Insights from Anthropology- Tribal Leaders and CEOs

When Europeans started exploring world, they came in conflict with various tribes in different parts of globe. This conflict of tribal with Europeans explorers cum conquerors has been studied extensively by historians and social anthropologists.

Europeans started grabbing land of tribal where they had lived for centuries. Tribal who fought with their traditional weapons like spear, axe, bow & arrows were no match to firearms of Europeans, many could not understand how a rifle worked.

Problem of losing their land and inability to fight Europeans made tribal desperately look for a leader who could make firearms ineffective and make Europeans disappear from their land. There was desire to return to earlier era and they were looking for a leader who could make that happen.

Soon leaders emerged who promised tribal that they could get rid of Europeans, some even claimed that they possessed supernatural powers, which will convert bullets into water or turn guns into wood. This pattern could be seen in tribes across world.

In India, the Mundas rose against British and Indians zamindars & money lenders under leadership of Birsa Munda. Birsa assured them that he possessed power to convert bullets into water and rifles into wooden sticks.


The Oraons under leadership of Jatra Oraon started Tana Bhagat movement, which consisted of internal reforms ( giving up non vegeterain food, alcohol) at the same time resisting intrusion of outsiders. Santhals similarly revolted against British under Murmu brothers.

In “Dark Continent” of Africa, the Xhosas and Zulus fought against Europeans to save their lands.The Xhosa prophet-chief Maqana Nxele promised to turn bullets into water. In Tanzania, tribal under leadership of Kinjikitile “Bokero” Ngwale rose against Germans. Ngwale gave his followers war medicine that would turn German bullets into water. This “war medicine” was in fact water (maji in Swahili) mixed with castor oil and millet seeds. The revolt was called as Maji Maji revolt.


In New Zealand, Maoris fought against British under leadership of Hone Heke, while in Northern America, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (a self-styled prophet) led Native Americans against white settlers.


Though tribal fought bravely, believing that charisma and magic of their leaders will work, they were defeated by Europeans. Magic of converting bullets into water did not work.

These learning from Anthropology can be applied to corporate world. Basic human nature remains same- under adverse conditions they look for a leader who promises them former glory or better conditions. Even in political world people put faith in charismatic leaders to take them out of adverse conditions ex. Germans believed that Hitler will restore pride of Germany which was badly battered by recession.

Employees of loss making companies are ready to believe that a charismatic CEO will take them out of current situation and restore former glory. The CEO uses tools like vision, strategy, innovative products, reduction of staff, getting rid of loss making products and units, financial restructuring etc. to make employees believe that CEO has magical powers. In some cases it works, but in most of the cases magic does not work.


Some cases where magic worked are Steve Jobs in his 2nd inning with Apple, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler and Doug Conant at Campbell soup. But in most of the cases either magic does not work or it may show success in initial stage, but soon company is back in red or worse, makes even greater loss.


Lessons from Anthropology for HR


M. N. Srinivas was eminent social anthropologist of India. He explained phenomenon of social change through process called as “sanskritisation”.

Caste system is seen as most rigid form of social stratification, mobility (horizontal or vertical) is almost impossible. But in practice, mobility across hierarchy did take place.
Lower castes used to imitate the practices of higher castes (ex. Vegetarianism, giving up alcohol, rituals) and over a period of time make claim for higher status than was normally given to that caste. M. N. Srinivas called this process “sankritisation”. Caste that was imitated was generally the dominant caste of the region.

HR too has come up with similar practice; it is called as “benchmarking” for best practices. HR tries to imitate best practices in the industry and incorporate them in organisation. Magazines publish “best employers survey”, HR best practices awards etc. By imitating these practices the organisation goes up in ranking and after some time stake claim for being among top “10/20/50 employers”…
…something yours truly did while heading employee development team at Patni- placing it among top 20 employers and win some awards at World HR Congress.


But sanskritisation also resulted in imitating those practices which were not necessarily good; among lower castes/tribals the status of woman was better than that of woman in higher castes. Sanskritisation resulted in lower status of women in “sanskritised” caste, plus they were burdened with practices like dowry, infanticide, being confined to four walls of home etc . In fact, they were imitating practices which upper castes themselves were getting rid of.

