The Empty Raincoat

The Age of Unreason first appeared in bookshops in 1989.  The front cover illustration was of a frog with a placard on its back, on which the author, Charles Handy, had written “We are entering an Age of Unreason, a time when the future, in so many areas, is to be shaped by us and for us; a time when the only prediction that will hold true is that no predictions will hold true; a time, therefore, for bold imaginings in private life as well as public; for thinking the unlikely and doing the unreasonable.”  There were nine chapters, three on changing (The Argument, The Numbers, The Theory), three on working (on Shamrock, Federal and Triple I organisations, respectively), and three on living (Portfolios, Re-inventing Education, and An Upside-down Society). What was this?  Management sermons delivered in the style of Martin Luther King?  It was the first in an important series of four books aimed at helping managers confront and try to make sense of organisational change as the 20th Century was ending.

As you delved into The Age of Unreason, what became clear was Charles Handy’s skill was in making you stop and think.  Throughout his four collections of essays, he would relate one simple story after another, but somehow each would stick.  It was rather like a book he wrote much later, with the title of The Elephant and the Flea.  The image that title suggests is the contrast between large, lumbering organisations and quick, surefooted innovative start-ups.  However, when I think of Charles Handy and his books, a slightly different image comes to mind, a mosquito rather than a flea, quietly coming up to you, buzzing so you are aware it’s there just as it stings you, leaving you with the aftermath in the form of a niggling and unrelenting irritation for days.  His ideas work like that.  You read them, aware you are being provoked, asked to rethink, challenged to look at the familiar in a different way.  Afterwards, almost surreptitiously, the ideas persist and worry you.  You find a few thoughts have got under your guard and wormed into your thinking (if that isn’t some kind of mixed metaphor).  Once lodged in your thoughts, they stay, often identified by a simple but unforgettable label – the white stone, the sigmoid curve, the doughnut, and the empty raincoat.

Of all this books, I think it’s The Empty Raincoat that best illustrates Handy’s maverick thinking. Certainly, it’s the one that has had the most impact on my own ideas and understanding.  Should you find yourself in Washington, on The Mall and close to the Hirshhorn Museum, you’ll see a statue of an empty raincoat.  It’s called Post Balzac, by Judith Shea.  It’s one of three copies, the second is in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, Iowa, the third was exhibited at the White House.  The title is a deliberate reference to that extraordinary sculpture of Balzac by Rodin, which you can see in the Melbourne National Gallery collection, a casting made in Paris by the Musee Rodin.  Shea’s Balzac is in conversation with Rodin’s sculpture:  Rodin’s rendition is of a vast, powerful and potent figure, strangely posed as if he is gripping his own huge phallus under his coast; Shea’s comment on Rodin’s work is a statement of absence, the robe has become an open raincoat, revealing there’s nothing inside.   Handy’s collection is based on the same kind of dialogue, taking what appears to be a clear and dominating idea, and showing how it can be inverted, twisted or even denied, and, as a result, offer us unexpected new insights.

The cover of the first edition of The Empty Raincoat included a photograph of Shea’s Post Balzac.  Alongside the image, Handy is quoted:  “The empty raincoat is, to me, the symbol of our most pressing paradox.  If economic progress means that we become anonymous cogs in some great machine, then progress is an empty promise.  The challenge must be to show how paradox can be managed”.  The book appeared in 1994:  those words retain their relevance and significance today as we confront the continuing paradoxes thrown up by technological development and automation, perhaps even more so as we see the emergence of large language models, like ChatGPT, which some see as creating a world without humans.

Many writers conjure up thought-provoking ideas.  What makes Charles Handy’s approach different is that his comments often seem only half-formed, allusive rather than fully thought through, ways of thinking which are exploring ideas and questions rather than analyses that are complete and finished.  I recently checked some websites for insight into leadership and  management as I thought about Handy’s insights.  One recommended you figure out what time in the day you function best and do key work then!  Another dealt with practices to cultivate resilience and suggested, among other ideas, we accept uncertainty and be willing to adjust by exercising patience and empathy with others.   Best of all, one suggested the secret to good leadership was listening.  If only I’d thought of that!  Let’s face it, I much prefer the insights thrown up by the white stone, the sigmoid curve, or the empty raincoat.

