What makes each book on management Charles Handy has written over the past 20 years so valuable is the fact that none has been a typical management book. Handy’s writings combine wisdom, originality and intelligence qualities that are not difficult to find individually in management books, but are rarely found together. His newest book–Waiting for the Mountain to Move: Reflections on Work & Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999)–is, as the title suggests, a book of reflections. His purpose, as always, is not to have his reader agree with him, but rather simply to cause his reader to think. That this marvelous collection of essays does in abundance.
A few years back, Handy was asked to contribute to the "Thought for the Day" slot on the BBC’s early morning radio show, Today. "Thought" had generally drawn its contributors from the clergy. Handy was asked to provide his thoughts because, in his words, "I was a rather renegade professor of business with theological affinities who might relate particularly to the many thousands of business and professional people" who listened to the program each day. This volume is a collection of 75 of the essays he wrote for the program, each just a few easily digestible pages.
Handy writes with insight, sensitivity, and sensibility on matters that touch all our lives. He suggests, for example, that our highly competitive society is too obsessed with winning at all costs. The effect is "to make most of us feel like losers most of the time." Handy’s solution is the "mass marathon" in which we recognize that trying is as important as winning. "When winning is so important but so difficult, the best strategy must be to avoid losing. So lower your sights, keep your head down, and above all don’t try too hard." Handy is distressed that in far too many organizations, a raised head is more likely to be chopped off than recognized for any substantive contribution.
He is perplexed by the struggle the U.S. finds itself in over the topic of diversity and affirmative action. "Differences should be a delight and not a problem. The strongest societies, the strongest organizations…are those which delight in their differences." We are a global society, not insular, stresses this man who was raised as a Protestant in Ireland.
Handy is concerned that the massive creation of wealth over the past decade has caused more than a few moral gyroscopes to spin out of balance. "We each have to look inside ourselves… because I believe that the spirit or essence of God is in each and every on one of us, whether we formally acknowledge it or not. Get in touch with that spirit and you are in touch with the truth." Sound advice from a man who has advised many of the world’s leading organizations and executives.
Handy is no spiritual guru; rather he is an exceedingly talented man who, unlike so many other management writers, understands that organizations are made up of humans, with all our frailties. He approaches the world realistically, aware of his own foibles, yet unafraid to follow his own path as he seeks his own spiritual grounding.
He observes that there are two kinds of questions in life: the closed and the open. The closed question is simple: How many feet in a mile? "Unfortunately, most of life’s little problems confront us with open questions. How can I persuade him or her? What should the strategy be for my part of the organization? Or, more important, what is right, and what is wrong?" The answers to these questions are, Handy stresses, up to each of us. These questions will lead us to what Handy calls "the heart of the matter". The heart of the matter "has something to do with love and with making things better, whatever that may mean for the ones you love. Working that out can well take a whole life." It takes effort as well as time.
"Time, after all, is God’s great gift to us, and He didn’t give us that much of it", observes Handy. This little volume will not require much time, nor will it require great effort, but the time you spend with it will be invaluable. Read and re-read these pages. You may miss the next dotcom IPO, but you will be a richer person for the time you spend in the company of this wise and worldly man.