One of my heroes is the management thinker, Charles Handy. He a good writer and unlike so many in his field his humanity shines through everything he writes. He is also one of the few contributors to BBC R4 ‘Thought for the Day’ who didn’t make me immediately want to vomit. His latest book, Myself and Other More Important Matters, has just won a Management Writing Award 2006 for the best management book and an extract is printed in the November issue of Management Today. I haven’t read the new book yet, but of his other writings, The Empty Raincoat is a brilliant must read. The title comes from a statue he saw in Minneapolis. From that book:
We were not destined to be empty raincoats, nameless numbers on a payroll, role occupants, the raw material of economics or sociology, statistics in some government report. If that is to be its price, then economic progress is an empty promise. There must be more to life than to be a cog in someone else’s great machine, hurtling God knows where.
From his new book:
More and more, I have moved from dealing with the `how' questions to the `why' ones. It is the Socratic impulse that keeps me questioning. Why do we need such big organisations, when most of us don't 'relish working in them? Why do we treat those within them in the ways that we do? Why do we live our lives as we do? Success has many faces. Why do we choose the ones we do? Is there too much love of money, for its own sake? Or is capitalism at fault - or, more truthfully, our interpretation -if capitalism?
I can't think of any better mechanism for making the world a better place than a set of open-market economies, carefully regulated so that they remain properly competitive. But it is -the phrase `making the world a better place' that is often missing from the capitalist narrative. As it is currently seen and measured, capitalism takes selfishness to be its driving force, something that can easily develop into greed. Capitalism assumes that it is part of the human condition to be all out for ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world. We are hard-wired for competition. It is a rather dismal assumption. Nor is it necessarily a true one. There is an altruistic gene in most of us. Most of us want to contribute to as well as take from the world. The danger, as I see it, is that the language of capitalism, reinforced by its instruments and the measures they use, may imprison us in a cause that we don't necessarily believe in. But, when the more brutalist version of capitalism is dominant, what else can most of us do except conform to the stereotype, muttering dissent as we go?
Because the capitalist narrative decrees that more is better, businesses continually buy their competitors, and are aided and abetted by their bankers and consultants in so doing, although all the evidence is that only in a minority of cases does the end result leave the customer or the purchasing shareholders better off. Why, then, do they continue to do it, creating organisations too big for human scale in the process? Why do organisations, when reporting their actions during the year, speak only of results for them, seldom for their customers or the world at large? Because, I have to assume, more is thought to be better, be it more power, bigger sales or greater influence. Yet we know that in much of the rest of life, and in other organisations, more is not always better. I sometimes suggest to business executives that if they were to ask a symphony orchestra what its growth plans were for the coming year, they might not speak of increasing the number of musicians, or even the number of performances, but would talk more of growing their repertoire and their reputation. Yes, more money would help, but only as a means to achieve those ends. It is no different for other arts organisations, or schools, better often when smaller.
Meeting with a wine grower in the Napa Valley who told me that his ambition was to grow his business, I said, looking around me, `Where will you find the extra land, or are you going to buy up your neighbours?'
`Oh, I don't need to grow bigger,' he replied, `just better.'
Why don't more businesses think like that, I wonder?
Business, I continue to argue, mistakes its means for its ends, and we will always continue to do so until we, society backed by government, redefine those ends to make them more relevant to the needs of more people. It is not enough, I believe, to pay one's taxes and leave the rest to government.
Inevitably, perhaps, my messages are a reflection of my values. I do care more for individuals than organisations, who are, after all, just their instruments. I believe that if organisations were to take more seriously the individuals who are, in effect, the organisation, they would find their own objectives easier to achieve. I believe that organisations are, in a broad sense, the servants of society. They exist to provide us with the things and services we need or want. We rely on them to do so efficiently and effectively. Ideally, their interests and ours should coincide, but they will prosper most if they define their purpose as something bigger than their own survival. Those organisations, as well as those individuals, who work only for their own benefit, eventually discover that they are their own worst customer, because they are never satisfied, seldom thanked and leave no legacy. The definition of success in our modern affluent world is one of our more intractable problems. It was easier once when we had fewer choices. Now we can choose but have no good criterion for the choices. Even business executives have to be philosophers.
Why can’t more managers be like him I wonder?