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.