Croquet is a “grown-up form of outdoor chess”, according to Charles Handy. Redolent of Victorian summers in English gardens, it often looks to the outsider like a game of genteel decorum. Handy, though, relishes the sport’s unexpected aggressive side.
In a vicious twist to the rules, for instance, he likes to sharpen the early part of the game by allowing players to “croquet” an opponent’s ball — sending it rocketing off in the wrong direction — before they have passed through the first hoop.
As we take to the lawn at his house outside the village of Diss, under unpromisingly overcast Norfolk skies, he says that on this occasion he prefers to pose with a mallet and ball rather than take part. “I was always better at tactics than hitting the ball,” he tells me.
The management writer, thinker and self-styled “social philosopher” also has a couple of good excuses for sitting out this game: he is 87 and in April he suffered a stroke from which, with the help of family and friends, he is gradually recovering.
As soon as I take aim at the first hoop, however, Handy is on his feet. He is a little unsteady but ready to match me shot for shot, and frustrated when his depleted physical force fails to match his ambition.
From murky origins, croquet was refined and codified into a game for the leisured classes in 19th-century Britain. In singles, each player has two balls, which he or she must propel through six hoops in a race to a central peg.
Extra shots are earned by passing through a hoop or by striking your ball against another. Skilled players can build a “break” of several hoops, while driving opponents’ balls far from their target.
In croquet, as in life, Handy explains, you must choose between making a riskier move and playing safe. The parallel is typical of his approach. His most memorable and prescient thinking about management, organisations and the future of work is built on anecdotes and metaphors.
In 1981, having started a conventional career with Shell, the oil company, and then continued into business education and leadership development, Handy made that riskier move and went freelance.
Helped by his wife Liz, who acted as his agent while developing her own career as a photographer, he built a formidable reputation as a speaker, broadcaster and writer.
It was Handy who identified and analysed the emerging structure of corporate capitalism, in which large companies (“elephants”) coexist with independent workers or groups of workers (“fleas”). “Elephants get all of the attention,” he wrote in 2001, “but most people actually work as fleas.”
His image for a business made up of part-timers, subcontractors and full-time staff was the “shamrock organisation”, a nod to his Anglo-Irish upbringing as the son of a Protestant archdeacon in the Republic of Ireland. He coined the term “portfolio career” and foresaw many of the uncertainties and opportunities of what we now call the gig economy.
This garden in Diss, and the houses that he and Liz gradually converted into their country retreat, where both could work in relative peace, have supplied some of the stories for these works.
Over the hedge from where we are playing croquet is a field that used to be farmed by “two old boys”, who would take days to cut and stook the corn, sometimes with the Handys’ help.
Handy, whose vaulted, light-filled study looks out towards the field, noticed that eventually the harvest was carried out by “one guy with a tractor, who did the whole field in a day”. The machines brought greater efficiency but reduced what had been a community relationship to one where “we were just spectators”.
Similarly, on the other side of the house, Liz once photographed the cottages in the village. When she went back to picture them some 30 years later, they looked virtually unaltered from the outside, but “what happened inside had changed completely”. They were lived in by journalists, consultants and other independent workers, who were more detached from the rural community.
It is a surprise that croquet does not feature more often in Handy’s work, because it turns out to be a rich source of metaphor. Crucially, he warns as I try to forge ahead through the first two hoops, “the direct route isn’t always the best one”.
In doubles, you must sometimes sacrifice your own ambitions to help your partner. You also have to “think three hoops ahead — unlike this prime minister”, adds Handy, in an arch reference to the tumultuous opening weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Once he emerged from the shelter of Shell and full-time employment, Handy demonstrated a talent for challenging convention and provoking new thinking. Octogenarians are often said to “twinkle”, as though age has turned them into decorations, but to apply the verb to Handy would be a bad misjudgment. He retains a real spikiness alongside his generosity of spirit and openness to new ideas.
While recovering from his stroke in hospital, he became impatient with the regimen laid down by his nurses and doctors, insisting that a notice should be pinned above his bed reading, “Charles Handy Is Allowed To Do Whatever He Wants To Do”.
He has over time pared down his wisdom, revealing its philosophical underpinnings. His first book, published in 1976 before his leap into independent work, had the unpromisingly dry title Understanding Organizations. But Handy describes himself now as “a slightly unconventional professor”, and says that while “you find my books under the heading of management . . . they are about making the most of life”.
His latest, 21 Letters on Life and Its Challenges, takes the form of lessons handed down to his grandchildren — interwoven with touching tributes to his wife, whose death last year obviously shook him. What was her studio in the house in Diss has been turned into his downstairs bedroom as he convalesces.
After we abandon the croquet lawn for the comfort of the armchairs in Handy’s study next door (for the record, I was ahead but have no doubt that, in his prime, Handy would have trounced me), he reminds me of the central peg in his reading of the game of life: Aristotle’s concept of eudaemonia — happiness or, perhaps more accurately, fulfilment.