The first in Handy’s series of four books was The Age of Unreason, and thirty years later it remains both highly relevant and important.  Some stories are dated, and I did enjoy him quoting an American teenager who predicted (among other things) that there would be test tube babies and a cure for cancer (both well on the way), and robots holding political office in the USA (certainly that description can be applied to many White House staff and appointments – even if those weren’t the kind of robots he had in mind!).  It is also a little surprising to see the original book cover alluded to the story you could kill a frog by putting it in a beaker and slowly bringing the water to the boil: not true, and, as it happens, not an especially good analogy for what Handy had to say.

More seriously, this is the first book in which Charles Handy emerges unambiguously as a ‘flea’, or, as I just suggested, a mosquito making irritating stabs to upset our comfort and equanimity.  He pushes us to think ‘upside down’, offering insights and frameworks to turn conventional models on their head.  One example, which many writers have since taken up, is the image of the ‘shamrock’ organisation.  The three leafed shamrock suggests we think about contemporary businesses as having three parts:  the full-time core of experts, managers and specialists; the individuals and others who are contracted to perform various services; and the part-time and occasional workers hired and used briefly from time to time.  It’s a particularly appropriate image for an Irishman, and cleverly, he reminded us of the lucky four-leafed shamrock, with a fourth group, customers, who are also ‘working’ for the company.  For many, this perspective has pushed aside the simplistic hierarchical model of the enterprise.

Another striking image was that of the federal organisation, where the parts work largely independently, only ceding some roles to the centre (co-ordination, funding), rather than following the typical corporate model of the head office controlling all the subsidiaries.  The mosquito knew how to irritate:  he suggested the federal model relied on subsidiarity, a word from the Roman Catholic Church.  He quoted from Pope Leo X on the principal of subsidiarity: “it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a large and higher organisation to arrogate to itself functions which can be efficiently by smaller and lower organisations”.  Subsidiarity involves giving power to front line staff.  As a model for business, it is both powerful and relevant:  despite this, three decades later many CEOs still believe they should still directly control almost everything in the company.

If The Age of Unreason was a new kind of business book, five years later Charles Handy’s next book, The Empty Raincoat, firmly established him as a leading thinker, and as an important and  provocative commentator.  As with the image of the shamrock in the previous volume, he used several equally telling and memorable ways to ensure his ideas stuck.  This time his focus was clearly on paradoxes and uncertainty:  no more frogs on the cover, but that photograph of an empty raincoat and his comment making it clear he saw the empty raincoat was a symbol of a key paradox:  “If economic progress means that we are becoming anonymous cogs in some great machine, then progress is an empty promise.  The challenge must be to show how paradox can be managed”.  Today his agenda of 25 years ago is, quite clearly, even more pressing.

Subtitled ‘making sense of the future’, The Empty Raincoat represents another shift, as Handy steps back from suggesting solutions and, instead, decides to alert the reader to thinking about issues.  This was central to his focus on paradoxes, as they describe situations that were inherently contradictory, not logical problems waiting to be solved.  One of my favourites in his list is the paradox of time.  Simply put, the contradictory nature of time is that we have never had more time available to us, as we live longer and more healthily, but at the same time we never have enough time to do what we want!

Early in The Empty Raincoat, Handy introduces one of his most well-known devices for thinking, the ‘sigmoid curve’.  The sigmoid curve is the letter S that has fallen forwards:  if you start at what had been the tail of the S you travel downwards, then level out, then start moving upwards until you reach the maximum, and then fall back down again.  It is an analogy for what happens to a business.  Initially, a new business requires investment and major expense, and there are no profits being made in return;  slowly things turn around, income grows and the company becomes more and more profitable; eventually, it peaks (usually in the face of competition) and starts to decline.  A novel description of a familiar path.  However, he explained the next cycle of growth has to begin before the company reaches maximum profitability.  In other words, you initiate a new business before the current one has achieved maximum profitability.  From that simple image, the sigmoid curve seems to have entered the lexicon of businesspeople, entrepreneurs and management academics.

