bookspluslife

May 27, 2018

Book: The Elephant and The Flea by Charles Handy

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:34 pm

imageThis was touted as a business book about how to succeed in large corporations as a (tiny) consultant but it has several surprises when you read it.

 

First, the story is very personal and is told by the son of a pastor. He has humility, emotions, and talks about himself in a very personal way that makes you instantly empathize with him.

 

Second, he has a nice flow of narration and it is like sitting next to an avuncular relative reminiscing about his life with a flannel robe and a pint in his hand perhaps. Not very like most of the grim business books, and definitely not the tone adopted by so many : ‘I know what you need to do, now read and learn’. Those two make the book stand apart, but if you do not like that in a business book, then you will be definitely disappointed with this one.

 

Now about the title –  Charles Handy talks about the fleas, the independent consultants, and the elephants, giant corporations where the fleas inevitably work on contract. I thought it is just a book about how the world has changed, how there are more fleas now than elephant constituents (workers in corporate empires) and how fleas can be effective going into the unfamiliar elephant world. It is all that, but a bonus is a personal peek into the life of Charles and what forces shaped it and what it did to him in terms of style and personality. He has this confidence imparting tone that makes you think that you know him – it is a rare gift. Add to that his self deprecating tone and clear thoughts on how he is totally unqualified for certain tasks because of his background and you end up liking him almost from the beginning of the book.

 

He teaches his principles from his life experiences, growing up as a son of a priest in rural backwaters of Ireland, and being disappointed by his father’s lack of ambition. His description of his father’s funeral and how he learns that his father’s life was hugely successful  is very touching and heartwarming. He seems to have the knack so brilliantly displayed by James Herbert of touching the right notes and making you warm up to him instantly. His retelling of his issues makes him not just vulnerable in your eyes but also endearing. He has also been leading the charge on defining what education should be like and has chaired many prestigious institutions. However, I began to wonder how much of management theory I really learned while reading the book.

 

He talks about the old corporations (old elephants) which had jobs for life, a very protected environment, endless profits because of oligopoly and what not. He talks about the modern corporations where it is a very different world, and the corporates who could not adapt to it died. Well written, with a clear vision and articulation.

 

But some of his views are out there. He argues that even though technology has transformed lives, fundamentally we are the same. He talks about however good the communication and ecommerce have become the logistics remains, and drivers, cooks and others will always be

needed. Good point, until you start thinking of driverless cars. I agree that people will be retrained and survive. He also bemoans the modern fascination with gadgets and what it is doing to the society. There is also a kernel of truth in it and there is some logic in saying that losing the personal touch (the mom and pop bakery around the corner, the handwritten letters, the train conversations) have all been irrevocably lost in some cases. His reminiscences (about, for instance, how he used to ring from Malaysia to England when he was in Shell and what it sounded like) add an inimitable human touch to the stories and make them come alive.

 

But when he laments about technology and intellectual assets, you realize how old fashioned he really is. One of the gentlemen of olden times, wishing for times when you can touch, feel and look at objects and things. Charming all the way, no doubt.

 

But he makes great points about the need to change and adapt since we are forced to anyway. And good points about how, even those who consider that they are worse off than their grandfathers will not like to go back to those times to live like them. Some of his points are very interesting. Like I said, I may not agree with many of them, but his points are well made. He talks of the evil of keeping shareholder value as the single most important criteria. If it were up to him, companies will have avuncular interest of employees at heart (even, if you read between the lines, when shareholder value is threatened) but it may not be practical. Leaving aside that, he makes great points of the shareholders – most of them anyway – are not the real ‘owners’ in the traditional sense. They, for instance, did not even pay their money to the company at all, having bought the shares in a secondary market.

 

Also nice are his laments about the fear when he became independent and how he continually tries to find meaning in life. Masquerading as a corporate book, this is simply an erudite old man’s reminiscences and if you are fooled by the title into thinking it is a business book like I was, it is a bit disappointing.

 

At the end, he tries to summarize why fleadom may engender selfishness and apathy towards the rest of the society. In all, this does not feel like a corporate book – our instincts at the beginning are right. True, there are some interesting facts. But they are few and far between. You get to look at the life Charles led and what is important to him from his point of view. Is it interesting? Yes. He is a really nice, charming, caring person and it comes through clearly. But it is not a corporate or business book, though the title makes you think it is. It does not, for instance, tell you as a flea, how to influence the elephant where you are currently working. From that point of view, it is a mis-sell.

 

Also his belief that the modern world with its selfishness will lead to destruction is not borne out when you see the natural philanthropy occurring even today.

 

But the book in itself is interesting. I will say 6/10

–  –  Krishna

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