Charles Handy Talks Second Curve

I enjoyed hearing this famed octogenarian business guru indulge in a spot of PR ahead of his latest book.

(BBC World Service programme stream or podcast download)

The Harvard Business Review no less revealed that his articles generate the biggest readership response.

As the book is just out (here’s one advance review, from Management Today), I must restrict myself to highlighting six themes from the aired conversation. The first, is that I struggle to fully accept his current curvaceous wisdom as ‘new’.

When Is A Curve Not A Curve

At the outset I warmly applaud his dismissal of the Sigmoid Curve.

It goes down, up, down again. Pretty inevitable. Depressing. I don’t want my life to be like that. So why not start a second curve. One which must start before the first one decays, because an S-curve always dips before it peaks.

I’ve long yearned for an improvement. I’ve suffered through many an exec present Sigmoid to the masses. All but one have made a total hash of it. For me its strength surrounds the Energy For Change. I know it was twenty-five years ago I came across this (as part of a b-school Management of Innovation module) yet true Sigmoid is two curves too.

At its heart: what sparks the switch from curve one to curve two?

Handy’s own Second Curve description on the surface bears little difference to what I feel the correct ‘change curve’ concept should be. So whatever it is he thinks he’s added, on first listen it could do with a more distinctive explanation.

Leadership Humility

I thought this was all the rage. And had been for thirty years. Yet apparently we’ve digressed back to the original sweat shops.

“one of the great features of leadership is humility”

“if you don’t understand that you might be wrong, or you have no decent doubt, then you are in a dangerous situation”

He views the traditionally viewed good leader, one ‘going over the top’, or in American, a ‘road warrior’ as “very dangerous people”

He also pleads we need more democracy –

“most institutions (public or private) are run like dictatorships or oligopolies with no sign of democracy – too few at the top only occasionally ask people lower down what they think”


The magic (Dunbar’s) number. Building on his humility vibe;

“people should be heard and their voices should be listened to by the people in charge.

That’s much easier if you have small groups.

The largest group in which you could possibly know everybody on it is 150 people.

So let’s have groups no bigger than 150 people and you might possibly have your voice heard by someone supposedly leading that group.”

“Prisons for the Human Spirit”

What a phrase. He refers to most organisations in this light. He cites that eighty percent of employees in the standard type job, namely a small cog in a ginormous wheel, are “dissatisfied”.

They’re not listened to, not heard, feel they’re not making a contribution and know that they could do better than they’re allowed to.

“A crime against humanity”

Allied to this, the use of money as an incentive is fatally flawed. He states any impact only last six weeks. And suggests it is one (of several he quotes) reasons why productivity isn’t rising (particularly in Britain).

“Economics is a form of historical fiction”

“Economists are very good at describing what went wrong and what went right but they’re very bad at predicting what will go wrong or what will go right.

And they’re very bad at coming up with prescriptions.

When you’re in debt you desperately find new products to sell and new customers … not cut down everything”


Does The Past Predict The Future?

Let’s assess his thoughts on Business Schools;

“what they call research is writing up a case study about some company about two years ago and saying this is the message for the future, well, it might be, but it’s highly unlikely to be.”

There’s something for just about any salesteam and its leadership in this insight.

One that I hope brings you a more half-full, and less pessimistic view than his closing remarks, “I love human beings in person but distrust humanity”.

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