Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
In my doctoral thesis, I explored managerial behaviour as a subset of human behaviour, i.e. as not qualitatively different from other human behaviour. Accordingly, I was drawn to this book about the Thirukural, an ancient treatise on “the art of living” as a basis for understanding management, again as a subset of the art of living. As a management historian, I was not, of course, surprised that Srinivasan has been able to draw on ancient philosophy to inform “modern” management thinking. I was also drawn to Srinivasan's work in my role as Dean of a business school in the state of Kerala in India, living next door to Tamil Nadu, the home state of Valluvar, the author of the original work, the Thirukural.
Srinivasan is not an academic scholar. Rather, in the tradition of Fayol (1949), who wrote his management treatise on the basis of his experience as a superintendent of mines in St Etienne, France at the turn of the last century, Srinivasan offers us his insights as a distillation of his experience with the ICICI bank and his continuing role as MD and CEO of 3i Infotech; of the management writers of the late twentieth century by whom he has been influenced; and, of course, of the Thirukural, to which he was first exposed as a young boy. More properly then, we can consider Srinivasan as one of those “reflective practitioners” that we hope to produce as a result of their experience at our business schools.
In consequence though, there is not the detailed section by section exposition of the Thirukural, followed by a demonstration of its modern day relevance. Instead, Srinivasan proffers a modern day exploration of management and then shows how, to some extent at least, there is nothing new under the sun – it is been thought of before. But, it is not a gainsaying work at all. It is indeed the presentation of a series of reflections and reaffirmations that is attractive in its style.
Srinivasan begins his consideration proper with an introduction to the Thirukural and to Valluvar. Like Sun Tsu's Art of War, the Thirukural consists of a series of aphorisms (1,330 in all, grouped into 133 chapters of ten couplets, or Kurals). Where, as its title suggests, the Art of War concentrates on the strategy necessary to win wars though, the Thirukural focuses on virtue (38 chapters), wealth (the state, its polity, economy and so on; 70 chapters), and love (25 chapters). Examples of the Kurals that Srinivasan employs throughout the book, include:
Srinivasan himself does not say much about Valluvar. Rather, it is left to Vaghul (2006, p. 11) to make the following observation:
Nothing is impossible if you start on the enterprise with the knowledge of the right timing and employ the proper means (483).
There are enterprises that tempt with a great profit but which sink even the capital itself. The wise men will not undertake them (463).
The end of all deliberations is to arrive at a decision. And when a decision is reached, it is wrong to delay its execution (671).
Determine first the capacity of the person and the work for which he is fit and then leave him in complete charge of it (517).
I will leave the questions of “proof” and “truth” to others. Suffice it to say, that Valluvar is an author whose ideas have had and continue to have resonance for many people, including Srinivasan.
Thiruvalluvar is generally considered a Hindu but the Jains say that considering his teaching, he cannot be but a Jain. Buddhists believe he must be a Buddhist, while the Christians consider him to be a Christian, given the similarity of his teachings to the Bible. The very fact that nearly 2,000 years after his time he is still being claimed as part of different religious groups is proof of the universality of the truth espoused by him.
The parallels between Fayol and Srinivasan continue in the way in which Srinivasan divides up the rest of his exposition. Fayol's (1949) work outlined the key functions of management as planning, organising, commanding (or leading, in its contemporary equivalent, Lamond, 2004), controlling and coordinating. Srinivasan, in turn, divides his book into two main sections – management (planning, organising, conduct of affairs (which reads suspiciously like coordinating) and control) and leadership (personality traits, communication skills and credibility). It is in the area of leadership that the consonance between the two is most pronounced.
The mission of command is to set the organization going (Fayol, 1949, p. 97). The object of command is to get the optimum return from all employees, while the art of command rests on certain personal qualities and a knowledge of general principles of management (Fayol, 1949, p. 97). To the extent that managers aim at “making unity, energy, initiative and loyalty prevail among the personnel” (Fayol, 1949, p. 98) modern writers would more properly describe this managerial function as concerned with motivation, leadership and empowerment.
According to Fayol (1949, pp. 98‐103) one exercises command through a thorough knowledge of the personnel; by elimination of the incompetent; by balancing the interests of the organisation and its employees through a “strong sense of duty and of equity” (Fayol, 1949, p. 100); through good example; through periodic audit of the organisation; through well developed organisational communication systems; through delegation of tasks; and through adopting the principles of a learning organisation (developing initiative among subordinates “by allowing them the maximum share of activity consistent with their position and capability, even at the cost of some mistakes” (Fayol, 1949, p. 103, emphasis added).
For Valluvar and Srinivasan (2006, p. 89), the qualifications of a leader can be summarised in the two Kurals:
It seems that these are qualities that transcend time, place and culture. As Srinivasan (2006, p. 28) observes:
Four qualities should never be wanting in the prince (leader), namely courage, liberality, knowledge and energy (382).
Alertness, learning and quickness of decision are the three virtues that are necessary for a prince (leader) (383).
Here, and throughout the book, Srinivasan reminds us that, while techniques come and go with the changing times and fashions, there remains a set of principles, of human values, that can and should guide us in the exercise of our managerial responsibilities. When I reflect on some of the recruitment decisions that I have made in the past, and I consider them in terms of the Kurals on offer by way of Srinivasan's book, I wonder if I would have made the same decisions, given possession of those insights.
Management, in most business schools, is taught as a bundle of techniques, such as the one of budgeting. To be sure, management, like any other work, has its own tools and its own techniques. However, the essence of management is not techniques and procedures, but to make knowledge productive.
A reservation regarding Srinivasan's work is the apparent comfort with which he translates “prince” to “the manager, he … ” without apparent recognition of the equal place of women in the management role. Whereas, Sen (2005, p. 6) is at pains to stress that, while:
Srinivasan appears blithely ignorant of the role they can and do play in business and organisations around the world, including India.
… men have tended, by and large to rule the roost in argumentative moves in India … the participation of women in both political leadership and intellectual pursuits has not been at all neglible.
I have noted in other places that, Fayol's (1949) volume is a rather thin work in terms of its size, but not in terms of the impact that it has had on managers and the practice of management around the world (Lamond, 2003, 2004). In this era characterised by a cacophony of book mediated calls for attention to the latest and greatest management techniques promulgated by the latest and greatest management gurus, it is unlikely that Srinivasan's work will have the impact on others of Fayol, but it is still very much worth reading and keeping as a reference for those times when a principled decision is required (and is not that most of the time?).
Fayol, H. (1949), General and Industrial Management, translated by Storrs, C., Pitman, London.
Lamond, D.A. (2003), “Henry Mintzberg vs Henri Fayol: of lighthouses, cubists and the emperor's new clothes”, Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, Vol. 8 No. 4, pp. 5‐23.
Lamond, D.A. (2004), “A matter of style: reconciling Henry and Henri”, Management Decision, Vol. 42 No. 2, pp. 334‐60.
Sen, A. (2005), The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.
Vaghul, N. (2006), “Preface”, in Srinivasan, V. (Ed.), New Age Management Philosophy from Ancient Indian Wisdom, Roli Books, New Delhi, pp. 9‐11.