A fine example of management experience without the moralising

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The Independent Culture


By Charles Handy

HEINEMANN, £18.99.

Order for £17.99 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

Most people will know Charles Handy from his time as a regular presenter of Thought for the Day on the Today programme, on Radio 4. As I'm allergic to the patronising tone of the God Slot, this credential has helped to turn me off Handy's writings on management. Yet The Empty Raincoat, his book about the trend among managers to move away from corporate hierarchies towards an independent portfolio life, was prescient. It appealed to all professional wage slaves, and was a massive bestseller.

Still, the moralising gets in the way of the ideas, and it was with a jaundiced eye that I picked up this new book. Did I want an extended Thought for the Day about "the big issues of how life can best be lived", using his own career as an example? I certainly did not. So it was a surprise to find that this is a very engaging version of many of the management theories that Handy has set out in other books.

Handy was one of the group who set up the London Business School, the UK's first such dedicated school, and it's not clear whether he should take the credit for introducing professional management to this country or share the blame for how poor it still is in Britain compared with other countries. Nevertheless, he has been astute in his identification of important shifts in our individual choices about how to work, and our collective choices about how to run businesses.

In this autobiography, these issues are cleverly linked to developments in his own life, starting with an early childhood of genteel poverty as the son of a Church of Ireland minister in Kildare. Passing through the hoops of an English boarding school and a classics degree at Oxford, he nevertheless wanted to work in business. Shell took him on as a young graduate and sent him off to run its marketing operations in Borneo.

His own subsequent path became a demonstration of the trends he identifies: working as a free agent with a portfolio combining paid work and other activities; and running a business with a sense of social purpose. As he reflects, in his seventies, on what he has achieved, this is a pretty impressive intellectual legacy. As for the pontificating on the radio, I can forgive someone who says, like the apocryphal Irishman, "How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?"

Diane Coyle