on 8 October 2001
This book is an enjoyable and easy read. In this partial autobiography, Handy has written in a simple and articulate manner. His use of metaphor is an interesting way to predict how the future may look for organizational man/woman, as well as giving useful pointers about switching from the life of the elephant to the life of the flea. In the book, he asks key questions (which he doesn't always answer) about the work/life balance and finding sense of purpose in work. The anecdotes he uses are drawn from a wide range of experiences from around the world, and I found much of what he said was easy to identify with. Overall, this is a good book in that it gives you food for thought and makes you want to have a chat with the author after reading it!
I recently re-read this book as well as Charles Handy's later work, Myself and Other More Important Matters, and thoroughly enjoyed both even more this second time around than I did when they were first published. Each is part memoir, part autobiography, and part social commentary. Immediately, Handy establishes and then sustains a direct and personal rapport with his reader. The tone is conversational. With regard to the title, Handy observes: "Elephants and fleas is an odd metaphor, equally unflattering to both groups. I hit upon it by chance when looking for a way, in a public lecture, to explain why large organizations needed irritant individuals or groups to introduce the innovations and ideas essential to their survival. After the lecture I was struck by the number of people who came up to me, either proclaiming themselves to be a flea or lamenting the ponderous gait of the elephant where they worked. The analogy, it seemed, had caught their imagination, so I persevered with it. Like all analogies, however, it should not be pushed too far. Useful for attracting attention, it is not in itself a recipe for solutions, but as a broad description of one divide in modern society it serves its purpose. It is, for instance, the elephants who get all of the attention while most people actually work as fleas or for a flea organization."
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.
on 31 May 2002
This personal yet not especially innovative work is written primarily in a reflective and autobiographical manner. Through out this easy-going and unchallenging work, Handy uses the changes in his own life to illustrate the possibilities for our own lives and his hopes for working life in the future.
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..
on 14 November 2011
I read this book several years ago and got a real buzz out of it. Excuse the pun! I was already embarked on a portfolio lifestyle, but only just setting sail at that stage. Now, several years later, I find I constantly refer to this metaphor, of the fleas and elephants, as I see so many people exiting the world of corporates and joining the swarms of fleas. If you are just moving into such a situation, I would recommend reading this book. I think you might find it quite heart warming and possibly informative
on 16 November 2001
The book is mostly an authobiography and reflection on Handy's religion. Handy clearly had no real thoughts on the Internet age bursting since he both said it was good and bad . I think he wrote half before and the other half after. The last couple of chapters are new material, he describes the concepts of the balance of work, hope life and charity work. This is all done through example to himself. Quite thought provoking on how to structure your life but easily said from one who gets royalties for so many books. This all would have been better written earlier in his life. Still worth reading, one of the best social scientists in the world.