Books: Business with a human face

Tom Peters, no mean guru himself, salutes his mentor, a writer and speaker who preaches humanity as central to management and who practises what he preaches.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Confining this review to just a few hundred words has been painful. I want to reach out from the page, grab you by the collar and read you one quote after another. I want to convey my feelings for the amazing life Charles Handy has led and the contributions he has made - wildly different from arch-guru Peter Drucker's but perhaps as important and far more appealing. But another part of me wants to run from the book and head for the hills. The decency, dignity, care and concern with which Charles (and his equally amazing wife, Elizabeth) has lived has led me to deep reflection.

Handy invites us to join him on a journey at once pedestrian and profound. He argues that organisations are about the lives of ordinary people living in a community - with purposes from the grand to the commonplace. Thus his own real-life experiences are the wellspring for his work. True, there was an initial boost from life in a rural parsonage and close study of the Classics. Then came a stint, as a raw youth, with Shell in Borneo. Plus life in a business school, England's first by most measures. Add to the mix a full term of duty as Warden of St George's House in Windsor Castle and an unexpected but successful career as a purveyor of Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

Let's pause for a beat at Windsor Castle. We find Handy at a loose end following his father's death and determined to re-invent. He is pleasantly surprised with the St George's House offer and not displeased that the remuneration of £3,500 per month more or less matches his professorial salary. Well, the stipend turns out to be £3,500 per annum, its true value obscured by a smudge. With Elizabeth urging him on, despite a gaggle of children, he takes the post and experiences one of his many partially planned re-pottings.

Handy claims that his true work is his books; his speaking, which took off in the early 1980s, is secondary. For me, it's the reverse. Hence, my secret at last revealed: I prowl the books I read in search of pithy quotes. A typical treasure from Myself and Other More Important Matters finds Handy declaiming on the curious absence of plain talk in business. 'One bank is currently claiming to "leverage its global footprint to provide effective financial solutions by providing a gateway to diverse markets". I assume it is just saying it is there to help customers wherever they are.'

Handy rails against such gobbledygook and says he'd be pleased to be awarded the accolade once given to Drucker as a practitioner of 'the scholarship of commonsense'. Indeed.

Handy bridles at the ubiquitous effort in management circles to treat organisations as machines and workers as interchangeable bits therein. Consider the following: 'Organisations ... are living communities of individuals. To describe them, we need to use the language of communities and the language of individuals. That means a mix of words we use in politics and in everyday life. The essential task of leadership is to combine the aspirations and needs of individuals with the purposes of the larger community to which they all belong.'

Thanks to Myself and Other More Important Matters, my vocabulary now contains the word eudaimonia: 'To Aristotle, eudaimonia was what the good life was all about. The complex Greek word is usually translated as "happiness", but Aristotle means something else. Happiness is not a state but an activity. Eudaimonia is better translated as "flourishing", or doing your best with what you are best at.'

I have meandered. But the book meanders, as Handy takes us on his winding path to growth of many varieties. The theme of 'management' is never far. Drucker, a polymath like Handy, also went from classical training to concern with management. Both saw it as a great issue, on which nations as well as enterprises rise and fall.

That said, I find Handy's view of management rests on a far more humanistic base than Drucker's. I came to Handy via his great friend, the humanist and leadership scholar Warren Bennis. My professional life would be far more narrow were it not for their influence.

My every speech or piece of writing is deeply informed by the work and lives of Handy and Bennis. I repeatedly ask myself: 'Will this pass the Bennis-Handy test of humanism, grace and thoughtfulness?' If the answer is 'no', I revise - or even scrap - the endeavour.

Handy's way of living in the world, perhaps more than his scholarship, is the topic of this magnificent book. I can only beg that it be savoured. This is no page-turner, but it could well be a life-turner.

Myself and Other More Important Matters; Charles Handy; William Heinemann; £18.99, MT price £15.99; To order, visit Tom Peters is the author of Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, co-author of In Search of Excellence and a professional speaker for the Washington Speakers Bureau.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Has the cult of workplace wellbeing run its course?

Forget mindfulness apps and fresh fruit Fridays. If we really care about employee wellbeing, we...

Cybercriminals: A case study for decentralised organisations?

A study shows that stereotypes of organised criminals are wide of the mark.

Why your turnaround is failing

Be careful where you look for advice.

Crash course: How to find hidden talent

The best person for the role might be closer than you think.

What they don't tell you about flexible working

The realities of ditching the nine to five don't always live up to the hype....

The business case for compassion: Nando's, Cisco and Innocent Drinks

Consciously, systematically humane cultures reap enormous benefits, argues academic Amy Bradley.