The Tallest Poppy

The tall poppy syndrome refers to the behavioural trait of Australians to cut down those who are 'superior' to them. It is used to explain why most politicians, some academics, and the occasional millionaire, command a level of community admiration inferior to that of a gravedigger.

Which brings us back to the relative nature of our existence here - in the microenvironment, within the institution and from a macro perspective, as members of the evolutionary human race. Einstein propounds, as he did of value earlier, “if relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.'

The self-categorization theory is often used to explain Einstein's predictions. It suggests that people change their concept of the self in order to associate themselves with prestige or distance themselves from negativity. An analogy is easily drawn much closer home when put in perspective by Nobel laureate Patrick White’s words, “Australians will never acquire a national identity until individual Australians acquire identities of their own.” One sees this of many boarding schools and educational institutes of repute. On campus for instance, the IIT syndrome is easily the tallest poppy. In the corridors of popular graduate schools, this is most visible with schools like Sherwood, Nainital or St. Stephens, Delhi. Producing some brilliant individuals, but negating their personal identity by propounding that of their ‘clan’, members inevitably graduate with somewhat of a chip on their shoulder. At our own institute, the awe of the ‘double I’ management school tag forces blinkers on which inhibit personal growth. The ideals and pre-defined parameters of success eliminate the possibility of exploration and discovery. Where batches have succeeded following the yellow brick road to it’s end, it would not do well to take advice from the Cheshire Cat. If you don’t much care where you get, then it doesn’t really matter which way you go. You’re sure to get somewhere if only you walk long enough.

The Tall poppy syndrome stems from the roman tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus, whose son Sextus asked him for advice after becoming all-powerful in his home state. Zen-like, Tarquinius went into his garden, and instead of answering the messenger, swept a stick across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies growing there. Sextus, told of this by the messenger, recognised the advice and put to death all the most eminent people of his state. This is reminiscent of Janteloven or the Jante Law, Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s creation. It shares its concept with the Ten Commandments and defines the law around ten golden rules with the central idea “thou shalt not think that thou art special”.

The phenomena of the underdog is by no means novel. They are easily empathised with and consequently have mass appeal. Naturally, by virtue of there being only one top dog, the underdog is by default a representative of the masses. Berating the underdog is thus not admirable. His true worth lies however, in capitalising on his status. By leveraging our standing as “the IIM Lucknow student… (who) exudes a sense of quiet confidence”, (Paritosh Mathur, IIM L Class of ’95, VP - JPMC) one can work this inherent favouritism to our advantage in the global arena. Bill Bernbach did a brilliant job of this with Avis’ advertising campaign “We’re no.2. We try harder!” The question that remains is how sustainable that positioning is in the long term. More pertinent in the short term is our ability to substantiate that claim. Specially with regard to the much touted placements, it becomes imperative that we are able to play this card to the best of our advantage. A bluff, in this game, is not a risk we can afford to take.

On the contrary, we might have a more viable and substantiated brand personality in Mel Gibson in Maverick, drawling, “Well, now, I bring all sorts of plusses to the table. I hardly ever bluff and I never ever cheat.” More than anything else, we as an institute instil within our members a culture of ethics and a strong sense of morals. The IIM L community is characterised by members who will go out of their way to do more than the prescribed. It is this torch-bearing ethos of the community that continues to hold us together in spite of the stress on surviving by following the law of comparative advantage. Every now and then, we witness this commitment to putting in that extra effort purely on the steam of one’s own internal value system. A prime illustration is the student who took his friend to the hospital late last year, knowing that the class he missed in doing so, would mark the crucial ‘grade drop’ that has him here again.

Top 5 underdogs
Alok Bhagat Singh, Anna Hazare, Sundarlal Lal Bahuguna, Team Titans, Helen Keller
Animesh India in 1983 cricket world cup, Sania Mirza, Che, Arundhati Roy, Efraim Turban
Anshul Glenn McGrath batting, Greece in euro cup, N. Kartikeyan, Porto in Champions League 2004, Goran Ivanesevic winning Wimbledon from a wildcard
Gurpreet Sachin in 1990, Sania Mirza, Sabeer Bhatia, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens
Siddhartha The lone rebel at Tiananmen Square, Sisyphus, Che, Lowell Bergman, George Harrison