UK: Books - The glittering upstarts - Charles Handy, writes John Kay, has pulled off some alchemy of his own ...

UK: Books - The glittering upstarts - Charles Handy, writes John Kay, has pulled off some alchemy of his own ... - Books - The glittering upstarts - Charles Handy, writes John Kay, has pulled off some alchemy of his own in this coffee-table business book

by JOHN KAY, founding partner at London Economics.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Books - The glittering upstarts - Charles Handy, writes John Kay, has pulled off some alchemy of his own in this coffee-table business book about 29 UK entrepreneurs.

The New Alchemists

Charles Handy



Charles Handy brings originality and lightness to everything he touches. His latest book, The New Alchemists, offers portraits of 29 Londoners, each original and creative people loosely associated with business. Some of his names feature inevitably on every list of colourful British entrepreneurs - Richard Branson, Terence Conran and Tim Waterstone. But Handy also provides a selection of less well-known names, among them William Atkinson, head of a Hammersmith school, and Mapi Lucchesi, proprietor of a translation business.

The portraits are literal as well as metaphorical: all the individuals are photographed in their characteristic surroundings by Handy's wife, Elizabeth. Anyone interested in business or in people will enjoy this volume.

But MT readers must seek a more earnest purpose. What are alchemists?

What is an entrepreneur? How can we be more entrepreneurial? What should we do, as individuals or as society, to make alchemy flourish?

As Handy acknowledges, alchemy is a term designed to catch the eye. As a description of entrepreneurship it is poor.

Alchemists were frauds solely motivated by money. The people Handy describes are neither frauds nor money-grabbers. They may often live in rather nice houses but they mostly see that as the consequence, not the purpose, of their success.

So what makes an alchemist, or, more prosaically, an entrepreneur? Few generalisations can be made about Handy's 29 individuals. Some of them came from deprived backgrounds, some from privileged ones. Some excelled academically, some did not. Some succeeded first time, some did not.

The characteristics Handy singles out are dedication, doggedness and difference. But this takes us little further. Dedication and doggedness may be needed, but not too much: obstinacy and obsession are no more virtues in business than anywhere else. And then there must be a difference between alchemists and others. Handy is right to talk of the formation, rather than the creation or education, of entrepreneurs. But this is simply a reiteration that no single factor, whether in background or in career, is enough. Business genius is necessarily individual.

Formation is one of the two factors Handy cites as promoting entrepreneurship, the second - Zeitgeist - is more interesting. He argues that there are places and periods when entrepreneurship is 'in the air', and that London in the 1990s is possibly one such. The notion that entrepreneurship is infectious has plausibility.

Entrepreneurs tend to support each other, morally and materially.

So what creates an entrepreneurial Zeitgeist? The answer is a form of disciplined pluralism. Structures, in organisation and in society, that allow the expression of dissident views give people the freedom to act on them, and yet avoid anarchy by reining them in when the results are unsuccessful. Disciplined pluralism is a tricky balance to maintain. Always under threat from the autocratic business or political leader who sees the one true way ahead. Or equally from too much democracy, where any action must be preceded by consensus.

Entrepreneurial is today a word like peace-loving or democratic: claimed even by those whose behaviour shows diametrically opposite characteristics.

So it is well to note Handy's reminder - borne out by many of his examples - that different skills are needed in establishing new ventures than in running established organisations. There is only one corporate bureaucrat in Handy's list - Bob Ayling - and he is there for his contribution to BA's imaginative headquarters, not for his stewardship of the airline.

But pin above your desk the maxim for all entrepreneurs, which Handy attributes to the actress Lesley Joseph: 'Believe in fate. But lean forward so that fate can see you.'.

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