Charles Handy: The Curve of Life

Charles Handy, one of the great living management thinkers today, is a visiting fellow here in Claremont at the Drucker School (named after its most famous professor – Peter Drucker). Rick Wartzman, head of attached think tank called The Drucker Institute, wrote in his recent newsletter about Charles Handy’s "Curve of Life." I found this a simple but powerful explanation for why people and organizations need to continually reinvent themselves.

Curve3 “This is the curve of life,” declared Charles Handy. “This is the curve of everything.” Indeed, this little wave can describe the life cycle of a product, the ups and downs of a political candidate, the ebb and flow of a business—even the story of one’s own life.

But all life need not be measured by a single rise and fall. “You can maybe have a second curve, and a third curve,” Handy explained. The trick, he said, is that “you have to choose the next curve before the first curve peaks so that you have enough resources coming in to experiment…because it always takes about two years from the beginning of a new curve until the point where it transcends the peak of the old."
Trouble is, too many people and organizations fail to seek new curves until it’s too late. As Handy put it: "They wait until they see death staring them in the face before they start trying to find their next curve."

The central dilemma of the curve of life is, in other words, is knowing when to get off in time to prepare for the second curve.

4 comments on “Charles Handy: The Curve of Life
  • Will you get the chance to see Charles speak? I had the pleasure of seeing him at Leeds University (UK) where I was finishing up my Executive MBA last year. I’m afraid Shelfari has flummoxed me, so I can’t tell if you’ve read his project with his wife Elizabeth called the New Philanthropists? I’m sure you would enjoy it. She does the photography. He was a very interesting speaker and one of the few managment gurus to come from this side of the Atlantic.

  • I’ve been a Charles Handy fan ever since he coined the expression “proper selfishness” in his book “The Hungry Spirit”. It prompted application of self-belief, usage of self to help others”. It reasoned, if you don’t believe in yourself, you’re pretty much useless to others.

    Unfortunately the ubiquitous mediocrity that thrives on *shelf-belief* envies the passionate self-believer as aggressive, arrogant zealot when (s)he actually is a humble, uncomplicated individual with a refined thought process and a clear conscience. Their expression often rides free of guilt and in fact most unselfish because they let others take the glory for achieving something that they probably first dreamt of.

    But what earned him my respect was his preference for leadership of ideas over personality. Obviously he’d noticed that the most imaginative people have often been small, unexciting people. He also said “the best teachers I know are people who say “I don’t know” – instant recognition for the one that can be very confident and yet be in doubt. A sort of dichotomy that’s present in every right thinking individual.

    I doff my hat before the great man.

  • my favorite unwritten book title, Beating God’s Foot … god always kicks you in the butt when you are too slow to change, things just fall apart, so knowing when to change is doing it before god reminds you with a swift kick

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