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Book Excerpts from The Elephant and The Flea by Charles Handy

June 2, 2020

The Elephant and the Flea: Handy, Charles: 9781591391289: Amazon ...

I have been a Charles Handy fan for many years and find that his work only becomes more prescient and meaningful with time.  It’s amazing how he could envision the world we would be doing business in before it happened.  His thoughts on life, business, and leadership are timeless.  I had my son revisit his 2001 book, The Elephant and Flea, and capture my highlighted sections.  Here are some of my favorites:

“Beginnings always matter. We can fight them, build on them, or just accept them, but we can’t ignore them or pretend that our lives began later than they really did.”

“What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it.”

“The world we are entering is increasingly the world of the individual, of choice and of risk. It won’t always be a comfortable world and the risks are high, but there is now more chance than ever to shape our own lives, to be fully ourselves.”

“Life is long. We should keep our options open for as long as possible. An educational system that judges people on their demonstrated proficiency in a subject rather than their potential for future learning is unreasonable.”

“In a truly open market, you are forced to keep the costs below the prices, which are set by the competition. Everyone running a business must privately yearn for the first alternative and to be free from competition, but only unique or superior products can legitimately claim the freedom to set the price they like; and then only for a time, until the competition catches up.”

“Shamrock-shaped organization (roughly one-third core staff, one-third subcontractors and one-third part-timers and professional advisors, the so-called contingent workforce), I borrowed a formula that I first heard from the head of a successful multinational: ‘½ x 2 x 3 = P, one half of my current core workforce in five years’ time, that’s my recipe for productivity and profit,’ he said, ‘as long as they are working twice as hard, and paid twice as much too, but producing three times the value.”

“The more dispersed an organization becomes the more important the trust between some of those unique individuals becomes. It is, they say, the ‘R’ economy now, R standing for Relationships. The questions are: how many individuals can you know well enough to call them by name, then be confident that you can rely on them, and trust them?”

“Now the customer, too, has a name, with individual needs and characteristics. There is money in a name. Increasingly it seems that we will pay to be treated as a unique individual.”

“The big problem facing the new elephants in the decades ahead will be how to manage the long chain of partners of different types and sizes, that airline route map rather than the pyramid of boxes.”

“After studying twenty-one failed civilizations, the historian Arnold Toynbee concluded that their downfall was the result of ‘concentrated ownership’ and ‘inflexibility in the light of changing conditions.’”

Social responsibility has to be redefined by the big corporations. It is not about giving a little of your profits to the poor. It is not about how much money you make and what you do with it. It is about how you run your business and how you balance the requirements of the different interest groups.”

“The originators of ideas are going to demand a share of the results. Why, they ask, should all the profits go to shareholders who only contribute their money, not their time or their skill? Why should a contract of employment necessarily mean that everything I come up with during the period of that contract belongs to the employer?”

“The very idea that a collection of people turning ideas into products is a piece of property that can be owned by someone else will come to seem absurd.”

“Changes that occur before we are five years old are taken as the norm; changes before the age of thirty-five are seen as exciting, opening up avenues to new possibilities, but changes after thirty-five can be upsetting and disturbing.”

“The whole wide world literally at one’s fingertips is a wondrous thought, liberating, mind-expanding, exhilarating; but once the initial thrill has passed will we really want the responsibility and the workload that goes with the opportunity?”

“Creativity is born out of chaos, even if it is sometimes difficult to glimpse the possibilities in the midst of the confusion.”

“It is hard to abandon the habits of a lifetime when those habits have served you so well. Every business will have to re-examine its underlying business idea to see if it is still relevant, if they can still make money the way they used to.”

“Most of the current inhabitants of the traditional industries, however, are unlikely to respond quickly enough to the changes ahead, which will leave larger gaps for newcomers to move into.”

“In the post-industrial societies work is hurriedly being reinvented. ‘Employability’ means ‘think like an independent and is understood as such by many of their staff. ‘Flexibility’ means that no one can guarantee anything for long. Loyalty these days is first to oneself and one’s future, secondly to one’s team or project, and only lastly to the organization.”

