Clouds of Change

Charles Handy

Charles Handy has moved through careers as an oil executive, a business school professor and BBC broadcasting and is widely acknowledged as a world leader in management thinking. His prolific authorship includes books which are standard works on bookshelves worldwide, including his memoir, Myself and Other More Important Matters, as well as The Elephant and the Flea, and The Empty Raincoat. His new book, The Second Curve will be published in March 2015. His concern for society and individuals as the world faces the changes that technology, demography and economics bring, has been awarded with a dozen doctorates or fellowships, numerous prizes, and a CBE.

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Charles Handy, like Peter Drucker, has always sought to identify the ‘clouds of change’ threatening society. Here he identifies one such possible threat – the dysfunctional behaviour of our large corporations.

One of [Peter Drucker’s] skills was his ability to spot the clouds of change in society while they were still far off on the horizon, long before the thunderstorm broke. I try to emulate his skill in my own work so that people can better prepare themselves for new futures.

Charles Handy, like Peter Drucker, has always sought to identify the ‘clouds of change’ threatening society. Here he identifies one such possible threat – the dysfunctional behaviour of our large corporations.

Peter Drucker has been a big influence in my life and work. I valued hugely my occasional meetings with him and my bookshelves groan under the weight of his many books.

One of his skills was his ability to spot the clouds of change in society while they were still far off on the horizon, long before the thunderstorm broke. I try to emulate his skill in my own work so that people can better prepare themselves for new futures.

One of the clouds on the horizon that currently worries me is the behaviour and the future of large corporations. Much though I admire and encourage the entrepreneurs of all sorts who are our futures and much though I enjoy my contacts with small organisations and family businesses, the fact is that the public corporations are the great elephants of our economies.

We ride on their backs. They provide the greater part of the new wealth of society as well as the bulk of the jobs, directly or indirectly. If they falter or do not live up to their responsibilities, we all suffer.

So when I see these great beasts getting fewer in number, particularly in America, as well as older, fatter and greedier I start to worry. They have served us well over the last 70 years but success can be the enemy of progress, blinding one to the need to change.

The Greeks of old called it hubris, which I was taught to translate as overweening pride, that which comes before a fall, the arrogance that infuriates the gods and brings down their wrath.

The basic facts suggest that the corporate fall may be nearer than we know. A recent Brookings Institute research report found that firms aged 16 or older now represented 34% of all economic activity in the US, up 50% in 20 years. They are also lasting less long with fewer new entrants coming along, which bodes ill for the future. There are now 50% fewer publicly listed companies in America than there were 15 years ago; nor is it very different in the rest of the world. Business, the Brookings Report concludes, is getting old and fat.

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