UK: HANDY'S VIEW - NO PLACE FOR THE PRIMA DONNA. - Charles Handy deplores the trend which encourages individualism and the maximisation of personal aims, with little regard to duties and responsibilities.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy deplores the trend which encourages individualism and the maximisation of personal aims, with little regard to duties and responsibilities.

My Oxford college was noted mainly, I used to say, for its ability to go back-wards faster than all the others. I was referring to its skill on the river, and that odd phenomenon, at which it excelled, of eight people going backwards as fast as they can without speaking to each other, steered by the one person who can't row - a typical example of an English team, I would joke. I stopped joking after an Olympic oarsman pointed out that it was the perfect example of a team, for how could they go backwards so fast without communicating unless they had great confidence in each other's skill, trusted everyone to do his best, knew what the goal was and were totally committed to achieving it whatever the inconveniences or personal sacrifices?

It was intriguing, therefore, to see the same message emerging from the film True Blue, which was filmed in the self-same college. The film would seem too corny to be true, except that it was true. After Oxford's defeat by Cambridge in the annual boat race, some star-studded American rowing champions are drafted in for the next year's race, as temporary students.

They try to take over the running of the boat and the preparations for the race, effectively mutiny, but are outfaced and dropped from the crew.

With only 25 days remaining the coach has to train up a fresh crew, but he builds a team and they win the race.

'Eagles don't flock' was one of Ross Perot's trademark phrases in the last two American presidential campaigns, arguing that only a gutsy individualism made a nation great. It's a theme hammered away at in the film, with the Americans and their supporters convinced that the eight best individuals will make the best team. It wouldn't matter that every one of those individuals was, if he were honest, doing it for his own sake and to boost his own career. In the end, however, as all managers know well, a good team is more than the sum of its individuals, and prima donnas can sometimes do more harm than good to the common cause.

Yet it is prima donnas that we seem to want these days. One effect of the rise of the professional in all aspects of business is that the best individuals now have access to a global marketplace. This gives the elite few a choice of rewards far in excess of those available to people who are almost but not quite as good. The very best lawyers, the cream of the traders, even the best managers, are now like sports stars, wanted everywhere, at any price. Asked how one member of a finance house could possibly be worth the £7 million bonus he was awarded this year, the chief executive explained that he had earned the firm £42 million in extra profits.

If his work had not been so highly rewarded, the argument went, that individual would have gone elsewhere in due course. What does loyalty mean when the stakes are so high?

Building a flock with these high-priced eagles around is not going to be easy, but in life, as in a boat, one star does not make a great crew. The complicated rearrangements of the order of rowing in the boat, which are made much of in the final part of True Blue, are a demonstration that individuals have to be prepared to sacrifice their preferences, and their pride, if the team is to win. For that to happen the cause has to matter a lot. Where that cause is missing or mundane, the temptation to maximise one's personal ambitions, or one's personal gain, is understandable and often irresistible.

Ross Perot is wrong. Untrammelled individualism corrupts a nation. It leads to an emphasis on rights, with no regard to duties or responsibilities. It breeds distrust and jealousy, and lots of lawyers.

The French political writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the individualism that he found in America in the last century, said that it 'at first only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run ... destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness'. If we can leave families when we feel like it, are free to ignore or insult our neighbours, treat organisations as stepping stones on a personal trip, only make friends who will be useful contacts and discarded when no longer needed, we will erode the 'social capital' which more and more people are recognising as the bedrock of a successful and prosperous society.

Bribery won't win the lasting loyalty, or the readiness to sacrifice, of the rich eagles. They can always get more elsewhere. 'All our best workers are volunteers,' says Microsoft, meaning that, being already millionaires several times over, there is no financial need for them to work. The excitement and the challenge of the work are what keep them there. We do not have to emulate either the rewards or the workaholism of Microsoft, but we are still entitled to ask: 'Would they work here if they didn't need to?' It is a question which even the old vocations of medicine and teaching are having to ask, as we all get more mercenary.

The eagles, too, have to ask themselves whether the prizes are really worth the loneliness of the high flyer. If your friends are only contacts, they can drop you in their turn, when you are no longer useful. To those who make no commitment, no commitment is on offer. A champion's life is often short, and trophies are in the end no substitute for a shared commitment to something beyond oneself.

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