“The elephantine organizations of old are still around but they are much slimmer now, and they are surrounded by a multitude of fleas, smaller independent suppliers, sub-contractors, advisers, consultants, and new start-ups. Look inside the organization, too, and you find that individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their own futures, to develop their special competencies, and sell themselves to project and team leaders. In this sort of world, it behooves one to think and act as an independent talent whether outside or inside the organization.”

“…any business has multiple objectives which include providing good value for its customers, offering a worthwhile job and opportunities for personal growth for its workers, investing in its future stream of products, respecting the needs of the local communities in which it operates, and the environment in general, and, of course, making sure of a proper return for its financers. It is naive to believe that these often-conflicting objectives will all come together in one number called shareholder value. It is the peculiarly difficult job of top management to balance these objectives. Give too much priority to one of them and you risk defaulting on the others.”

“The idea that the future can and should be better than the past is one of the most invigorating aspects of American culture, so unlike the often-weary European feeling that things can only decline from the golden days of the past. Add to this the immigrant culture with its tradition of building a new life in a new land and one can begin to understand why so many think that they, too, can one day share in the prosperity that they see around them. The envy that can be corrosive in other capitalist societies seems in America to fuel ambition and hope.”

“…education sets you free but erodes your commitment to a place, a country, or even an organization. Wealth made from beauty can destroy beauty. What is good for the individual may be bad for society. Progress at best is two steps forward one step back.”

“The best way to predict the future,” said the management guru Peter Drucker, is to invent it. Don’t compete: do something different, redefine what winning means.”

“…to be different rather than better I would need to step outside my area of expertise if I was going to glean new insights and new ideas… The real innovations usually come from outside the industry or the firm; those that come from inside are typically developments of the familiar, not the truly new.”

“Walk in other worlds, look, listen, inquire, then go back and turn it into a new way of looking at your world, fix the new concept into your consciousness by using it. If it fails to make a difference, discard it quickly, go look somewhere else.”

“We see what we want to see in the world around us. We read the newspapers that support our views and prejudices, we work and socialize with people like ourselves.”

“People need to know what you stand for, and what they are paying for when they ask you to speak or teach. I can only sell you if I am proud of what you do.”

“The hard fact is that those who live by their own swords lay themselves open to wounds as well as flattery. An independent’s life, the life of the so-called ‘freelance’ (originally a freelance in wars), has to be an exposed one. It does require self-belief, a willingness to learn from feedback even when it comes in the form of criticism or even abuse, and the acceptance of the sensitivity necessary to understand the clients’ needs probably also means a thin skin, easily bruised and slow to heal.”

“One should never be too proud or too sensitive to accept advice, even criticism, particularly from those who are on your side. We are seldom the best judges of our own work.”

“In order to retain and to entice the next generation of talent, organizations will find themselves allowing their key people to build their own mixed portfolios, which may include guaranteed time for homework at particular points in the family life cycle, periods of study work of one sort or another, opportunities for gift work in the local community and even a mix of different bits of paid work within the organization.”

“If the other side of freedoms coin is aloneness then the obverse of independence is selfishness, for living up to the possibilities within yourself can mean ignoring the possibilities in anyone else.”

“Lifetime employment is neither offered nor desired. Both parties want to keep their options open.”

“Life without belonging properly to anything, life without commitment, means life without responsibility to others or for others. The independent life is an invitation to selfishness and a recipe for a very privatized society. But where there is no responsibility for others there is no need for concepts of right or wrong. A world of independent fleas and small enterprises can become an amoral world.”

“I used to think that as societies got richer, they would quieten down. Instead, they seem to have gotten more frenetic. I used to think that wealth would make people nicer and more tolerant. Instead, they become more competitive and more protective of what they had. I had hoped that instead of some having too much work and too little leisure, while others had the reverse, it would all get evened out.”

“Economic progress seems only to have raised the stakes in life’s horse race, not leveled the handicaps.”

“I see life as a continuing search for the truth in myself, by which I mean living with my own conscience, being what I could be rather than what I can get away with.”

“To balance the morality of self-interest, however enlightened that self-interest may be, there needs to be another morality of concern for our fellow humans, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.”

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