Penn State

James F. Fairbank - Associate Professor of Management, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

Book Title: The Age of Paradox

Author: Charles Handy

Book Description:

It is my pleasure to select Charles Handy’s The Age of Paradox (1994, Harvard Business School Press).

This book has special meaning to me because I was introduced to it during the time I was preparing for my comprehensive exams in business administration at Penn State. It was not recommended by one of my professors, but rather by a fellow doctoral student who, like me, had been a manager and was preparing for the professorship as a second career. He intended it as a diversion for me -- something to think about to ease the strain I was experiencing during my preparation process. However, I found it to be so much more than that.

To say that The Age of Paradox was an eye opener is a classic understatement. Handy, an Irish social philosopher and influential management thinker, examines how organizational life coexists with other aspects of our being in the contemporary complex and turbulent world. He questions the very nature of the work-life relationship and the meaning of “balance” (if there is such a thing) in our lives, pointing out paradoxes with which we struggle daily in both our professional and personal responsibilities.

More than just observations, Handy can’t resist sticking a well-placed thumb in the eye of management educators. He offers thoughtful criticism of some of the truisms and oversimplifications of business, exemplified by the following passage that so aptly probes the conventional wisdom that the principal purpose of a company is to generate profits, so profits must therefore be the “principal yardstick” of business performance:

“… but a yardstick for what? And how can a yardstick be a purpose? It’s like saying that you play cricket to get a good batting average. Wrong. You need a good average to keep on playing and to get into the first team. We need to clean up our logic.” (pg. 159)

I enjoy that passage immensely, and have paraphrased it often while teaching various management courses in an effort to encourage my own students to open their minds to different ways of thinking.

I appreciate the privilege of having my name associated with such a wonderful, though-provoking book.


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