Thiruvalluvar on Management

Read Time:11 Minute
Dr. R. Prabhakaran

The colossal pyramids of Egypt were built about 5,000 years ago. The oldest operational dam in the world, Lake Homs Dam, located in Syria, was constructed during the 14th century BC. Parts of the Great Wall of China were completed during the 7th century BC. During the second half of the 5th century BC, the Parthenon and other famous buildings of Greece were built. The Kallanai Dam (also known as Grand Anaicut), situated on the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu, India, was built by Karikalan Chozhan of the Chozha dynasty in the 2nd century AD and it is the fourth oldest dam in the world. These are some examples of projects conceived by the kings and completed with the help of many people. Such large-scale construction projects were not peculiar to the ancient days. Similar projects were carried out during the Middle Ages also. The massive castles, beautiful churches, stunning synagogues of Europe, the architecturally elegant temples of India, and the impressive mosques in many countries are all examples of major construction projects completed by the group efforts of thousands of people during the first and second millennium of the Christian era. It is inconceivable that monumental structures like these could have been built without proper leadership and an organizational structure to support the leader’s vision. Invariably, the leadership would have come from the kings. The kings might have entrusted the responsibility for the construction to one of their ministers. There could have been other supervisory personnel, and the actual work would have been done by laborers and, in some cases, by slaves. The management guru Peter Drucker says, “Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance.” Based on this simple definition, it appears that management practices have been there for many centuries.

Thiruvalluvar, also known as Valluvar, was an outstanding philosopher who lived about 2,000 years ago in the southeastern state of India called Tamil Nadu. He is the author of the book, Thirukkural, also known as the Kural. The Kural consists of 1330 couplets dealing with the three major aspects of life, virtue, wealth, and love. In the section on wealth, he discusses several aspects of management and administration.

Modern management scholars differ in their classification of management functions. The most widely accepted functions of management, as given by Koontz and O’Donnel in their book, “Principles of Management: An Analysis of Managerial Functions,” are as follows: Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, and Controlling. In the following sections, we will consider Valluvar’s ideas about these management functions.


Importance of Planning: Planning is an essential function of management. According to Koontz and O’Donnel, “Planning is deciding in advance – what to do, when to do and how to do. It bridges the gap between where we are and where we want to be.” Planning deals with deciding on a future course of action for achieving pre-determined goals. Planning is critical to ensure that the resources are properly utilized. Throughout history, there are many examples of business enterprises and military ventures ending in failures due to lack of proper planning. In the United States, more than 500,000 small businesses are started each year. According to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, only about 50% of these businesses survive their fifth anniversary, and only one-third celebrate their 10th anniversary. It is said that the lack of planning is the primary cause of failure of small businesses. Valluvar realizes the importance of planning. He states, “Action should follow analytic decision resulting from deep deliberations. Venturing into action without due deliberation is disgraceful. (couplet – 467)” He warns that anyone who ventures into a project without a detailed plan is bound to fail.

The Planning Process: Valluvar has several couplets in which he offers valuable guidelines as to how the planning process should be carried out. He believes that the leader or the king should consult with knowledgeable people and decide the course of action. The king or the leader is ultimately responsible for the outcome of his actions, and if he consults with experts, he will benefit from their knowledge and wisdom. In addition to emphasizing the importance of planning and discussing the planning process itself, Valluvar outlines the following five major factors that should be considered in the planning process: 1) resources at hand, 2) equipment that is needed, 3) appropriate time for the action, 4) nature of the project and, 5) appropriate place for the project. Suppose a king had to launch a war with an enemy. In that case, he should certainly consider his manpower, the weapons, and other resources available to him, the appropriate time to attack the enemy, the actual mode of attack, and the proper place to attack the enemy.

Similarly, in the case of a business venture, the entrepreneur should consider his financial and human resources, the type of equipment needed, the opportune time for launching the venture, details of his product, and the proper location to build his plant and the distribution facilities for marketing the product. The same five elements are essential in planning any venture, whether a military mission, starting a business, or building a manufacturing plant. The relative importance of these five elements may vary. Nonetheless, they are all important considerations for developing a proper plan. The actual couplet discussing these five elements is as follows:

Consider these five factors: resources, means, time, task, and the place of action, and then proceed with the execution. (Couplet – 675)


The next step after the planning phase is organizing. Organizing is the process of bringing together physical, financial, and human resources and developing a productive relationship among them to achieve the organizational goal. In the organizing phase of a project, various tasks are identified, grouped, and prioritized in the right order.

Prioritization of Tasks: There will be several tasks in any project of considerable complexity. These tasks may vary in their relative importance. Valluvar believes that the project will be unsuccessful if the essential tasks are not accomplished. He also adds that the project will fail if the irrelevant, unnecessary, and unimportant tasks are completed.

