Base metal that won't make gold

The New Alchemists
March 24, 2000

The history of the world," said Thomas Carlyle, "is but the biography of great men." More than a century later - and a mite less succinctly - the business writers Joel Ross and Michael Kami claimed:

"Despite all you hear about participative management, the chief executive still casts a long shadow."

Almost every management tome you read pays homage to the beliefs, practices and achievements of the captains of industry. The assumption is that the history of the commercial world is merely the biography of great businessmen.

The reason for all these eulogies is that the executive foot-soldiers believe they will be able to hoist themselves up the greasy pole if they copy the management styles and lifestyles of the chief executive. Just as gardeners endlessly buy books about top gardeners, and cooks endlessly buy books about top chefs, business executives endlessly buy books about top businessmen. And Charles Handy's latest book, The New Alchemists , is, rather sadly, yet another in the same mould. This is disappointing because Handy's previous books, particularly The Empty Raincoat and The Hungry Spirit , have been much more radical and original - full of striking phrases and provocative thoughts.

The New Alchemists contains few of either. To be fair, it is not solely about business. For 175 of its 230 or so pages, it comprises potted biographies of 29 modern "alchemists". An alchemist, in Handy's definition, is somebody who creates something out of nothing, roughly equivalent to the earlier alchemists who sought to turn base metal into gold.

About half of Handy's alchemists are commercial business people, which is why the book will principally be seen as a management primer. The other half work in the arts, in education, in social and community services. On the face of it, Handy has attempted to investigate the nature of creativity in every nook and cranny of society. To have included, in the same volume, alchemists as diverse as Geoff Mulgan of Demos, Open University pioneer Michael Young, Terence Conran, Richard Branson, Tim Waterstone and (former) British Airways supremo Bob Ayling shows a breadth of vision that is all too frequently lacking in similar analyses of how the successful manage to succeed.

However, casting the net so widely has its disadvantages. The first is that Handy devotes too little space to each individual. The astute mathematicians among you will have already calculated, from the above figures, that each subject gets an average of six pages. And in every case that includes a double-page photo-montage of the individual concerned (taken by Handy's wife Elizabeth), leaving three or four pages for textual analysis. Three or four pages may be sufficient for a colour-magazine puff, but it is not nearly enough for a thorough investigation of the 29 individuals' differing approaches to creativity (or alchemy, as Handy would prefer).

Worse - and this is the second downside of Handy's approach in the brief biographies - the author has neither the space, nor apparently the inclination, to question what each respondent has told him. In consequence, he regurgitates their claims uncritically, no matter how improbable. So, for example, Dee Dawson, the founder of the First Anorexic Clinic, claims that when she was turned down by the London Business School: "I rang them up. I said, 'I need this, and I'm good, you can't do this to me.' They relented and let me in because, they said, of my persistence."

The story is Jeffrey Archer-like in its boastful naivety. Does the LBS let in everyone who phones and insists? One suspects not. Or take Charles Dunstone's answer to Handy's asking him the reason for his success at Carphone Warehouse: "If I've got any special talent it is that I may be more sensitive than others." Well I have met people who have worked with Dunstone and, though he is indubitably an impressive chap, sensitivity has never been the first word that sprang to their lips.

The point is not whether Dawson and Dunstone are telling the whole truth. The point is that Handy relates their self-aggrandising statements, together with dozens from his other subjects, without dispute. The result is that each mini-biography is an almost sickeningly sweet essay that never tears down the subject's egocentric claims, never admits that they may often get their own way by bullying, or by being ruthless, or by being anything but sensitive towards other people. Yet we all know, and Handy surely knows, that this is frequently the case.

The problem is endemic to this type of book. The authors meet the individuals involved, and expect to meet them again, and want to build them up as icons, so they indulge in too much flattery and too little censure. To write revealingly about people you need to dip your pen in acid occasionally. Nobody is perfect, not even alchemists. And although Handy recounts the early failures his subjects laughingly confess to, he (and they) do so only to prove how they have triumphed over adversity. Whereas the real adversities over which they have triumphed are often buried deep in their personalities.

The third downside of Handy's approach, which he admits to (but that does not negate the problem), is that all his alchemists come from London, and almost none of them works in a truly large organisation. A motley collection of 29 Londoners working in small businesses is far too unrepresentative a sample on which to base valid generalisations - but Handy tries to, just the same. Thus he worries that too few of them have genuinely international ambitions and frets that too many of them are in service industries rather than manufacturing. But he admits that all this, and many of his other findings, may just be the result of his skewed sample, and in doing so inevitably gets his conclusions in a twist.

Perhaps I am being too critical. Perhaps looking at the shape and form of The New Alchemists , I ought to expect less depth. It is large, beautifully printed on glossy paper, with delightful colour photography: the kind of volume that used to be called a coffee-table book - nice to look at, not to be read too critically. If that was the author's intention, he has undoubtedly succeeded. But for a writer and thinker of Handy's quality, such an enterprise would hardly seem worthy of his time.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK, and chairman, Royal Institution.

The New Alchemists

Author - Charles Handy
ISBN - 0 09 180215 6
Publisher - Hutchinson
Price - £14. 99
Pages - 239

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