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The Elephant And The Flea: Looking Backwards to the Future Paperback – 7 Nov 2002
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Charles Handy is always a delight to read, and The Elephant and the Flea--his autobiography-laced analysis of business over the past two decades--is no exception. In his 13th book, the United Kingdom's pre-eminent sage on commercial and industrial matters looks within and at education, marriage, religion and society in order to assess the changing nature of employment. His literate and knowledgeable tale begins in 1981, when Handy decided to exchange a safe but stifling life with a corporation (the "elephant" of his title) for the riskier but potentially more rewarding existence of an independent (or "flea"). Mixing diverse experiences with cogent observations on the evolving workplace, he sets the scene for plausible projections about where we might yet be headed. "Just as the signs were there 20 years ago for those who wished to see them, so I believe we can glimpse the shape of the new capitalist world even if it may take another 20 years to develop," he writes. "We may not like what is coming but we would be foolish to think that we can plan our lives, or our children's lives, without giving some thought to the shape of the stage on which we and they will be strutting". Intensely personal yet remarkably universal, the result is another provocative, illuminating and enjoyable book from the oil executive turned bestselling author.--Howard Rothman
"He makes difficult stuff seem easy" (Management Today)
"'In this very readable book Handy makes you think more about the impact of these diverse changes on the whole world of human endeavour, not just the world of work." (Human Resources Magazine)
"You will find yourself constantly returning to the book and quoting extracts to collegues...This latest offering is a joy to read. It is one of those rare things, a book by a management author that you want to devour at one sitting." (Ambassdor)
"This is an ambitious treatment of the future of everything." (Canary)
"It is classic Handy...It is entertaining, thought provoking, humanistic and wise in equal measures." (FMX)
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These comments are especially relevant to Handy at one point in his career (in 1981) when he embarked on a transition from being an "elephant inhabitant to independent flea," hoping that there would be greater value in the freedom of independence "over the dubious security of employment." He did not then and has not since viewed himself as a role model for others. He asks his reader to "regard this book as an encouragement to wrote your own script for a part in the very different world that lies ahead of us." Some readers may find it difficult to follow Handy's line of thought as he moves from one subject to the next, indeed from one period in his life to another, without regard for chronological or even logical sequence. To repeat, he offers an immensely personal narrative that combines spontaneity with rigor. He is a very clear thinker but his thoughts are seldom developed in a linear pattern. Over the course of the ten chapters, the reader shares Handy's reflections about his childhood and youth in an Irish vicarage, his education at Oxford, his executive assignments to the Far East within the Royal Dutch/Shell organization, and his chairmanship of the Royal Society of Arts. Only later in his life did he gain increasing attention and renown as a social commentator and business thinker.
Of special interest to me is what Handy discusses in Part II, "Capitalism Past, Present, and Future" (Chapters 4-6). For example, after suggesting how the "new elephants" will differ from their predecessors, he identifies four challenges they will face and each suggests a paradox of direct relevance to both elephant inhabitants and independent fleas: (1) How to grow bigger, but remain small and personal, (2) How to combine creativity with efficiency, (3) How to be prosperous but socially acceptable, and (4) How to reward both the owners of the ideas as well as the owners of the company. Handy discusses each of these four challenges in Chapter 4, then in the next chapter shifts his attention to a so-called "new economy" that really isn't, citing a survey of e-business conducted by The Economist magazine that identified ten skills needed to manage the new businesses of the e-world. "I was underwhelmed by the list. [Please see Page 93.] The order might have varied a little, but it was the same list that I had been urging on organizations and managers for thirty years." Handy notes that the "elephantine" organizations are still around but have become much slimmer "and are surrounded by a multitude of fleas" both within and beyond their areas of operation. "In what seems, at first glance, to be the world of elephants, the fleas, surprisingly, may be the winners." As I shared Handy's thoughts about "The Varieties of Capitalism" in Chapter 6, I was reminded of several opinions that Warren Buffett shares in essays he wrote for Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports. Yes, Handy views himself as a "reluctant" capitalist, an adjective that Buffett would summarily reject if applied to him. However, both men agree (or so it seems to me) that capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems and offers more and better opportunities now than ever before as "elephantine" organizations become more accommodating to "fleas" and as fleas gain greater power through their independence.
When concluding this book, Charles Handy reaffirms his determination to live what remains of his life the way he thinks it ought to be lived. He urges others to do the same. As the years pass, "ambition fades and life acquires new and gentler tones. Meanwhile, there is an old Chinese saying that `Happiness is having something to do, something to hope for and someone to love.' I plan to be happy." As his more recent activities suggest, he is.
His characteristic use of metaphor, eloquent language and friendly paternal manner make for an enjoyable and endearing read.
The elephant and the flea does not throw up any ideas that have not been expressed in Handy's earlier (and far more insightful) works, but, I feel this is not the point.
The elephant and the flea, although Handy's latest text, would serve those unaccustomed to his books extremely well as an introduction to his way of thinking, reasoning and perspective on life, work and family.
Read The elephant and the flea, understand the history of the man and then you must read, The age of unreason, The empty raincoat et al..
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