Same can happen in case of benchmarking/imitating best practices. You may end up imitating practices which the benchmarked company may be getting rid of, while abandoning some of the good practices which may be unique to your organisation ex. Many companies copied GE’s vitality or bell curve, while GE itself was getting out of it. Besides they did it selectively i.e. they copied vitality curve in isolation, ignoring other practices in GE like investment in leadership development, six sigma etc.


Can those in 40s make it to the top?

Do successful people show talent early in their life? What happens to those who are already in their 40s and not yet successful? Do they have chance to make it in life? In fact many in their 40s and 50s often complain about ageism.

Are charges of ageism correct? Let us examine issue based on examples from history and corporate world.

Alexander was 30 years old when he ruled over empire stretching from Greece to Punjab. At the age of 33 he died.
Bajirao I most successful of all Peshwas from Bhat family became Peshwa at the age of 19; he expanded Maratha Empire beyond boundaries of Maharashtra. At age of 39 he died.
Muhammad bin Qasim was 17 years old when he conquered Sindh for Umayyad Caliphate. Was executed at the age of 19!


Malcolm Gladwell came up with 10000 hours rule i.e. a person can have mastery over any task by practicing it for 10000 hours. So earlier you start in life the better.
Business magazines are full of stories of CEOs who reached that position in their 30s.

Unfortunately, the stories of those successful in their 40s and 50s hardly get publicity. Few magazines ever publish them. But there are such success stories.


Chingiz Khan was in his 50’s when he started expanding empire beyond Mongolia, starting with conquest of Jin dynasty, then Khwarezmian Empire finally conquering Russian Princes- ruling over one of the world largest empire.

Kushwant Singh was in his 40s when he wrote “Train to Pakistan” and most of his novels were written after that. Fame and money came after he crossed age of 40.

We also have examples of two gentlemen who build their empire after crossing age of 50- Ray Kroc (McDonalds) and Harland Sanders (KFC).

So forget ageism, those in 40s still have chance to make it to the top.

Tale of two clerks

Q-How do you insult a manager?
A-Tell him that he works like clerk.

Perhaps that motivated Manoj Kumar to make movie called “Clerk”, it tried to project positive side of this profession-honest clerk who saves nation. But inspite of having impressive star cast, the movie flopped due to bad direction. Even clerks didn’t watch that movie!

Those who belong to Gen X like me have faced this species whenever we went to educational institutes, banks, railway reservation counter, pay utility bills etc. Most of them were unhelpful and rude.
Next generation may not face them; automation will soon make clerks an endangered species, found only in Government offices.


But at one stage job of clerk was most sought after. Lord Macaulay’s education system ensured unlimited supply of clerks from native population. Vacancies for clerk in Indian bureaucracy were filled by those who first took advantage of Lord Macaulay’s system i.e. upper caste Hindus. My great grandfather was one of them, he used to work as stenographer to governor of UP. Nehruism and socialism ensured survival of this species.

I will share stories of two clerks who changed history of India.


Balaji Vishwanath Bhat was brahmin from Konkan, he started working as clerk first with Siddis then with Marathas. Unlike Manoj Kumar he was ambitious and smart. He helped Shahu Maharaj to become next Maratha ruler. Impressed with his diplomacy Shahu Maharaj made him prime minister ( Peshwa).This post became hereditary and Bhat family produced great peshwas like Bajirao I, Balaji Bajirao and Madhavrao who expanded Maratha empire from river Krishna to Attok. It also brought into prominence the Chittapavan Brahmin community, which played key role in social and political life of Maharashtra.


Robert Clive joined East India Company as clerk. Unlike our hero Manoj Kumar- Clive was anything but honest, he had no shame in signing forged agreement with Umichand (his partner in crime, along with Mir Jafar and other bankers). After winning battle of Plassey he shamelessly looted rich province of Bengal. He was tried in Britain for corruption charges and later committed suicide. It was wealth of Bengal that helped British to subsequently conquer rest of India.
Maybe Manoj Kumar was not aware of them.

Social Thinkers and HR


TAS hires HR graduates from XLRI, TISS, SIBM, MDI and XIM, since TAS hires them; I assume that these institutes must be best in area of HR. As far as I am aware none of them have sociology as subject in their syllabus.

Should work of social thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Robert Merton be included in syllabus? Is it relevant for today’s manager?

