An uncommon examination of common sense: Management redefined | Sunday Observer

An uncommon examination of common sense: Management redefined

18 October, 2020

Management and mismanagement are very much in the limelight, with the Covid-19 pandemic. This can be the case for the rise or fall of a corporate, community or even a country.

Some say management is nothing but common sense. There are others who disagree, saying management is something which goes beyond common sense. It is assigning meanings to a structured approach to achieve results. Such an approach was not “invented” by Westerners as modern management, but was there in the East, much earlier. Let’s discover some glimpses of management through an uncommon search on common sense.

Management in a nutshell

Any management textbook will give the definition of modern management as “a set of activities, including planning and decision making, organising, leading and controlling directed at an organisation’s human, financial, physical and information resources, with the aim of achieving organisational goals in an efficient and effective manner.” In essence, it is all about achieving goals, which was the case in ancient times as well.

In a crude sense, management can be broken into three parts, man, age and ment. It essentially speaks about people, times, and actions.

As veteran management thinker Henry Mintzberg often advocates that successful management involves interpersonal, informational and decisional roles.

Any organisation can be viewed as a system, comprising inputs, throughputs and outputs. Hence, management can also be defined as human action, including design, to facilitate the production of useful outcomes from a system. This view opens the opportunity to ‘manage’ oneself, a pre-requisite to attempting to manage others.

Jathaka stories

In the five hundred and fifty Jathaka stories, The Bodhisattva is portrayed as a leader and a coordinator in a significant number of cases. Using physical, human, financial and information resources to achieve the desired goals was the norm.

In Vannu-Patha Jathaka, it tells a story of thousands of bullock-carts passing a desert and going out of water. The leader had to summon the key team in finding solutions to the water issue. They search the area and find a rock, and simply by keeping their ears closer to the rock surface, they could hear water flowing down. They plan and organise resources to dig a well close by, and water starts to spring out, quenching their thirst. Simply put, this is management in action.

Apart from the inspiration of The Bodhisatva ideal, the Jathaka stories have such an appeal that they have entered the life of the people. In a society where there were no novels - romances or short stories, the Jataka stories took their place. Even today the Jataka tales are very popular among the folk.

They also have an added virtue of depicting the vagaries of human behaviour, and it would thus provide a fertile base for any study relating to analysing human behaviour. This is an essential component in the field of management.


In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we can see a variety of stories highlighting managerial issues. The way Moses took the Israel people out of Egypt in search of a promised land had a variety of episodes of planning, organising, leading and controlling. Taking decisions in the face of uncertainty and managing with scarce resources were prominent features of their journey of forty years.

The term talent is used in the bible significantly. The talent as a unit of value is mentioned in the New Testament in Jesus’s parable of the talents. This parable is the origin of the sense of the word “talent” meaning “gift or skill” as used in English and other languages. The talent is also used elsewhere in the Bible, as when describing the material invested in the dwelling of the commandments.

In the parable of the Talents according to the Gospel of Matthew, the servants were accountable for all that was entrusted to their care. Their master had a plan, communicated it to them, and they were to fulfill it by investing the funds they were given.

In a time where acquiring, developing, engaging and retaining talent are critical tasks of management, such origins are of high importance.

Ancient China

Some of the inventions attributed to the West were there much earlier in China. The Chinese value a collectivist society and economy, particularity when compared to the individualism of the West. Dig a little deeper, however, and the case can be made that the ancient Chinese were developing management ideas as far back as 2000 BC.

Here are a few leadership tips taken from ancient texts such as The Great Plan and The Officials of Zhou, courtesy of the Globalist:

“The three virtues are correct procedure, strong management and mild management. Adhere to correct procedure in situations (times) of peace and tranquility, use strong management in situations of violence and disorder, apply mild management in situations of harmony and order.”

“If rulers attend carefully to their personal improvement, with concern for the long-term, they will be able to show unselfish benevolence and to draw perceptive distinctions among people.”

“All intelligent people will exert themselves to serve their rulers.” Success in management comes from “knowing people and keeping people satisfied.”

The above look much similar to any tips coming from the Western world with regard to managing people. Moving more into specific aspects, Confucius, Taoist and other philosophical schools could give many valuable ideas to modern managers.

According to Lao Tzu, “The created universe carries the yin at its back and the yang in front; through the union of the pervading principles it reaches harmony.” The Tao of Yin-yang contain the following meanings:

Firstly, Yin and Yang stand for two different features of the world. Yin originally meant “shady, secret, dark, mysterious, and cold.” It thus could mean the shaded, north side of a mountain or the shaded, south bank of a river. Yang in turn meant “clear, bright, the sun, heat,” the opposite of yin and so the lit, south side of a mountain or the lit, north bank of a river.

From these basic opposites, a complete system of opposites was elaborated. Yin represents everything about the world that is dark, hidden, passive, receptive, yielding, cool, soft, and feminine. Yang represents everything about the world that is illuminated, evident, active, aggressive, controlling, hot, hard, and masculine. Everything in the world can be identified with either yin or yang.

Perhaps the best known Chinese management wisdom comes from the classic masterpiece, the Art of War. Written by Chinese general Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC, The Art of War is a military strategy book that, for managerial purposes, recommends being aware of and acting on strengths and weaknesses of a manager’s organisation and a foe. It gives practical and sensible advice from the military front which is relevant to market fronts.

Egyptian pyramids

The pyramids of Egypt, some of which are among the largest man-made constructions ever conceived, constitute one of the most potent and enduring symbols of Ancient Egyptian civilization. It is generally accepted by most archaeologists that they were constructed as burial monuments associated with royal solar and stellar cults, and most were built during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods.

With regard to the construction of such monuments, the application of the fundamentals of project management is evident. Project management predates the building of the pyramids. Like the Red Pyramid of Dashur, The Great Pyramid of Giza is not a unique structure even though it may be on a grander scale. The Egyptians intricately built the Great Pyramid using the most modern methods of the times with great precision and detail. Looking at the building of the Great Pyramid through a project management perspective one can see many obstacles that probably caused great effort to overcome.

Apparently, the workforce was the most obvious problem, followed by the engineering plans, and then the originality of the King’s chambers that was built with granite. Granite was difficult to mine, requiring an hour to cut only one inch. The King’s chamber was built using granite that was mined over 400 miles away. The Great Pyramid took roughly 20 years to complete and employed 10,000 people, because these employees had to bring their families with them. The women kept the base camp running by cooking for the men and the children (Coppens, 2007).

The outside of the pyramid made with limestone and gypsum was easier to mould than granite. Using primitive copper tools, the men cut huge blocks of stone and hauled them around the inclines built to push and drag the blocks into place. Coppens (2007) raises a valid point that whatever building materials needed to make the Great Pyramid, such as the sloping inclines, had to also be dismantled when complete.

Way forward

It is difficult to conclude the uncommon search on common sense without referring to other areas such as ancient India and most importantly the hydraulic civilisation in ancient Sri Lanka. The lesson is crystal clear. Management is not something invented in the West. Perhaps it would have got repackaged by Western veterans over time Yet, a vast scope is available for us to identify the indigenous elements in the management of the world. This is not only to appreciate but also to apply appropriately in our contexts. It is increasingly becoming relevant in the Covid-19 pandemic.