Created to Last:lessons in inculturation
Created to last: lessons in inculturation
(Views are personal)
There are several theories on how companies are built to last. But remaining in business for a long time is a tough act. If you look at the Dow Jones index of 30 companies, only 4 continue from the 1960s. The churn in Fortune 500 has been equally dramatic. Disruptions in technology, movement in markets, poor predictions of the future and inability to adapt have caused leader after leader to bite the dust.
There is one company, however, which was founded in 1540 that has survived. It is still in good shape despite talent shortages in recent times. This company was founded by 10 Europeans in Paris with no capital, no business plan, no angel investor, no brand and no global tie-up. It has over 150,000 practitioners around the globe today. It recruits by offering exactly the opposite of what large corporations promise their new recruits. There will be no work-life balance. A condition for recruitment is that you cannot marry or raise a family. You have to be mobile. If your boss says you are transferred to Somalia, you do not ask why –you simply go. You are promised a life that will be frugal and austere. Embracing poverty and working amidst the downtrodden is beneficial to career progression. And you are expected to perform acts of heroism even at the risk of your life.
I am referring to the religious order now known as the Society of Jesus. It is part of the Roman Catholic Church. Their followers are better known as Jesuits. They called themselves Compania or the company. It is not a joint stock company with limited liability .It was established as an organization of like-minded people who broke bread together (cum+pane –cum being “with” pane being “bread”).
The company was established by ten men from Spain, Portugal and France.They were then studying at the prestigious University of Paris . The clear leader among them was Ignatius Loyola.Loyola came from a little village from the Basque region of Spain from a minor noble family. He was a military officer. While trying to defend a citadel in Pamplona (the city more famous for the running of the bulls) he had his right leg shattered by a French canon ball. The citadel fell to the French. Not a very spectacular CV. Yet he became the first general ( Founder CEO) of the company.
He coined one of the core values of the company: “living with one foot raised”. A Jesuit is always prepared to travel and live in the remotest part of the planet. He himself lived this value by example. When the terms “Frequent Flyer” and “Road Warrior” had not been coined, he journeyed to Jerusalem by land. It took him 18 months. But for him the journey was the destination. He had time to introspect. He reflected and moulded his world views. The company evolved as a truly global network in an age when communications were slow and difficult, travel was arduous and many destinations were not only hardship postings. They were just plain inhospitable.
How did the Jesuits strike roots in local soil? Let us look at some examples. The first name that comes to mind is the Crimson priest –Roberto de Nobili. Born into an Italian noble family in Tuscany, Roberto became a Jesuit and travelled to Madurai in his late twenties in 1606. He studied and became a scholar in both Sanskrit and Tamil. He dressed as a Hindu sanyasin- complete with red attire, wooden kharams, sandal paste on forehead and head shaven except for a small tuft of hair. He ate only simple meals of rice and vegetables. By mastering the Vedas, the languages and customs he became close to the people. He was one of them. This was a principle known as inculturation.
One of the first Englishmen to set foot on Indian soil was a Jesuit Priest called Thomas Stephens. He learnt Konkani and Marathi. He wrote a book on Grammar of the Konkani language. He authored the magnum opus Krista Purana.His letters to his father who was an English merchant and “his advices were the strongest inducements which London merchants had been offered to embark on Indian speculations.” Stephens died in 1619. AJust for context, the East India Company was granted a royal charter in 1600.
An Italian Jesuit named Matteo Riccci became a Chinese scholar. He reached China via Macao (then a Portuguese colony). He succeeded in penetrating the Chinese Emperor’s inner circle in Peking. He became conversant in Chinese. He put to use his cartographic skills by drawing a map of the world with China in the front and center. He abandoned the black cassock of the Jesuits and designed a dress made of purple and blue silk similar to the ones that Confucian scholars wore. He wrote books in Mandarin. He also changed his name to Li-Ma Tou.
This story reminded me of Father Camille Bouche who taught us in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School in Calcutta. He wrote short stories in Bengali under the nom de plume of Kamal Basu. Jesuits priests from Belgium, France and Luxembourg dedicated their entire lives to blend into Calcutta's culture .And they taught and managed high quality schools like the one I had the privilege of attending.The Latin motto of the school was Nihil Ultra –Nothing Beyond. The motto signalled a challenge to the confines and boundaries of achievement and aspiration.
The Jesuit philosophy was to create a global network but with love and respect for the country in which they operated. Becoming one with the culture and striking deep roots locally was part of the recipe for sustainability and success. One of the ingredients of this secret sauce : inculturation. Be global but assimilate in the local culture. Then you become one with the society as you serve them. It is an important lesson to all multi-national corporations that operate globally: the world is not going to be moulded in your rigid image. You have to adapt.
(There are several books and websites I researched to write this column but will mention two of them: Chris Lowney's Heroic Leadership and Cyril Veliath's research paper on Thomas Stephens.The inspiration to write this came from Father Abraham, the Director of XLRI Jamshedpur)