After all, it all started with Adam Smith who viewed division of labour as sign of progress and foundation of capitalism. He explained this with example of making pins, instead of making whole pin, people will do specialised tasks, ex. design only head of pin and this specialisation in turn will raise productivity dramatically.

But increase in specialisation of task also means a person knows less and less about whole.
Karl Marx was aware of this, specialisation of jobs meant worker ends up doing same repetitive tasks and soon he loses interest in his work. He faces what is known as alienation, worker loses interest in his job, and then this alienation spreads to his person life also.

Marx saw alienation as product of capitalism; he wanted this system to be replaced with communism. He was very clear about what a person will do in communism…
“.. in communist society, where no­body has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”
This is not very different view of management expert Lynda Gratton, who has expressed similar views in her work – The future of work (i.e. in year 2025!)…
“I believe there is an opportunity over the coming decades to shape work and life in a manner that enables people to reconnect with what makes them happy and creates a high quality of experience.”

Emile Durkheim did extensive work on social change. His view was human has unlimited desires and society regulates these desires. During change there is a phase when old norms or controls break down and new controls are yet to be established, this phase is called anomie, man has lot of desires, but if these are not met, he becomes dissatisfied and it may even result in suicide.
Robert K Merton worked on similar lines and came up with his theory of strain…
“Culture establishes goals for people in society while social structure provides (or fails to provide) the means for people to achieve those goals. When social structure doesn’t support, people start using unfair means to achieve these goals.”

These theories have application in management. The old paternalistic system of job security with modest salary, loyalty, seniority etc. is getting replaced by new system of meritocracy- where you are always benchmarking your salary with best in industry and where climbing corporate ladder fast is seen as sign of success. For many esp. for baby boomers and Gen X, this transition is sudden and this strain/anomie may force them to opt for unethical means to retain their jobs or meet monetary demands of their family or maintain their status in society.

Repetitive jobs alienate people, but during Marx’s time they could remain dissatisfied but retain their job, now things get more complicated, either repetitive/routine job are getting automated or we have huge pool of surplus people which is bringing wages downs. This huge pool of alienated and angry workers can result in labour unrest.

Does this have anything to do with HR? I think it has.



Scorched earth…rains…rejuvenate.

Drawing by Chinmay, my 13 years old son,showing rains that vivify barren land.

For us inscription in temple of Apollo at Delphi- “Gnothi seauton”- was inspiration to start Vivify Change Catalyst.
Gnothi seauton ( know yourself in Greek) is rain that will vivify your inner self.

For Ralph Waldo Emerson knowing self was knowing god.

Shall I ask wealth or power of God, who gave
An image of himself to be my soul?
As well might swilling ocean ask a wave,
Or the starred firmament a dying coal,—–
For that which is in me lives in the whole.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gnothi Seauton

CFO’s fantasy- analytical HR

New Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation

“Addressing a crowd of about 300 financial executives this morning, Rutgers University’s Richard Beatty, a professor of human resources soundly denounced the corporate HR profession for being mostly unable to provide analytics that are useful in making workforce decisions that build economic value.”
-Excerpt from article in

As expected, article drew flak from HR community. But then, learned professor was catering to ultimate fantasy of every CFO- HR that deals with hard numbers and not “soft issues” like motivation, engagement etc.

Based on my experience of working for an organisation where analytics was nothing less than religion, I feel analytics don’t tell whole story. Statistical analysis, graphs, numbers etc. have their limitations.

Let us take example of performance levers used in IT company viz. operating efficiency, utilisation, offshore leverage and pyramid ratio. Leadership team monitors them every month. I have given some fictitious figures which will delight CFO. But graphs are not telling the whole story esp. from HR and delivery side.

High offshorization means engineers have less opportunity to work overseas (read US) which demotivates them, similarly maintaining high pyramid ratio means less chances for promotion, as promotions would mean lower pyramid ratio.

High utilisation means reduction of bench, zero bench may be ideal on paper but not practical, high operating efficiency also means engineers are working for longer hours esp. if >100.

Such “soft” issues may not be of interest to CFO. But soon “soft issues” like demotivation and frustration lead to “hard” issues like high attrition. Numbers cannot capture issues which can only be sensed, definitely a “soft skill” which not just HR but every manager should possess, including CFO!