Book Review: The Elephant and the Flea by Charles Handy


I’m a big fan of the Charles Handy’s 1991 classic, the Age of Unreason and the concept of the Shamrock Organisation that he describes in it. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with The Elephant and the Flea. The style is very autobiographical, which some people might see as being quite self-indulgent by the author since the book isn’t sold as a biography. However, really it is like sitting down and having a one-on-one interview with Handy where he explains his own story and how his professional and personal life experiences have come to shape his management ideas and theories, as well as his concerns for the future. But there is no hype or guru worshipping here. Handy isn’t perfect, but his honesty about his own mistakes along the way and awareness of his own limitations is refreshing.

Despite being published in 2001 and the fact Handy is a little bit of a technology laggard (but not a luddite), I was surprised at how relevant the conversation still is to a world undergoing the influence of the Internet revolution. Handy doesn’t predict the rise social media and social networking as we have now experienced it, but the underlying issues of the social and organisational changes taking place that are characterised by the concept of the Elephant and the Flea are part of that trend. However, Handy isn’t going to do that thinking for you. Read his story and then make some time to go away and think about it. One of the key challenges I see now is that while social software makes us all ‘Fleas’, even if we work inside an ‘Elephant’, do we all want to be ‘Fleas’ and do we need the ‘Elephant’?

There are many more ideas and issues to explore, if you give this book a chance. However, I also have to say that this probably shouldn’t be the first Charles Handy book you should read. If you have enjoyed his other work and would like more insight into the mind of this great thinker and teacher, then it makes a pleasurable and satisfying read. It is almost as good as meeting him in person.