Handy glosses this as “do the best at what you are best at”. Making money is “a necessary and not a sufficient condition” for such a fulfilled existence, he says. He points to a beautiful bentwood chair in the study. It took three months to make.
Collecting the piece, Handy remarked to its creator that it was “a difficult way to make money”. “That’s not the point,” the craftsman responded. “It’s a difficult way to make a perfect chair.”
Handy detected the opposite attitude among some of his hospital nurses and doctors. “I thought people were the essence of the organisation and if you could make the best use of your people, that was the secret of success. But listening to the carers and the doctors, it became clear that they believe most people are a bloody nuisance.”
“You’re forgetting that you’re here to care for me,” he told them. “No,” came the response, “we’re here to keep you alive at the lowest possible cost.”
It reminded Handy of a previous encounter with the chief executive of a new hospital, who he complimented about the facility. The manager replied wistfully that he should have seen it “in all its glory, before the patients came”.
Handy ascribes such attitudes to the widespread “curse of efficiency”. The antidote, he insists, is to “connect the individual with the purpose, which is what leadership is about”. It’s something he has tried to do with the carers helping his recovery at home.
“If you can establish a personal relationship, they can take pride in their progress and share my definition of purpose — and they get delight when I can stand on one leg or wash my face.”
When I first met him in 2013, Handy seemed despondent about the way in which the stable corporate economy — epitomised for Handy by his first employer, Shell, with its promise of lengthy careers and comfortable pensions — had fragmented, creating more uncertainty than opportunity.
He felt this uncertainty personally when he made the leap to the “second curve” of his career (the title of his radical 2015 book about reinventing society), having decided that he should practise what he was preaching about casting off into self-employment.
As a newly independent worker in the early 1980s, he says he “used to carry two postcards with me, ‘money in’ and ‘money out’, and I used to add up the money in and the necessary money out, and I was always very worried”. Only later did demand for his insights, combined with Liz’s formidable skills as a “quite brilliant” agent, start to improve the Handy balance sheet.
These days, he is encouraged by how young people are handling the risk inherent in the gig economy. “The young seem to lap it up. They live far more dangerously than we did . . . [They’re] more relaxed about money and the future, which I think is lovely; they don’t get as hung up about it as I did.”
He is far less optimistic about companies themselves, where “hundreds of thousands of talented people have no room to express themselves . . . They suck the lifeblood out of you, these big organisations, because people aren’t connected to the purpose.”
He recalls asking one chairman of Shell how he was making a difference to the world from his lofty perch at the top of the energy company. “He said, ‘I just sit here, bored out of my mind, listening to people making presentations and in the end I put my signature to them. Quite frankly, Charles, anyone could do my job.’”
Yet Handy is also sceptical about the current fad for imposing a purpose from the top down. It should “bubble up” from the people themselves, who should be able to “contribute to their idea of what the purpose could be”. Wanting to be “the best spoonmaker in Germany”, say, is too narrow a definition of organisational purpose.
Applying Aristotle, he believes that “if every organisation could find out what they were best at, they might be surprised; and if they did their best with what they were best at, for the good of others, it would get very exciting”.
An overcast afternoon, which had threatened rain, is turning into a beautiful late summer evening — perfect for croquet, if either of us had the energy to continue our game. Handy’s solicitous family are gently anxious that he may already have done too much. That may be true for this afternoon, but the writer has more to add to his portfolio career.
The stroke has made it impossible for him to use a computer to write in the way he used to, but Handy says he has another book in him, if he can work out how to compose it, inspired by his experience as a patient (provisional title “Random Thoughts from a Hospital Bed”). The great tactician is still thinking three hoops ahead.
Three big Handy concepts
The Age of Unreason (1989)
Handy proposed a reinvention of work as a portfolio, made up of “wage work”, “fee work” (as carried out by professionals, craftspeople and freelancers), “homework” (from cooking to childcare), “gift work” (for voluntary organisations), and “study work” (such as learning a language or a new skill). “Sooner or later, thanks to the reshaping of the organisation we shall all be portfolio people. It is good news,” he wrote.
The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist (2001)
He laid out four major challenges for large organisations as the nature of corporate capitalism changes: “1. How to grow bigger, but remain small and personal. 2. How to combine creativity with efficiency. 3. How to be prosperous but also socially acceptable. 4. How to reward both the owners of the ideas as well as the owners of the company.”
The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society (2015)
Examined radical ways of reforming institutions, including the education system, parliamentary democracy and marriage. “To move forward in many areas of life it is sometimes necessary to change radically, to start a new course that will be different from the existing one, often requiring a whole new way of looking at familiar problems . . . The real problem is that the change has to be initiated while the first curve is still going.”
“21 Letters on Life and Its Challenges” (Penguin Random House) is out now
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published