THE MYTHICAL COMPANY
This book argues that the modern CEO can learn a lot from Indian mythology
In 2012, only eight India companies featured in Fortune magazine’s global list of the world’s largest companies. Four of those were public sector behemoths in oil which operate in governmentcreated monopolistic conditions. Only Reliance, Tata Motors and Tata Steel make the list on merit. Clearly, India Inc, which has taken considerable strides in the last two decades, has some way to go before catching up with global peers. Of course, the key question is what is the best strategy to adopt to catch up? Should Indian business ‘ copy’ successful models from elsewhere or is there a uniquely Indian approach to management?
In his new book, leadership guru Devdutt Pattanaik builds a case for a very Indian approach to management, based on local culture and ancient mythology. At the core of his new management philosophy is the concept of belief, which he says is ignored by Western management science because it is subjective, intangible and not measurable. In Western management science, the emphasis is on behaviour and business. The former defines the measurable task for a manager while the latter defines a measurable target. There is no incorporation of intent ( or belief). It is assumed that certain behaviours automatically reflect certain beliefs. But in reality, there could be a disconnect. “Respect ( intangible belief) may manifest in politeness ( tangible behaviour), but politeness may not always reflect respect,” explains Pattanaik.
That is not all. Pattanaik argues that management science is actually not as objective as it is made out to be but is in fact based on subjective truths as seen by the West. According to the author, the fact that tasks and targets are put before people is a derivative of the Protestant work ethic. The lesson from Indian mythology, whether secular or religious, is that people can actually come first. There is value in bosses praising their subordinates regularly for their work as long as the praise is for real. It builds a sense of security and motivates.
The book is a tour de force of Indian mythology and the relevance of various stories, rituals and characters to contemporary managers. The author is critical of modern Western thought which dismisses mythology as irrational and unscientific. You may agree or disagree but the reality is that management is not as much a science as an exercise in understanding human behaviour. And since human beings do not always act in a rational manner— the nascent field of behavioural economics has already proved that— it is worth looking at supposedly nonscientific but philosophically sound wisdom.
Of course, the taste of a pudding is in its eating. The author is chief belief officer at Kishore Biyani’s Future Group which is not a poster boy of success and is in fact searching out foreign ( Western) investment for survival. Needless to say, Pattanaik insists this book is a reflective, not prescriptive exercise. But managers have little time for long- term reflection in a highly competitive environment. Also, it is wrong to portray management science as a Western monolith. The German model, based on close employer- employee relationships and collective bargaining of wages and benefits, differs from the brutally competitive Protestant work ethic- based AngloSaxon one and the Japanese model ( based on concepts like lifetime employment) differs from both. In the end a successful manager needs to imbibe the best from everywhere depending on the context. The importance of an imaginative mind— so evident in Indian mythology— will always help.