UK: HANDY'S VIEW - A COLUMNIST'S POINT OF DEPARTURE. - Charles Handy introduces his monthly column with examples of literature and art guaranteed to enlarge a manager's understanding of organisations and people.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy introduces his monthly column with examples of literature and art guaranteed to enlarge a manager's understanding of organisations and people.

When I sat down to write my first book - a textbook on organisations and management - I collected up some 50 big books on the topic, mostly American because this was 24 years ago, and set off for a farmhouse in Provence loaned to us by a friend. My 50 books were big but also boring and did not, I found, add much to my understanding of organisations or their people.

Fortunately, the house where we were staying had a large library, and the owner had obviously been fascinated by the Russian novelists. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, I soon discovered, had more to say about the human condition, and the ways of organisations of all types, than most of the academics.

Ever since then I have been a touch sceptical of those books on business or management which offer simplistic rules for success.

But managers do need to think, and books - novels, histories, biographies are a great aid to that thinking. So also are plays, films, and art of all sorts, because good books and art help us to see the world from a different angle. They lift us out of our preoccupation with the immediate and focus our gaze on some of the other important aspects of life and society. Some things, also, are too close for us to see until we draw back a pace. Often, the more senior we get, the more we need these reminders.

In this column I shall be commenting, each month, on a recent book, film, exhibition or other event, which might merit our attention because of the issues it raises for those with management responsibilities. Sometimes, though not often, they will be straight forward business books if these have some enduring message for people who have to run organisations in these turbulent times.

Often, however, those enduring messages come from less expected sources.

I offer, as a tasting, five suggestions, any one of which is guaranteed to make one think hard about the deeper issues which underlie any organisation in which people are the key to its success.

1. A Classic. Penguin is re-issuing the first of the original Penguin Classics, The Odyssey. When it first appeared it sold three million copies (management writers please note).

It is the story of one man's long journey home, of leadership and teamcraft, of fortitude and folly, of learning by test and trial, of the power of firm purpose and the trust of those you love.

Every organisation is embarked upon an odyssey of its own, with all the same challenges (as is every individual) but we could with profit look back to the man who gave it its name. And besides, some of the words are wonderful.

2. A Biography. Apart from the thrill of voyeurism, the lives of others offer us the chance to ponder how we would have fared in their place, and to learn from their example. Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Few men can have been so widely admired in their own lifetime. We could, with profit, work out why that is so, and learn from it, even if we cannot hope to emulate the man himself. It is, for me, his combination of personal humility and utter conviction in the rightness of his vision that is so compelling.

3. A Painting. If you have been well organised enough, or well travelled enough, to have seen the Vermeer Exhibition in Washington, or now in the Hague, you are fortunate indeed, for this is one of those things that will probably never happen again. If you missed it, well, there will still be 35 Vermeers distributed around the world and any one of them will do. Small, and at first glance undistinguished, these paintings reveal the extraordinary beauty that there is to be found in ordinary things and ordinary people, if you know how to look for it. That everyone is special in some way is one message I take from Vermeer, and that quality, not grandeur, is what counts, and lasts.

4. A Management Book. If you want a book about management then go hunt out the writings of Mary Parker Follett who said it all, and said it simply, more than 70 years ago. Forgotten by most these days, she gave the first lectures to inaugurate the Department of Business Administration at the London School of Economics in 1933, just before she died. Peter Drucker called her 'the prophet of management' and, indeed, many of her ideas were at least 70 years ahead of their time. She was, for instance, the first 'systems thinker' and the first to forecast the 'disappearing middle' in organisations. Harvard Business School Press has recently brought out a collection of her papers.

5 A Novel. Try the latest from America, Primary Colors by Anonymous. Great fun to read and brilliantly written, it is, on the face of it, a lightly fictionalised account of Bill Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992. Look deeper, however, and it is a tale of one man's journey through a complicated mix of idealism, ambition and human weakness. It is a story of mistakes and how to learn from them, of the need for friends and the frailty of some of them, of leadership and the different motives that drive different people. Which is where we came in. Primary Colors is a speeded up American Odyssey. Perhaps nothing important in life really changes, but we must each live it out in our own way in our own place.

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