In many ways, Charles Handy is THE management guru. Rumour hath it that the The Economist first coined the term to describe him. He first made his mark in management circles with the publication of his book, ‘The Age of Uncertainty’. It was named one of the 10 best business books of 1990 by both Business Week and Fortune.
The critics were not so kind to his book ‘The Hungry Spirit’, published in 1997. In it he writes:
“Many of us are, I believe, confused by the world we have created for ourselves in the West. We are confused by the consequences of capitalism, whose contribution to our well-being cannot be questioned, but which divides rich from poor, consumes so much of our the energies of those who work in it, and does not, it seems, always lead to a more contented world.”
“I know of no better economic system. Nevertheless, the new fashion of turning everything into a business, even our own lives, doesn’t seem to be the answer. A hospital, and my own life, is more than just a business.”
“What good can it possibly do to pile up riches which you cannot conceivably use, and what is the point of the efficiency needed to create those riches if one third of the world’s workers are now unemployed or underemployed?” (2,3)
Here, Handy sounds more like an Old Testament prophet than a management guru. We are not surprised that his critics suggested that it was disingenuous for a man of Handy’s affluence, to speak of money as merely a means, not an end. Others accused him of being anti-capitalist.
But his observations have the ring of truth. And if they disturb us, it is because so many of us have bought into this capitalist, free market vision of life. And if that vision proves to be wrong or inadequate, we are fearful that there are no other real alternatives.
Mr. Handy is merely being honest. But how did a first-class honours graduate of Oxford University, who did stints in Shell, and the London Business School, develop such spiritual discernment?
Handy himself gives the answer. The turning point of his life was the funeral of his father.
In Handy’s words, his father was:
“a quiet and rather ordinary man, albeit kind and loving. He was the rector of a small protestant parish in rural Ireland for forty years. He was unambitious for promotion, careful about money — careful because there wasn’t much — punctilious in his work and sincere in his belief’s, which were conventionally Christian. He did not have much to do with the wealth-creating part of the world, nor with its products.” (Hungry Spirit, 5-6)
Handy thought his father had wasted his life and at eighteen, Handy “resolved never to be poor, never to go to church again, and never to be content with where (he) stood in life.”
Handy was totally unprepared for what he saw at his father’s funeral.
“Then my father died, in the fullness of his years? I was staggered by the numbers who came to say farewell to this quiet man and the emotion which they showed. He had clearly affected the lives of people in ways I had never imagined. He had obviously got something right which I had been too obtuse to see. And in the end, too late for him to know, he affected my life, too.” (Hungry Spirit, 6)
Handy has never fully embraced biblical Christianity as we know it, though he argues for the necessity of Christian values and Christian-like values, as the basis for human society and economic life.
Hence he begins Chapter One of ‘Hungry Spirit’ by referring to an African understanding of life as consisting of two hungers.
“The lesser hunger is for the things that sustain life, the goods and services, and the money to pay for them, which we all need. The greater hunger is for an answer to the question ‘why’, for some understanding of what life is for.” (Hungry Spirit, 13)
The years since the publication of ‘The Hungry Spirit’ have proven Handy’s observations prophetic. Today we have both reasons for gloom and hope.
Since 1997, more and more of the world have bought into the capitalist dream and found that not only is the system imperfect, it can, at best, only feed the “lesser hunger”.
Therefore, today we look out into a world where many are hungry, and many more are hungry in spirit. Many seek to be unplugged from the dehumanizing “matrix” of been reduced to being merely economic beings.
Sadly, many will seek to unplug in all the wrong places. I suspect that suicide bombers and Ecstasy users have more in common than they may realize.
Perhaps what is sadder and scarier is that the church has often being found wanting, practicing her own versions of reductionism. If you don’t agree, answer me this: How many of us desire to be successful professionals and business persons, and how many of us have considered entering some kind of vocational church ministry? (I speak as one fully committed to the validity of all vocations.)
And if we desire to go into church related work, how many of us desire to be successful senior pastors of mega churches, and how many of us would be happy, serving quietly as the rector of “a small protestant parish”?
At the same time, I have seen many people, usually the young, who have seen through the B.S. of the “economic dream” and have decided that there is more to life. There is in them a fresh hunger for relationships, relationship with God and relationships with neighbour. Their numbers seem to be growing.
This is spiritual warfare and our awakening friends will need all the help and encouragement they can get. But if hungry spirits are to be fed, now is the time for our sons and our daughters to prophesy, and our young men to see visions. (Acts 2:17)
In the words of that new old song:
“Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticize What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is Rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin’.” (Bob Dylan)
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan