Charles Handy: We’ve been seduced by the curse of efficiency

In an exclusive interview, the management sage explains why good managers can be hopeless leaders, and predicts the "disintegration of everything we’re used to".

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2020

Charles Handy admits he hasn’t held many commanding positions, except for a 10-year stint as a Shell executive and what he rather modestly describes as “once” running the executive MBA programme – the first of its kind in Europe – at London Business School. 

While he might consider his experience of corporate management to be sparse, his influence on the way we think about it has been huge. 

Over the past five decades, Handy’s philosophical – at times polemic – management books have anticipated the dominance of telecoms, the rise of portfolio careers and called for ownership models that ditch shareholders in favour of more community-centric models. Handy, now in his late eighties, talks to Management Today about what management feels like, the next workplace trend and why leaders would benefit from doing a drama course. 

You have anticipated several workplace trends. What’s the next one?

The disintegration of everything we’re used to. Our institutions have lost their grip on the things they’re meant to be controlling. It used to be that an organisation controlled everything in its sphere of operation. When I joined Shell in the 1960s, the company’s emblem was on everything – even the plumbers worked for Shell. That was incredibly expensive, of course, so they gradually disentangled the organisation and contracted everything out. 

We now have these huge, flexi-organisations that are difficult to hold together because nobody knows who does what. We’re struggling to work in a world beyond management. 

Is there still a place for management?

In this disentangled world, people try to talk about agile management as a solution but management is the wrong word. It only makes sense when it is applied to things; you can manage a communication system, you can manage resources, but you can’t manage people. 

Management is about making sure that people have the right ammunition to fire the Kalashnikov; leadership is about making sure they use it for the right purposes and don’t shoot their team. 

Do organisations get that right?

Recovering from my stroke [last year] has given me a new perspective on what it feels like to be managed. I have had long arguments with nurses who try to treat me as this sort of robotic creature, telling me when I can eat, take my pills or go to the loo. They’ve been seduced by the curse of efficiency. The idea that if things are more efficient, they’ve succeeded. That’s a necessary condition of any organisation but if you think it’s your purpose, you’ve made a catastrophic mistake. 

How do you know if you’re managing instead of leading?

Leadership has been endlessly studied but I don’t think it is at all well understood. It is a feeling, there’s an essence to the room and you can feel its vibrating energy. Walk into a primary school on a cold winter’s day and it’s buzzing with enthusiasm and curiosity. It’s an interesting place to be and it starts at the top somehow. It’s hard to create and it’s hard to put your finger on. 

When I worked at the Shell head office in the 1960s, we used to finish at 5.20pm. By 5.15pm the lifts were full. People couldn’t wait to get out of that bloody prison. I always thought it was extraordinary that one should hate work so much that one just wants to get out of it. 

Leadership is getting the most out of people. Giving them the room to move but not so much that they go bonkers. Treating them as people in the sense that you realise they have wills, needs and aspirations of their own. 

Can leadership be learned? 

You see time and again examples of people who are great managers but hopeless leaders. Sometimes a person can do both but, in an ideal world, you need two people; one to do this sort of rhetorical stuff and one to do the committee work. Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee during the Second World War were an example of this. Churchill was the orator while Atlee ran the committees behind the scenes. 

Great leaders tell great stories that may or may not be true. It gives them an easy way of trying  to show what they think is important in life. It wouldn’t do a leader any harm to attend a drama course – it’s a wonderful way of developing character because you have to stand in other people’s shoes every day. 

What is the biggest challenge facing businesses today? 

Legitimacy. Establishing in the public mind that they’re doing a good job and that the reason they exist is not just to make money. You can’t survive long term if you don’t make a profit but turning that into your purpose is absolutely crazy. Forget about all of this PR stuff; writing grand visions and mission statements in your annual report doesn’t inspire anyone. 

The first duty of any business is to do its job. 

Handy's latest book 21 Letters On Life and Its Challenges by Charles Handy is available now, published by Windmill, in paperback, audio and e-book

Image copyright: Elizabeth Handy


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