March 5, 2002

Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects - The Elephant and the Flea

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 8:51 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist by Charles Handy, Harvard Business School Press, 225 Pages, $24.95 Hardcover, February 2002, ISBN 1578518229
I must start this review with a confession. In my world, Charles Handy is a god, so if you sense some hero worship in this review, I do not apologize. About three years ago, BusinessWeek asked me to provide a list of the best business books of all time. You can see that list by clicking and scroll down until you find my name. You will see that #1 on my list is Handys book The Age of Unreason. That book is one of the few business books I have read more than once. This will be another.
Handy worked for one of the ultimate elephants (behemoth organization), Royal Dutch/Shell when he started his career. He then went to the London Business School as a professor and then on to the chairmanship of the Royal Society of Arts. Charles Handy is now seventy years old, having retired in 1981 to go portfolio (become a flea, or independent consultant), as he called it.
An inspiring personal memoir, I will let Handy himself tell you what the book is about, and in the process of doing that, youll get a feeling for his style and substance:
It is, if I am honest, a mixture of memories and prejudices, although I would prefer to call them ideas and beliefs. They are lessons of my life, because I think that you only truly learn by livingand then reflecting on the living. It doesnt mean that all the lessons are correct, of course, but taken together they have become my credo, my way of looking at the different worlds that I have mixed with, my hopes and fears for our futures, and my philosophy of life. I am conscious, however, that in trying to draw lessons from my own life I am inviting comments such as it was easy for you or would that we were all so lucky or its all very well for some, but not for most of us. It has not felt easy, and still doesnt, but of course I did start with what some would call the advantage of a privileged education and, most crucially, I married an unusual woman whose fierce belief that we can and should shape our own lives gave me the courage to be a flea when I could easily have settled for a quiet career and early retirement and, no doubt, an early death after a boring life. Most people, anyway, would not envy me my current life of writing and speaking. It can be both lonely and frightening. Dont take my example literally, therefore, but regard this book as an encouragement to write your own script for a part in the very different world that lies ahead of us.
The book goes on to explore his ideas and beliefs, and I am (as you will be) a better person for the time I spent with this book from this great man.