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Friday, August 23, 2013

Management Mythos: Leadership lessons from the concept of Brahmanda

Lets begin at the very beginning: how can mythology have any relationship to management? This question is rooted in our poor understanding of mythology. And this poor understanding stems from the treatment this subject received from scientists and academicians of the 18th century, most of whom hailed from Europe, and whose views still dominate our educated minds. This was long before scientists took the subject of psychology seriously. 

Mythology is the study of stories, symbols and rituals valued by a culture. If there is a particular story that your organization celebrates and repeats again and again, it is aimed at constructing the myth of your organization. So then what is myth? Myth is subjective truth of a person, a people, a community or an organization; it is assumption that shapes decision-making, hence action plans. This makes it interesting for management. 

Leadership is about decision making, but how do we take decisions? 

If we assume that humans are rational creatures, then we assume decisions will be based on some objective data and influenced by a predictable outcome. But what if we assume that people — even the smartest of leaders — are not rational? Then the story changes. It is at this point that mythology rears it ancient head. 

Take a look at how successful entrepreneurs are presented. More often than not they are presented as heroes. People who have changed the course of humanity material history: they have innovated incredible products, given employment to thousands of people, created incredible amounts of wealth. They are celebrated as gods. For this is exactly how the Greeks, later Romans, celebrated those who won the Olympic games or returned triumphant from battle. They had earned a place for themselves in the special heaven reserved for heroes — Elysium. Across management schools, professors act as bards singing their glory, explaining their exploits through case studies, stirring young minds to emulate them. 

But no, we do not think of this as mythic. We are convinced this is reality. Try as we might, we cannot escape this bubble of mythology. Despite proclamations of living in a myth-free world, even the desire to break free from it, we end up in another myth bubble, what is technically called mythosphere — a set of assumptions that colours our view of the world, and serves as an invisible lever in our decision-making process. In Hindu mythology, this mythosphere is called Brahmanda, which means the egg of Brahma, the creator of this set of assumptions. 

Our set of assumptions is informed by the stories, symbols and rituals we were exposed to as a child. Imagine a child growing up in a city where all roads turn at right angles, where there are clear traffic signals that everyone respects. Now imagine another child growing up in a city where roads come from every angle and traffic signals that everyone breaks. These two children live in a very different Brahmanda, one that trusts every system and the other that distrusts all systems. The developed world belongs to systemtrusting mythosphere while the developing world, especially India, belongs to system-distrusting mythosphere. 

This leads to the thesis — to be developed you have to follow a system. From this thesis comes the conclusion — India is not developed because it has no system, it is chaotic. This conclusion comes from the assumption that to be a system, one needs to have central control - like the biblical God and his prophet leading his congregation of chosen people to the Promised Land. India functions on a different assumption - a system need not have central control; it can function with peripheral control as in nature, where there is no central control, but animals and plants are constantly in conflict negotiating their respective territories. Here the reliance is not on God out there but on God inside every human — Brahma, who creates his mythosphere, and is sensitive to the mythospheres of other Brahmas.

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