Stories are powerful, ideas are omnipotent. The world as we perceive now, is the cumulative product of innumerable ideas over a period of about 70,000 years. We as humans, start believing in ideas when they come wrapped inside stories. For centuries, stories have inspired – discoveries, conquests, revolutions, assassinations and the list unending. Alexander’s exploits which arguably shaped subsequent civilizations, was inspired by the Iliad. The Nazis wiped out 6 million Jews with the help of a story – unadulterated survival of the supreme race. It is not hard to imagine the impact the right story will have on an individual, let alone a population.
There have been enough and more research around the art of storytelling and its importance in the holistic development of the “professional”. The importance of storytelling in leadership has inspired companies to inspire their executives in the art of storytelling. However, not everyone is intrinsically a storyteller. As a result, the “art” – similar to most other elements in corporate ecosystems – has been “templatized”. Majority of corporate storytelling revolves around the following aspects –
– Having a hero
– Starting at the result, and working its way back on how to achieve it
– Activity and associated benefits
As Yuval Noah Harari says, Humans have two kinds of abilities – physical and cognitive. Stories appeal to the latter, however the key word in the previous sentence is “Humans”.
It is probably time for a story! In the great India epic, the Ramayana, when Rama and Lakshmana were wandering in the forest in search of Sita, they came across Shabari – a hunter’s daughter. Shabari offered the wandering brothers, berries that were plucked from trees in her ashram. However, before she gave Rama the berries, she would taste them herself. This enraged Lakshmana. He was flabbergasted at how this inconsequential low caste woman could offer the Prince of Ayodhya, half eaten berries. However, Rama saw a different narrative. He saw the courage and kindness of this woman offering two armed strangers, food at her abode. And then she was tasting the berries to ensure each offering to her guests was sweet.
Same data – different analysts. Same story – different interpretations! Sound familiar?
The idea is that the templatization of stories can have as devastating effects on morale, consequently businesses, as the right stories to the right people can have revolutionary ones. Hence just inspiring storytelling, and that too at higher levels of the hierarchy is more of a detriment than a catalyst. In order to understand the nuances pertaining to relevance of stories or even the construct, it is important to understand the differences in psyche of individuals and more collectively cultures. For example, the rationales and doctrines which are intrinsic to western cultures, are very different in the sub-continent and further different in the Orient. Let me try and summarize a few perceived parallels which are infact, conflicting across cultures. Certain boundaries are inherent and beyond the grasps of globalization to neutralize.
The first and blatant truth about western and subcontinental cultures is the obvious diversity that is prevalent in the latter. In countries in the Americas and Europe, the population, is relatively homogenous – however India has been host to races starting from the Africans of the M2 gene pool who inhabited erstwhile India 50,000 years ago, to the Vedic dynasties of Pauravas and Mauryas, the insurgency of the Aryans, emergence of the “Yavanas” and eventually the much recent conquests by the Mughals and the British Empire. As a people, the subcontinent is different to the core. Such diversity necessitates the contextualization of stories and practices. Civilizations derive cultures from myths and history. Hence it is important to understand the mythological paradigms in order to be able to contextualize the stories.
Let’s take a simple example. In Greek mythology, the emergence of heroes was derived from the pursuit of the “Elysium” – the paradise to which heroes on whom the gods conferred immortality were sent. In Biblical/Abrahamic mythologies the Promised Land was the supreme motivation – hence the origins of multinational corporations, and their perception of success and profit have always been well-defined. However, in Indian myths – the encouragement is not to pursue “Lakshmi” – rather to coax her follow oneself. Also, the concept of success in subcontinental mythologies and spirituality is vague. As Devdutt Patnaik illustrates: On one hand there is “Maya” – a world seen through measurement and comparison. It is a delusion that we cannot escape. On the other, there is “Satya” where there is no relativity. It is personal and cannot be measured. Success, as a result can be achieved based on either perception. What motivates whom
Most organizations measure success using rather predetermined parameters – similar to the Greek and Roman myths, where power, popularity and reputation had been clearly established. Abrahamic Mythologies preach the importance of rules – even Moses was punished when he took God’s name in vain, as he broke one of the commandments. The importance of rules and following them is ingrained in our systems – but it contradicts the fuzziness of good and bad, right and wrong as per our mythologies.
Rama followed all rules, yet Krishna was the breaker of rules, Ravana broke the rules yet Duryodhana followed them. Within the two most popular epics; the contradiction is evident of having two “Gods” and two “Villains” yet no consistency in their definition. Can innovation occur without rules being broken? Is it wise then to sometimes encourage the breaking of rules, no matter what the consequence? Food for thought.
The elephant in the room – most “professionals” work for this phenomenon each year. Just like the weeks are endured for the weekends, the job is endured for the appraisal. All such appraisal templates are standard across companies and designations, irrespective of demographics, experience or even core job responsibilities. When the boss asks, “Do you like the job?”, how many organizations empower their resources to answer “No”? Going back to the story of Shabari – which appraisal template would be the correct one for her, the one designed by Lakshmana or the one by Rama?
Also, the “appraisals” inevitably pit one employee against the other. Thus, you are better or worse than your colleague based on how the management measures you and rewards you. You can measure your worth based on the salary and perks you receive. Yet again, the paradigm removes itself from the absolute of “Satya” to the relativity of “Maya” – the strive towards “Elysium”.
Time for another story – the one where Shiva was trying to decide who amongst his two sons Karthikeya or Ganesa would eat a mango!! So, Shiva-Parvathi decided to hold a competition. The terms were that whoever circled the world thrice would win. Seemingly rather biased towards Karthikeya whose mount was a peacock whereas Ganesa with a pet rat! Kartikeya jumped on to his peacock and zoomed off before anyone could even blink and flew around the world thrice. Ganesa simply trotted around his parents thrice, and said, “Now give me the mango. Kartikeya flew around THE world, I went around MY world” …try templatizing that!
From the very inception of the Vedas (Rig Veda being the earliest), the relationship between the Devata (God, Owner, Provider, “Boss”) and the devotee (Employee) has been rather transactional. The concept of “Yagna” or the holy fire, commonly mistranslated as sacrifice, or worship, but in fact means exchange, the cornerstone of any economy.
In conclusion, chasing numbers can never be an absolute achievement irrespective of cultures. Nor can the stories, and the motivations behind performance be generalized and templatized. The motivations, and the stories are different at the collective, and even further different at an individual level. Good leadership probably begins at identifying the nuances of Viswas (Belief), Vyavahar (Behavior) and Vyapar (Business) at the granular level and respecting them. Respecting the conflicts, yet identifying the common thread within an organization can prove to be the cornerstone of effective management – consequently a content Company.