UK: Handy's View - Peel off the label to find a person.

UK: Handy's View - Peel off the label to find a person. - Charles Handy admires photographer August Sander but rails against the artist's labelling of his subjects by occupation, a description which masks other talents.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy admires photographer August Sander but rails against the artist's labelling of his subjects by occupation, a description which masks other talents.

Some say that August Sander is the best photographer there has ever been, and few would deny him a claim to greatness in his art. The reason is there for all to see in the exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His magnum opus was his project to portray the 'People of the 20th century'. Over 20 years, starting after the first world war, he set himself the task of compiling a comprehensive survey of contemporary German society.

Identified only by their professions or status - farm worker, lawyer, tramp, and sorted into categories such as 'elegant woman', 'small town dweller' or 'the persecuted', his subjects look straight into the eye of the camera. There is no artifice or clever lighting, only the stark humanity of the individuals. As a social documentary of the Germany of that time, it is fascinating, but it ends up being much more than that; Sander's camera somehow manages to make contact with the souls of his subjects without infringing their dignity.

The Nazis confiscated his work in 1934. They were furious because his portraits did not conform to their image of the ideal society. Looking at his work today, although admiring it as a work of great art, I have a very different complaint. I have a hatred of stereotyping, which is what Sander's categories do to his people. None of his subjects have names. Knowing nothing else about them, we ascribe to them all the attributes that we load onto farmer, tramp or lawyer. The fact that his portraits so clearly show the individual behind the label only makes the labelling worse.

Sander had his reasons for the labels. Most of us label people without good reason and then add our stereotypes to the labels. Accountants are risk-averse, engineers insensitive to people, young people impetuous and the old are out-of-date. It can be hard for the individual to escape from beneath the label. Arriving in America for the first time, years ago, to go to business school, I was astonished to find that I was assumed to be snobbish, unfriendly, idle and unimaginative by my fellows before I had spoken a word. They were loading me with all the pejorative impressions which, at that time, they held of the English. Thereafter, I went out of my way to stress my Irish origins only to discover that I was then branded with another set of expectations.

Labelling people makes things simpler, but the danger is that it may brand us for life - and who knows what other talents that budding lawyer may have. The Japanese, at their best, know that labels can conceal. When I asked a top executive of one of their large organisations whether they had a fast track to the top for their brightest and best, he replied that they did indeed have a fast track but that it was horizontal. The most promising of the new recruits were rotated through various posts and projects in order that they might have a chance to discover and reveal their true interests and aptitudes.

I now recommend young people to create their own fast tracks at the start of their working life and to experiment with a variety of careers and identities before settling for the one which fits. It is too easy to label oneself before discovering which label suits one best. It is no different as we grow older. We can accept too readily the labels which others give us, both professionally and socially. We should not be reluctant to rebrand ourselves as we move through life, even to do away with occupational labels altogether. Looking back, I am puzzled that I was so pleased to be able to call myself professor and so reluctant to abandon the title when I ceased professing, given all the rather ambiguous overtones of that label. True adults, I suspect, need no labels other than their names.

Organisations, in their turn, could do more to discover the individual who, almost certainly, hides behind the one they know by his or her official title. It might save them a lot in recruitment costs. Ricardo Semler records how, in his Brazilian company Semco, he insisted that there should be no job titles. Everybody, he said, should know what everyone else was supposed to do without the need for an official badge of rank. Names should be enough. The workers grumbled: 'How will we explain what we do to our families?' Semler replied that they were free to print their own business cards and to put on them any title they wanted, provided that they never used that title at work.

It's an interesting test - do we know each other well enough to do away with internal titles?

There was a time when organisations did not allow their employees to give their names to customers. In my oil company I was MKR/32, not Charles Handy. Now people parade their first names on their chests. Where this is a genuine attempt to recognise the individual behind the uniform, it is to be welcomed because, as Sander's portraits so vividly remind us, there is always more to individuals than their job descriptions. You cannot help wondering, as you look at those photographs, what else his sitters might have been if their life had been arranged differently. Born into a less stereotyped age, we now have the chance to escape from our labels and to reinvent ourselves. Encourage that process in a business and you earn the right to your own label - that of a true learning organisation.

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