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Reverence Code & The Tata Battle

Two weeks ago, the Indian business world was rocked by the instant dismissal of Cyrus Mistry as Chairman, Tata Sons and the manner in which it was done. Use of stealth and subterfuge in a board meeting had not been expected from the hallowed institution of the Tatas

Photo Credit : PTI

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Two weeks ago, the Indian business world was rocked by the instant dismissal of Cyrus Mistry as Chairman, Tata Sons and the manner in which it was done. Use of stealth and subterfuge in a board meeting had not been expected from the hallowed institution of the Tatas.

Since then, much has been written on what went wrong, using management theory (failures of succession planning etc.), Chanakya Niti (boardroom battles and power struggles), as well as philosophy/allegory. There is a PR war on as well, with both sides using the media to defend themselves in the eyes of the business world.

A semiotic analysis of the underlying meanings of what happened – looking at the discourse of performance (or lack of it), the language of betrayal and back-stabbing as well as desperation, the response of independent directors on the boards of various Tata companies etc., is instructive in revealing the contemporary divides in management ethos. Rooted deeply in our tradition and ethos are two codes of power that govern the relationship between a leader and his followers. (a) The code of fidelity/loyalty… an honourable man does not turn against the superior who placed him in a position of power (b) The code of reverence… a Supremo leader must be revered and must never be questioned, challenged or shown in a bad light. He/she must always be obeyed. These are a cultural extension of the father-son power equation in the extended family and clan to the business world. These power codes give primacy to the continuity of the “ relationship” and the roles and duties of each party in the power relationship. Ethical and good behaviour lies in conforming to these power codes.

Pitted against these ancient power codes is the ethos of modern management, ‘performance’ and the ‘professional’. The professional is imagined as an ‘independent’ hired for his professional capabilities. The new CEO/chairman has earned his place through merit – through his qualifications and prior performance record. While he may respect his predecessor, reverence and fidelity are certainly not called for. Autonomy and independence that are required for him to perform and deliver the agreed KRA (written into his contract) are what is necessary. In the ethos of modern management, power codes are substituted by performance codes. Drawing from the Anglo-American culture that gives primacy to the individual and the business culture that gives primacy to the contract, the relationship between the Supremo, who has stepped aside to make way for the Young Turk, is considered largely irrelevant. If the relationship comes in the way, it is the old who are at fault.

In the Tata Sons boardroom battle, the divide between traditional power codes and modern ethos is clearly visible. Breaching of deep rooted cultural codes is always perceived as a moral/ethical issue and evokes very strong and negative emotions – of anger, disgust and bitterness. It leads to strong action against the offender. However, for those who have moved on from the rooted codes to a contemporary ‘management’ sensibility, this is hard to understand and they typically have little sympathy with such a stance. The Tata battle shows that with all of the ‘modern’, ‘managerial’ emphasis on rationality, control and processes, it is still the very human emotions and encoded culture around the emotions, that drive the big decisions.

The author is a leading semiotician and director, Leapf rog Strategy Consulting

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Hamsini Shivakumar

The author is leading semiotician and director, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting

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