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Charles Handy's learning curve

Wed, 22nd Apr 2015

In a world of sound and fury, where wildly spinning electoral words seem utterly unconnected to anything real, reading Charles Handy’s latest book, The Second Curve, is agreeably calming. This is not because Handy, perhaps our wisest thinker on work and society, is an unconditional optimist, nor that he has all the answers – in fact he spends a lot of time pointing up rather difficult problems. It is rather that, at the far extreme of the spectrum from the rabid utterances of electioneering politicians, his collection of essays, subtitled ‘Thoughts on Reinventing Society’, brings to bear on them a deceptive simplicity that disarms panic and invites cool consideration instead.

It’s deceptive because, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ description, these thoughts are 'simplicity the other side of complexity', born of a lifetime of reflection, the matching of thought to experience. In truth the depth and breadth of the latter are the only sign that the author is now into his ninth decade. His overall theme, also deceptively ‘low-definition’, is the metaphor of the sigmoid curve, the ‘S’ on its side that seems to define the arc of life, whether of individuals, organisations or societies, and he applies it with unobtrusive deftness to the DIY economy, the workplace, the digital revolution, the market, the dilemmas of growth, the future of capitalism, the challenges of democracy, and self-actualisation. in a political context, Handy's book, alongside John Seddon's The Whitehall Effect, should be prescribed reading for every voter wanting to ask politicians real questions before the election.

The thread running through it all might be the famous quote from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (which Handy uses), ‘Everything must change so that everything can remain the same’. What endures, ‘the still point of the turning world’, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase, is humanity, the necessity of others, the search for individual meaning. How to ‘fix’ humanity when it its essence is under attack from several quarters – a winner-takes-all-economy, the centripetal market forces atomising society, relentless commercialisation and the surveillance business model – is the central challenge that Handy addresses.

As he concedes, there are plenty of things to worry about. 'Society is not working as it should,' he writes. 'Living is getting harder, not easier, for most. Inequality is growing. Wealth is not trickling down.' One of the most striking essays, ‘The Ponzi Society’, is the best account I have read of the stark consequences of societal failure to measure the implications of the tectonic shift from state-managed welfare provision to much greater self-responsibility. ‘We have to learn how to educate ourselves in areas [such as financial literacy] that we did not need to worry about before, because someone else was taking care of them’ – even if not very well. In the area of work, too, he notes that ‘We can no longer rely on the institutions of education and the workplace to prepare us for life and looks after us during it. It was too easy in the past to let others direct our life’.

Yet while acknowledging the severity of the challenge, Handy remains resolutely positive about the future. It defies belief that human constructs like organisations, markets and the polity can’t be intelligently reshaped by new generations of humans for a new era. The idea of the ‘second curve’, a new sigmoid figure that, with initiative, intelligence and a dose of luck, can spring out of the first before it reaches its peak, is inherently optimistic, although never easy, and to his credit Handy does not shy off some of the dilemmas that new curves might confront. Difference, though, is always better than more of the same. The optimism is also, I think, that he believes fundamentally in humanity and its ability, with a little help from its friends, to remain human despite (nearly) everything that the forces of inhumanity, including technology and markets, can throw at it. Prey to all sorts of ills and temptations, people are still redeemable. As a long-time observer of the work of work, he quite likes the idea of replacing the patriarchal father-child employment relationship of the past with grown-up adult-adult relations, even if they do demand much greater self-reliance (or a greater awareness of themselves and their role in society) in consequence.

Second curves are neither necessarily easy to spot or obvious to implement. But some of the clutter and complexity that obscure them falls away when some important but very often unexamined confusions are cleared away. This is classic simplicity-beyond-complexity, and Handy is very good at putting his finger on the most sensitive spots. If politicians, managers and citizens could rigorously distinguish between debt and deficit, efficiency and effectiveness, management and leadership, difference as clue to the future and difference as something to be stamped out, and above all ends and means (beware the tyranny of intermediate goals), the perilous route through our major dilemmas would be considerably less cloudy.

In the end, good management, suggests Handy, ‘is only common sense at heart, just not in common use. Add in an interest in those you work with, some decent humility, a will to listen and a desire to see a job well done and you have leadership theory in a nutshell.’ That’s worth the price of admission alone. One of Handy’s most generous qualities is his confidence in the young, whom he urges not to be held hostage to the past. If they have the sense that he attributes to them, however, new generations will pay a great deal of attention to the measured thoughts of this particular elder as they plot their Second Curve out of the wicked problems they have been bequeathed.


 


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User comments

Henning Sieverts :: 23rd Apr 15
A complex and discerning essay, Simon. Thank you. It's an antithesis of the currently dominant vision of corporate leadership, which focuses almost exclusively on short-term financial gain for senior managers and shareholders.
guest :: 12th Jun 15
brilliant - now about to order second curve, glad to know Charles Handy is still writing
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