Further into the book, Handy returns to the issues of subsidiarity and the processes of the federal organisation.  He examines the nature and purpose of a company, a topic on which I’ve written before.  However, it is another, more personal theme he examines next, and with it another memorable image.  This is his discussion of working in a ‘portfolio’ world.  As he saw how work was evolving, he observed there were various ways in which one might spend time:  being employed, working on a contract for a fee, working without income for a non-profit organisation, home duties, and working for one’s personal benefit (like a blogger!!).  The image of the portfolio calls to my mind those big black portfolios artists use to carry around their work, evidence of their abilities demonstrated by work they had completed.  In a portfolio world, we have our collection of things we do, especially once we have made the transition from working full time to other ways of working, whether by choice, by retirement, or because there’s no other choice.  In the aftermath of Covid, many people are assessing and managing their portfolio of activities, deciding how they will spend their time in the future.  A portfolio life often seems a greater challenge for men, many of whom have worked full-time and done little else, than for women, who are often thrown into a portfolio life early on.

Exploring the mechanics of a working life leads on to Handy’s explanation of the image of the white stone.  He introduces us to Luke, a down-and-out young man with West Indian parents.  “He had no job, no home, no money, and no hope. There seemed to him to be little point in living. The market economy and the freedom that capitalism offers meant nothing to him. He was outside all of that. By the time I met him, however, there was no trace of that defeatism and depression. He was enrolled in college now, he told me. He was upbeat, charming, interesting in his views — we met at a conference on the future of work — and interested in ours.  ‘What happened?’ I asked.  ‘Well, when things were at their worst, I called my dad and told him how I felt.  All he said was, ‘Think about this; when you get to heaven you will meet the man you might have been’, then he put the phone down.  That was all I needed. I went away, thought about it, and applied to college.’”

Handy goes on to comment, “You don’t have to believe in a literal heaven to get the point.  I keep a small white stone on my desk to remind me of the same point.  It refers to a mysterious verse in the Book of Revelations in the Bible, a verse which suggests: ‘To the one who prevails, the Spirit says, I will give a white stone …  on which is written a name, which shall be known only to the one who receives it.’  I am no biblical scholar, but I know what I think it means.  It means that if I prevail, I will, eventually, find out who I truly ought to be, the other hidden self.  Life is a search for the white stone.  It will be a different for each of us.”  Of course, it depends on what is meant by ‘prevail.’  It means, I suspect, passing life’s little tests, until you are free to be fully yourself, which is when you find your white stone. James Hillman, one of the more popular of America’s philosophers of ‘soul’ talks of there being an ‘acorn’ in each one of us which contains the seed of our destiny.  The Greeks spoke of our ‘daemon’ and the Romans of each person’s ‘genius’.  As Charles Handy reminds us, Jesus said the kingdom of God is within us.  Today, using concepts like ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and ‘heart’  reminds us there’s a purpose to our lives, if only we can find it.  I am drawn to the symbolism of the white stone because it suggests that we have to take the initiative to find our purpose.  To lie back and hope that our soul will lead us to nirvana is not an option.

If we knew what was on the white stone to start with, what it meant to be fully yourself, it would all be easy.  Since we don’t know what it is until we have it, we can only proceed by constant exploration.  It’s always likely to be a long search.  Many give up or never start.  If it’s true, as some hypothesise, that we have only discovered and used around 25 percent of our potential talents by the time we die, we may never get there.  Perhaps it is better to think of the white stone as a conjecture:  if it’s hard to find  know the truth, then the sooner we start experimenting with ourselves the better.  I like the idea of a self in search of meaning, a self which can lift itself to previously unknown heights, a self which exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, and sets aside aggression to discover the meaningful peaks of life.

‘Know Yourself,’ the ancient Greek admonition, should, logically, be the first step on the way to the white stone.  It is likely to be a never-ending quest because we are growing and changing all the time.  However, Handy is not suggesting the road to the white stone is an invitation to endless navel-gazing, but rather he’s offering a warning “not to wear clothes that don’t fit you.  Stop pretending, in other words, or you waste your life”.  He quotes many wise commentators., including Arthur Miller, the playwright: “I see it [life] as an endless, truly endless struggle. There’s no time when we’re going to arrive at a plateau where the whole thing gets sorted. It’s a struggle in the way every plant has to find its own way to stand up straight. A lot of the time it’s a failure. And yet it’s not a failure if some enlightenment comes out of it.”  As Handy adds, in our presently confusing world, the search for meaning is even more important in helping us “recognise our place and role in the world”.

The Empty Raincoat invites you to take part in discovery, recognising there are things we don’t know and can’t see, while challenging us to keep seeking purpose in our lives in a dialogue between what is the case and what could be possible.  It stretches us to rethink, put Balzac’s raw power to one side, and ask what an empty raincoat might protect and cherish.