Magazine article Management Today

Books: A Mentor for All Seasons

Magazine article Management Today

Books: A Mentor for All Seasons

Article excerpt

The author may be 83 but he is still challenging our ideas about work and society. We should listen to his gentle, incisive voice, says Stefan Stern

The Second Curve - thoughts on reinventing society
Charles Handy
Random House Books, pounds 14.99

For four decades, Charles Handy has been that kind of mentor, that kind of guide. His is a gentle but incisive voice, questioning, probing, wondering. In over a dozen books he has established a reputation as this country's leading observer of the world of work and organisational life (It's a bit Anglocentric to say 'this country' - Handy was born in Ireland and remains, in tone and humour, Irish as well as British.)

Work for Handy, who is now 83, has long been a kind of irresistible habit, a duty; his writing a personal quest and an extended conversation with himself. Contemplating the world around him, with its dramatic social change, has spurred him into action.

And so here is The Second Curve - 16 short essays that consider most of Handy's usual themes in his customary thoughtful style. The unifying theme is that change is needed - this is the 'second curve' of the title. Most businesses and most careers follow a sigmoid curve, Handy says, which looks like an S on its side. We start out and dip down as we struggle to establish ourselves. And then, with any luck, we rise to a peak, before hitting an eventual decline and falling away. Most businesses fail, and most careers end. (Why can't businesses pull out of the decline? A second curve in organisations or society is seldom led by those who were in charge of the first curve.)

Handy says that by starting out on a second curve, probably while we are still rising up on that original one, we can avoid decline and renew ourselves. Hence his idea, argued previously, that we need to think in terms of having several careers, not just one. Handy was into 'going plural' before the phrase existed.

The departure in this book is that Handy is a little more urgent, and perhaps a little more worried, than before. 'Society is not working as it should,' he writes. 'Living is getting harder, not easier, for most. Inequality is growing. Wealth is not trickling down.'

He repeats his argument that companies should be concerned with creating wealth for all, not just shareholders. But he goes further, chastising the workings of 'free markets'.

'Second Curve thinking would accept that markets are useful, even essential, but that they need careful regulation and tight rules; that they do not work in all situations. …

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