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Past Issue • Jul-Sep 2013

Stories Matter: What Global Leaders can Learn from Different Cultures

As physical boundaries across the globe become obsolete, how can cultural empathy and human psychology help build effective and responsible leaders? In a talk at the Indian School of Business, Devdutt Pattanaik, leadership consultant and author, described the role of myth and stories in shaping beliefs and behaviours, and highlighted how an understanding of these can be of value to global leaders.

Globalisation   has brought  to Indians the ability  to interact  with people  from across the  world.  This has exposed  us to the values embodied  in different cultures, thereby giving us a flavour of norms different from those  we  are used to. Moreover,   a common denominator   has emerged in the form of English  as a method of communication  among the audiences of the “global village.” However, in spite of the common portal,  it is  imperative  to appreciate the  nuanced beliefs of people from  across the world  (or indeed,  the organisational spectrum) in order to understand them and their  behaviour, Devdutt  Pattanaik explained in his lecture “Factoring Culture into Leadership in the Global Village” at ISB recently.

“If you  don’t understand  what  makes a good human being, it is very difficult  to become a global leader and certainly  a responsible  global leader,” he argued. The best way to understand belief, Pattanaik explained,   is  to understand myth  – “the stories, symbols and rituals that communicate  an idea, a belief.” This understanding is at the core of responsible leadership in the increasingly interconnected  era of globalisation.

A Model for a New World Order

An  important   question  that  managers today  have to ask themselves is whether  to embrace the “objective world of numbers [and]  rules” – which has traditionally   been the approach of management – or the “subjective world of thoughts, feelings and emotions,” which, according to Pattanaik, is becoming increasingly important  in the new world order. The disparity between the two worlds is exemplified  by a children’s story from India: Given the task of circling the world  three  times  as quickly  as possible, two brothers chose different  approaches. While the more athletic brother completed the task by flying around the world  on his peacock thrice, the weaker sibling chose a more strategic tactic. He circled his parents – whom  he described as his world  – three times. This story illustrates  the  idea that  belief  is a subjective truth, which may appear rational and objective to the believer though not so to the outsider. The world  is populated  by many such beliefs, each of which  is true for the believer.

An important question that managers today have to ask themselves is whether to embrace the “objective world of numbers [and] rules” – which has traditionally been the approach of management – or the “subjective world of thoughts, feelings and emotions,” which, according to Pattanaik, is becoming increasingly important in the new world order.

Using  the  analogy of an Éclair  chocolate, Pattanaik explained that it is as important to know the “inner  chocolate,” or the idea behind beliefs, as much as it is to know the “outer  caramel,” or the beliefs themselves. This perspective is central to Pattanaik’s model – understanding the what (business), the how (behaviour) and the why (belief) of people’s actions.

Behaviour and Belief
It is important,   Pattanaik said, to “not mistake behaviour  for belief.” This is a fundamental   error made in many organisations  and is based on  an incomplete  or lack  of understanding  of people’s stories. Management studies themselves reflect the beliefs of dominant economies at different  periods. Management theory took root at Harvard University and in America in the 1920s and focussed on Western and European principles  for many years after wards; in the  1980s,  during  Japan’s spectacular boom, its myths and stories assumed importance; and more recently, with the rise of India  and China, there is a growing  sense within  the field of management studies that the beliefs and stories of these civilisations  are worth exploring

A very important cultural factor that determines our behaviour is our belief in how many lives we have. For instance, if we believe that we live only once, we will greatly value achievement. On the other hand, if we believe that we live multiple lives, the value of our life is no longer dependent on the sum of our achievements in one lifetime.

Stories help to explain  the values and behaviour  of different societies. For example, the modern Western concept of a hero  and achievement can be traced to the  Greeks.  Pattanaik  drew  a parallel  between ancient Greek culture and the modern day Olympic Games where the hero who  is “individualistic   and powerful”  and “refuses to accept the status quo”  is celebrated. Achievement  was mandatory and victor y was celebrated,  because to the Greeks, it meant being “welcomed   by the  gods to Olympus to sit  among them.” As an example  of how  myths influence  beliefs and behaviours in different cultures, Pattanaik related the Greek story of the cruel Titan Cronus eating his own child. This story not only symbolises the tyranny of the strong over the weak but  also urges defiance against the cruel father and freedom  from  his tyranny. The story is different   in other  parts of the world. Pattanaik made a distinction  between the “cruel father” of Greek mythology and the “caring  father [from  the Middle East] who sacrificed his own son for the good of humanity.”

The story of Moses and the Exodus offers another perspective  on  this  theme.  Moses explains  to his people that he will lead them to “the promised land far, far away… the land of milk  and honey, the land of freedom”  but that they must follow the rules and commandments delivered by caring father to Moses. Yet, urging alignment to the rules – blind compliance – is where the difficulties arose for that prophet. Like the Hindu God Ram (in the epic “Ramayana”), if the belief is that the “father is kind and caring; very much like the prophet,”  compliance will follow.  On the other hand, if the belief, like God Krishna’s, is that the “father is cruel,” then rule breaking and bending will prevail. In the context of an organisation and of life, such beliefs influence behaviour: Is the father/ leader good or cruel? Is alignment or defiance better?

One Life or Many

A very important  cultural factor that determines our behaviour  is our belief in how many lives we have. For instance, if we believe that we live only once, we will greatly value achievement. On the other hand, if we believe that we live multiple lives, the value of our life is no longer dependent on the sum of our achievements in one lifetime. “The point [of] your life,” Pattanaik explained,  “is not to achieve but to understand what is true.” Furthermore, the “climax” becomes of utmost importance if we believe in one life. On the other hand, no particular  event is considered superior  in magnitude if we believe in multiple lives because “it goes and it comes but it never ends.” The difference in world  view among believers of one life versus many lives has profound  implications  on how people and cultures behave. In light of this, Pattanaik asked, how can we expect to have one standard for all?

Diversity or Efficiency

Pattanaik explored the societal dissimilarities between India and the rest of the world. While America and Europe have generally homogenous populations, India’s is extremely diverse. The argument returned to the original point of discussion involving English as a  common   mode   of communication.  Although Indian  society has “tangible  and measurable”  view of diversity, it does pose problems  with respect to efficiency.  For  example,  Pattanaik  said,  if a  CEO were to give a speech  in a company  where  multiple languages are spoken,  how  efficient  would  it be to have the speech “translated 17 times?”

Pattanaik extrapolated  this  thought  into a profound   takeaway  for the  future leader  of an organisation: “Because not everything in life can be controlled [or] organised,  learn to let go.” This is an important  lesson for a leader because one cannot be held responsible for the myriad gradations in a firm. It will fall upon the executive to identify pockets of opportunity  and development and to work on them in a steadfast manner.

Leadership in the Global Village

Pattanaik  stressed  the   importance   of identifying the most  practical  way forward for a leader  of an establishment,  in terms  of acknowledging others’ stories and understanding  their  beliefs and reasons for those beliefs.

He offered  a model  based on an ancient Indian ritual  practiced two thousand years ago. A  person made offerings  to the holy fire in order to please and invoke the blessings of a particular  deity. From  a modern  day perspective, this translates to an “investor who invests and an investee who gives you a return on investment.” One must ask oneself who is the “deity” or the investor that is being invoked or called out to. Is it the shareholder, the customer, the employee or the society? There is no single or right answer to this question, but what is important  for the  successful leader is to be very clear about his or her answer.

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