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Applying Meaning to Management With Ancient Hindu Mythology

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 26, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Fifteen young managers with a top Indian retail company met in their office basement recently to sip coffee and listen to a talk about their specialty: brand building. The speaker, renowned mythology expert Devdutt Pattanaik, is also the company's "chief belief officer."

Cupping his chin in his hand, Pattanaik launched into a story: "Once upon a time, there was a conference of the gods to discuss the affairs of human beings."

The ancient Hindu tales that Pattanaik, 38, tells his corporate audiences are full of fallible kings, stoically suffering queens, demons enticing the gods into lawless jungles, gods with rivers sprouting from their dreadlocks, and goddesses riding elephants.

But the round-faced, bespectacled author, who graduated from medical school and has worked as a business strategist for the consulting firm Ernst & Young, says he is not like the wise old grandmother who sits under a banyan tree telling stories. Instead, he says, he is helping to create a set of management principles that are steeped in Indian culture.

He calls it the "3-B" model: belief, behavior and business.

"I am a pattern-finder. The mythologies are stars -- I point out the constellation," he said. "The world of business and the world of our mythological tales are not too different. The characters and the situations are similar. I apply their meanings to modern corporate management. Business is run on a pattern of behavior. I help create the belief that governs behavior. "

Pattanaik did a sketch of the Hindu god Shiva in yoga meditation posture and urged the youthful managers to add the traditional symbolic embellishments. They pointed out that Shiva should have a snake around his neck, the crescent moon on his head, lines of ash on his forehead, and a third eye.

"They understand how beliefs are created, how forms acquire meaning over centuries. They extend what is culturally familiar, intuitive and deeply personal to their professional space," Pattanaik said. "Brands are about image, belief and meaning."

He then asked his listeners if they knew the meaning of the symbols, countering each response with another question: Is this real or what you believe? Is belief true or false? Does the truth always have to be logical? Should rationality be put on a pedestal?

"Indians are led by emotions, unlike people in the West, who are driven by reason," said Kishore Biyani, chairman of the Future Group, who chose Pattanaik to head this program four months ago. "Not all the Western management models of standard operating procedure fit us. How do we create management practices that are grounded in our rich repository of stories and rituals?"

Since Pattanaik began his work, Biyani said, the company has seen less attrition and better connections with its customers.

A giant retail empire, similar to the Wal-Mart and Costco chains, the $2 billion Future Group employs 40,000 people and operates 1,000 stores, including the popular Big Bazaar outlets.

Pattanaik, who calls his BlackBerry a "black whip," works with almost every department in the company, including the sales executives, store managers, brand experts and accountants.

He writes a column titled Management Mythos for the Indian financial daily the Economic Times, examining corporate behavior in the light of mythic narratives. For example, he gives the name of the mythological character Narada to those who play office politics. The customer is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. He likens layoffs to the slaughter of cows, which Hindus revere as symbolizing life.

"The standard Western management principle is 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it,' " Pattanaik said. "In our ethos, 'if you measure it, you destroy it.' "

In this period of economic slowdown, he admonishes company heads for celebrating greed when the going was good.

A week ago, Biyani urged his employees to greet each other and customers with the Hindi greeting "Namaste," meaning "I bow to the god in you," instead of the usual "Good morning" or "Hello."

"Saying 'Namaste' is not fake drama," Pattanaik told 60 store managers recently. "It is acknowledging the other person's potential to grow. Can you measure that on the Excel sheet?"

Despite his confident management mantras, Pattanaik says he suffers from an image problem. Avid readers of his books on Hindu mythology often express disappointment, he said, when he affirms that he is not "overtly religious."

"They think I give religious discourses. They expect me to be an orange-robed guru, sporting a beard and chanting 'Om,' " he said. "They address me reverentially, because they are searching for instant salvation in the bazaar of spirituality. Instead, they are taken aback when they see me in a pub with a whiskey."

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