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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: A Business Guru’s Portfolio Life

March 19, 2008

Myself and Other More Important Matters
By Charles Handy
(Amacom, 213 pages, $25)
Charles Handy is one of the world’s most unusual creatures — a very British management guru. If the average management thinker seems like the kind of person who yearns to spend time in anonymous lecture rooms giving PowerPoint presentations on the “five forces” and “seven paradigm shifts,” Mr. Handy, now 75, seems more comfortable at home reclining in his favorite leather armchair. He is more interested in meditating on Aristotle’s concept of “happiness” — eudaimonia — than in recycling the latest thinking about “optimizing organizational core competencies.”

Mr. Handy was one of the first management gurus to recognize, back in the 1970s, that organizations were undergoing dramatic changes, flattening out their hierarchies and hiving off ancillary functions. His writing on business was striking for its colorful metaphors, such as “shamrock organizations” (the three leaves represent core employees, subcontractors and temporary workers), and for its focus on the people who were on the receiving end of these changes.

“Myself and Other More Important Matters” is a charming autobiography, recounting Mr. Handy’s life in genial prose. Like the best Oxford tutorials, it is much more substantial than it first appears. It is not only an excellent introduction to Mr. Handy’s thinking; it is a valuable account of how British attitudes to business have changed over the past 50 years.

Mr. Handy grew up in a world of all-enveloping organizations. He belonged to a very peculiar British tribe: the Anglo-Irish, descended from the British Protestants who had conquered Ireland and had called themselves, with scant regard to the sensibilities of the natives, the Ascendancy. His clergyman father devoted his life to a single organization, his parish. The Handys belonged to the tightly knit group of Irish Protestants — not properly Irish but not English either.

Still, Mr. Handy had a traditional British education — English public (i.e., private) school followed by classics at Oxford. He could easily have been a civil servant or a teacher, like most of his contemporaries at school. But his Irish side turned him into an outsider; and he lusted after the world of “travel and money and power” that he imagined came with a career in business.

In fact, business meant another cocoon-like organization — Shell. Mr. Handy spent six years as an expatriate manager, alternately navigating the rivers of Borneo (“Shell had ninety-five per cent of the market, a number that, I sensed, could only go down”) and living in palatial splendor in Singapore. He then returned to England to work in Shell’s monster headquarters on the banks of the Thames.

His time as an expat had not been a stunning success — at one point he was talked into a harebrained scheme for improving the delivery of oil in Borneo by a bibulous old Etonian. (Building storage tanks at river’s edge seemed like a great idea until dry season, when the tank turned out to be stranded on new high ground.) Back in London he was so bored by all the paper-shuffling that, for the only time in his life, he counted the minutes and joined the mass exodus from the building at precisely 5:20 p.m. every day.

At one point he failed to forward a refinery-building proposal to the proper committee members, as he should have done, because he disagreed with it. Pondering his pointed inaction (“I’m not proud of what I did that day”), he stops to comment on the “negative power” of disgruntled employees. He observes that 72% of British workers in a recent survey claimed to be dissatisfied with their business organization, nearly a fifth of them saying that they actively wanted to sabotage it. “Looking back on those days in the Shell head office,” Mr. Handy writes, “I know how they feel.”

Teaching management provided him with an escape from the corporate grind. Shell drafted him for its in-house training college. The new London Business School offered him a professorship. The government asked him for advice on management education. He was given one of those eccentric establishment positions that Britain specializes in, Warden of St. George’s House, living in splendid apartments in Windsor Castle and introducing the great and the good, including highflying clergymen, to the new science of management.

The amateurishness of Mr. Handy’s Britain in the 1950s and 1960s is shocking, as is the antibusiness prejudice that he routinely encountered. Shell gave him a job as an economist (he had been to Oxford, after all) though he had no acquaintance with the dismal science. The London Business School made him a full professor though he had no academic training or publications in the field. (He was sent off to MIT for a year to mug up on the subject.) He was once told, when he used the word “economics,” to avoid jargon.

Yet his very British career gave him a unique approach to his adopted subject. He assigned his first class at London Business School just two books, “The Meaning of Company Accounts” and Sophocles'”Antigone.” He illustrated his arguments not with buzzwords but with examples culled from everyday life (or at least his version of everyday life): He would note, for instance, that theaters thank everybody involved in the production, not just the stars; or that an Oxford rowing eight had improved its performance by sacking a star rower.

This idiosyncratic approach also gave him insights into management. He invented the concept of the “portfolio life” — the idea that more and more people, in a modern economy, would end up as independent workers, putting together a collection of different jobs, clients and types of work. He produced fascinating studies of the way that a change of course in mid-career can give people a new lease of life.

Mr. Handy knew whereof he spoke: He found himself reinventing his own career, though at first he discovered that trying to make it as a “portfolio worker,” after resigning from St. George’s House at the age of 49, was surprisingly difficult. He did not realize that you could charge money for speeches. His agent thought that “boasting” about his client was bad form.

Britain has changed out of all recognition since Mr. Handy joined Shell roughly a half-century ago. It has, in a sense, become Americanized. The old antibusiness prejudices have all but evaporated. Business studies is the most popular undergraduate course in most British universities. British managers are all too familiar with the latest business jargon.

Of course something has been lost along the way. Mr. Handy’s crystal-clear prose in “Myself and Other More Important Matters” is proof that you can write about business without butchering the English language. And his predilection for finding management wisdom in the classics is a reminder that people were thinking about how to run organizations long before the Harvard Business School was founded. Now that Peter Drucker has died, it is hard to think of another management guru who could write such an idiosyncratic and engaging book.

Mr. Wooldridge, the Economist’s Washington bureau chief, is the author, with John Micklethwait, of “The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus.” and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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