Can ‘elephants’ tolerate a ‘flea’ culture today?

«We all have to live, at least for a period, like fleas – independent actors in life. We all possess abilities of some type. The difficulty is to convert them into a service or a product for which others will be prepared to pay substantially. Money may not be a be-all in life, but it certainly makes it more attractive,» says Charles Handy, the well-known British broadcaster and «social philosopher,» as he likes to call himself. He recently spoke to Kathimerini on future challenges, the need for individuals to become more flexible and for organizations to become «societies of independent people,» as well as other interesting topics he touches on in his latest book, «Elephants and Fleas: Is Your Organization Prepared for Change?» (it is now out in Greek from Kritiki Publications). Handy says the minute he decided to leave behind the security of big corporations – the «elephants» – and academia (he served as senior executive in Shell for many years, as professor at the London Business School and as president of the Royal Society of Arts) in order to become a freelance professional – a «flea» – he came face-to-face with a new world. «Stress is a thing of the past, I make my own schedule and most important, I discover hidden abilities – along with the significance of planning and self-discipline, I explore my potentialities and find ways of selling them,» he says. It was his wife, Elizabeth, who in effect encouraged him to become a «flea.» Handy believes there are far more fleas than he originally believed; his previous book, «The Alchemist,» dealt with these self-made Britons who started from nothing. What, then, does it take for the average man to become a successful flea? «Confidence in your personal abilities, self-control, self-discipline and, above all, knowledge of yourself,» he says; it is no accident, he adds, that the ancient Greeks placed self-knowledge above everything else. «It is only then that one can recognize what makes one happy and find the strength to proceed with the radical changes that success requires.» Handy believes that knowledge of oneself is very easy to acquire, with the help of others and the continuous evaluation of the lessons one receives from personal experiences. «If this does not happen, then experiences simply accumulate without serving to better Man or help achieve his desires.» But desires are directly influenced by socioeconomic conditions at any given time. Without demonizing it, Handy has reservations about the concept of globalization. «It is not necessarily something negative – like all things, it has negative and positive aspects. It undoubtedly augments market efficiency, boosting competition, which is beneficial to the consumer. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore its very negative influence on minorities, whether this is related to the ability of small businesses to compete on equal terms in a globalized market, or to the risks it poses to the identities of peoples.» Self-fulfilment Handy’s philosophical explorations include business. «In this environment, the unit, the individual, must be prepared to meet challenges. It must be flexible and independent, because sooner or later it will discover that sticking to an ‘elephant’ or material goods does not offer anything substantial, keeping talents and abilities well bogged-down. It is young people in particular who need to be aware of this, who enter the market with the aim of amassing as many material things as possible. They are prepared to work hard – endless hours in fact – in order to acquire what they dreamed of, without realizing, or only when it is too late, that businesses take the best out of them and ultimately replace them.» Handy believes enterprises are «people greedy,» using them without taking into account their personal needs. «They throw themselves into the battle with all their strength and only when it is too late do they realize that in essence they have spent their lives serving the interests of an ‘elephant’ but at the cost of their personal balance.» Things in our age are further complicated due to the rapid development of technology, which accounts, to a significant degree, for rising unemployment. Also, the economic slowdown and enterprises’ turn to cost-cutting and revenue boosting render individuals more vulnerable – one more reason, according to Handy, for them to become «fleas,» that is, independent, flexible units. ‘Flea culture?’ Not all is gloom, however; «elephants» can adopt a «flea culture» through a recognition of individual needs, encouraging initiative and supporting independence with the ultimate goal of personal fulfilment. «In reality, as the wealth of enterprises will be invested in separate individuals, depending on their knowledge, even elephants can, at some point, be considered as societies of independent fleas – an evidently healthier picture than viewing companies as sums of human resources which belong to shareholders.» Indeed, Handy concedes that the idea of world inhabited only by fleas, by self-employed professionals and small businesses, is fearsome. «If one side of the coin of freedom is solitary existence, the other side of independence is egoism. I thank God for the best of the elephants, for the employers of human resources and government agencies. For despite the restrictions they impose on us, they keep us linked and force us to compromise our freedoms for the sake of a more general goal, the needs of our fellow-men.» The interview with Charles Handy was translated from the Greek text.

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