Management guru finds secret of life

In defining the nature and future of modern work, nobody excelled Charles Handy; now he has left the world of work and turned his mind to the world of the spirit. Not so much a career move, more an act of faith.
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Charles Handy has said everything he wants to say about businesses and management. One of the greatest organisational voyeurs of our time has hung up his corporate brogues in search of his personal White Stone. He's bored by his own talk and fed-up with the label "management guru". Next month, his new book The Hungry Spirit will hit the bookshops and Charles Handy the "social philosopher" will be born.

It's a big moment. The man to whom many management and economic groupies looked to above all others has turned his back on them. "I have said all that I am ever going to be able to say about organisations. This book hasn't changed my philosophy of organisations. I just wanted to connect it to my philosophy of life," he says. He wants to change the audience. He wants to talk to people about the whole of their lives.

He is no longer a provider of solutions or schemes. Philosophers, he says, don't provide answers. They provide routes to answers. So what's this new book The Hungry Spirit about? How big is the leap from The Empty Raincoat?

About as big as the story of Man's quest for purpose in the modern world, that's all. It's about Charles Handy's personal search for meaning. He says he's no longer trying to be somebody else. He can see his white stone. That morning, the morning of our conversation, he opened his first pension cheque. But he can't retire, he says, or write the same book again. That would be throwing away his stone.

When he's at home in Norfolk, rather than London or Tuscany, he writes in a beautiful sun-crazed room, with shiny, dark wooden floors and floor- to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, looking over the fields and woods of East Anglia. There is nothing to interrupt his thoughts, bar the little white stone that sits on his desk. A constant reminder of the maturing Charles Handy. Its significance is a passage from the Book of Revelations: "To the one who prevails, the Spirit says, I will give a white stone

Well, who is Charles Handy? On a professional level, he's a man with an impressive CV. He graduated from Oxford with a first in Greats - the intellectual study of classics, history and philosophy. He apologised to his first employer Shell for having done so well at University and they gave him a 10 per cent salary rise before he'd even started. A well- trained but empty mind, they said. He served his time with Shell as a marketing executive, economist and management educator in far-flung parts of the globe. Went back to school at the Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts and returned to England in 1967 with his MBA. He brought the Sloan programme with him and founded Britain's first Graduate Business School in London. Now Professor Handy, specialising in managerial psychology, he moved into areas of ethics and values, chaired the Royal Society of Arts, obtained a clutch of honorary doctorates and delighted the masses with his Thoughts for Today on BBC Radio 4. The man, like his new book, is different. Unless you've seen a picture, it's difficult to imagine what a management guru looks like, isn't it? This one has the face of a tired boy and the smile of an imp. He's small, for a management guru that is, and serious and in search of sustenance. He once told his psychotherapist that his work was about trying to improve the world a little bit. "Ah," said the shrink, "Now we have this grand quartet Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Karl Marx ... and Charles Handy." I'd be furious, wouldn't you? Charles was furious, too: "He was a great therapist but a very nasty man. I hated him. At the end of a year, I told him he'd done me enough good. I'd had enough, thank you very much. But he said he hadn't even started. He needed to get to my `internal mechanisms'." Charles was humbled, too. He knew then that if you want to change the world you have to start with your own life. He was 45 and it was this pearl of retrospective wisdom that helped to get him off the hook of being a great man. He says he learned not to try so hard.

His life started in Ireland as the son of an Archdeacon. But he didn't want to stay in Ireland, he didn't want to worship his father's God and he didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. He always viewed things differently. The gift of being a human being, he says, is to recognise the God within us and to take charge of our lives. We may not be able to alter the basic truths of science but we should override their influence. This man is an atheist who doesn't want to be called a Christian but who believes that God is a shorthand for everything that is good. "Faith and belief start when the facts run out," he says.

What do you say to a man who looks at the world and says we are stronger than science, that economic prosperity is a shallow goal and religion is a false certainty? The answer is that you steal someone else's words. What could be more apposite than those of the billionaire financier George Soros who said, amongst many other things, there is no such thing as absolute truth.

People are hungry for something other than money. Whether it be love or friendship, or some other purpose, most of us, he says, are spiritually under-nourished. If we think about the ways in which we live our lives carefully enough, then something can be done to restore the balance. The new book is an attempt to "illuminate the world that we live in. I needed to write it for my own personal beliefs. I have to work out what I really mean." Gone is the talk of Sigmoid Curves and Subsidiarity. The lingua of the social philosopher is now wrapped around The Puzzle of Identity and Living With Others.

For his next book, he is turning his attention to the Bible. He's not rewriting it, merely reinterpreting its rich and philosophical insights into life.

He believes we have been misled. The Bible, he says, has never been looked at on a philosophical level. But persuading the New Reader that this work is written by an atheist with no religious point to make will depend, he says, on the title. Might I suggest Joseph and The Technicolour Mackintosh?n

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