revealed. For a time big business made money its focus instead of its principal resource. In the end that was bad business. To work well a business needs to be trusted to be fair. Robbing your own till does not breed trust.

You made the 2002 Accenture list of the world’s top business intellectuals, but you were the only non-American in the top 20. What is the primary difference between the United States and European business models? What can American businesses learn from their European counterparts?I think that because the Europeans don’t publish their books in America you haven’t heard of our thinkers! In Europe, too, the real thinkers are the doers, the people who run their businesses but don’t talk about it much. No European company boss would publish his life theories (as Jack Welch did). As for the different business models – the European culture tries to blend social fairness with enterprise; America backs enterprise all the way. Some think that the balance is tipped too far to fairness in Europe, but the evidence is that in the long run, the last 30 years, Europe has grown faster than America (apart from your boom in the mid 1990s). Right now Europe probably needs to sacrifice a little of its fairness to compete with global competition. Britain hovers uncertainly between the two worlds of Europe and America.

During your address at the St. Thomas Stakeholders Dialogue you spoke about the need to “monetize the poor,” for American and European companies to offer products and services that are affordable to the most needy. At what point does an effort to bring the poor into the world of financial transactions and commerce become exploitation?I don’t think that selling things for a fair price is exploitation, nor is profit bad in itself as long as it is a fair return for effort and risk. The poor need to be included in the money economy if they are ever going to escape poverty. One way to do this is to use the women in the villages – it is usually women – to act as local retailers for low cost items such as mini sachets of detergent, as in India.

In your principles of a proper education, you claim that the “discovery of oneself is more important than the discovery of the world.” What have you discovered about yourself that has surprised you?It is easy to discover the world – you can look it up or go there. It is much more difficult to discover yourself. I spent so long trying to be someone I wasn’t and couldn’t be – a successful businessman, a great athlete, a social lion, etc. It was a great relief to come to terms with who I really was. My education treated me as a blank piece of paper onto which they tried to write a script. I think that is a mistake, even impertinent.

You have collaborated with your wife, Elizabeth, on these books and many other projects. In fact, she serves as your photographer, agent, manager, PR consultant and assistant. In return, you support her on many of her projects. How do you separate a disagreement about work from your personal lives?We find that disagreements about work are much easier to deal with because we both know that behind them there is a deep appreciation of the other person. We know each other so well because we share every aspect of our life. There can be no secrets, no unreal expectations, no lies. It keeps us honest and so, while there are often lots of arguments, they never become serious rows, in work or in the rest of life. I can recommend it as a way of living, but best probably in the second half of life when your individual identities have been formed. 

In The New Alchemists and Reinvented Lives – Women at 60, you offer portraits of individuals who have successfully pursued a life of variety and creativity. What draws you to people that turn ideas and ambition into reality?I believe that we each have a unique contribution to make to the world at some time in our existence on earth. The alchemists and the women in our books stand out as people who have taken charge of their lives in order to fulfill their private dreams; they act as models and inspiration to the rest of us. Life is not just about survival, or even enjoyment.

I’ve read that part of your inspiration for Reinvented Lives came from a favorite newspaper column, titled “My Worst Mistake,” where people write about bad decisions that they have made. What has been your worst mistake?My worst mistake was to join Shell Oil when I left university in the mistaken belief that I could be a successful executive. But like all mistakes you learn from them, and when I left the oil world to be a teacher I could draw on my own experiences and failures. Sometimes the best teachers are those who understand the problems and difficulties rather than the answers. These days I am glad that I had that experience because I could not have done it later in life. Make your big mistakes early is one message I give my children!

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