The project will be ruined if you do things that ought not to be done or you do not do things that ought to be done. (Couplet – 466)

The tasks may be dependent on each other. To succeed in a project, during the organizing phase, all the tasks relevant to the project must be carefully analyzed and prioritized based on their dependency, importance, and urgency. These days, project planners use sophisticated software to analyze the task dependencies and the resources required to complete the tasks and schedule the tasks in the right order based on their importance, dependencies, and urgency. Valluvar expresses the same idea in the following couplet:

Things that may be done at leisure can be implemented slowly and deliberately. But things requiring immediate attention should not be delayed at all. (Couplet – 672)

It is interesting to note that Valluvar’s idea is very similar to what Stephen Covey, the American author, refers to as “Habit three – Put first things first” in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.


According to Peter Drucker, “The fundamental task of management is to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, training, and development they need to perform and respond to changes.” In an organization, it is the people who carry out the various jobs needed for its functioning. They are the most important resource of the organization. They supply the talent, skills, knowledge, and experience to achieve the organizational goals and objectives. Hence, the staffing function of management is an important function concerned with acquiring, developing, employing, and retaining people so that the right people are available for the right positions and at the right time in the organization. Valluvar addresses the recruitment aspect of the staffing function in detail.

Selecting someone for a position without testing him will result in endless troubles for years to come. (Couplet – 508)

The choice of the right executive should be based on how he reacts to the four-fold tests concerning virtue, wealth, love, and fear of death.     (Couplet – 501)

In addition to the above-mentioned testing criteria, Valluvar adds a few more to the list. He says that only those with good family backgrounds, free from obvious faults and concerned about their status in society, should be hired (Couplet – 502). Further, he insists on hiring only those who will be loyal to the organization, who are knowledgeable, capable of clear thinking, and not very greedy (Couplet – 513). These are very practical guidelines.

Some people may meet all the criteria mentioned so far. But some of them may not be able to contribute to an organization’s financial growth. Whether it is a nation or an organization, people with the ability to add to the wealth of the nation or to an organization are considered an asset. This is evident from the fact that the CEOs of most large corporations come from the ranks of marketing, finance, and business development backgrounds with expertise in growing the company’s financial position.

Employ the one who can expand the sources of revenue, increase wealth, analyze problems, and resolve them. (Couplet – 512)

In addition to suggesting who should be hired, Valluvar also mentions the type of people who should not be hired. He does not favor hiring people with any friends and relatives because such people will not be concerned if their personal reputation is sullied (Kural – 506). Also, people should be hired only based on their merit and expertise and not on other considerations such as personal likes and favoritism (Couplet – 515).

It is interesting to note that Valluvar has thought extensively about these human resource issues. His ideas about the hiring process are still valid. When a corporation hires an executive, it is customary to check his academic and professional background and past performance. Many corporations conduct personality tests like the Briggs-Myers test and other psychological evaluations to determine a candidate’s suitability for high-level positions.


Directing is a process in which the managers delegate, instruct, guide, motivate and supervise the workers’ performance to achieve the organizational goals.

Valluvar on delegation: Valluvar believes that once a person has been selected after being tested, he should be assigned appropriate duties and made to own all the responsibilities for that job (Couplet – 509). More importantly, he should also have the necessary authority to do the job. So, the delegation of authority and responsibility should go together (Couplet – 518). Once the individual is empowered to act, he should be left alone. He should not be micromanaged (Couplet – 517). Micromanaging an employee destroys his motivation and self-confidence. Many managers tend to micromanage and destroy their employees’ morale and productivity.

It is said that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was an example of a micromanager extraordinaire who was reformed into a successful executive. His first attempt at Apple was not very successful. When he was let go from Apple, he started the company NeXT Computer. At NeXT, Steve Jobs micromanaged just about everything. The failure of NeXT is attributed to Steve Job’s management style. When he started Pixar, he did not make the mistake of micromanaging. He gave complete authority and responsibility to his managers. Pixar was very successful. He continued the same style of management when he returned to Apple and turned it into one of the world’s most valuable companies. Valluvar is in favor of delegation and avoiding micromanaging.

Valluvar on Supervision and Performance Evaluation: Valluvar is a true pragmatist. He says that despite all the tests, even a man of good family background and education may prove to be incompetent upon close examination (Couplet – 503). Sometimes, a candidate may do well in all the tests. But, in actual work, his performance could be less than satisfactory (Couplet – 514). Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and the employer has to consider both and take the one that outweighs the other (Couplet 504). Therefore, it is necessary to routinely supervise the employees, evaluate their performance and reward them commensurate with their performance (Couplet – 528).


Controlling is one of the managerial functions like planning, organizing, staffing, and directing. It consists of verifying whether everything occurs according to the plans adopted, instructions issued, and established principles. Controlling ensures that there is effective and efficient utilization of organizational resources to achieve the planned goals. Controlling implies measuring the deviation of actual performance from the standard performance, discovering the causes of such deviations, and taking corrective actions. According to modern concepts, control is a foreseeing action, whereas the earlier concept of control was used only when errors were detected. These days, management information systems provide the information needed for the leader/manager to compare the progress against the plan.

Valluvar’s primary focus is the king and how he should control his administration. During his days, the method of information gathering was through intelligence services (spies). His approach is still valid and being practiced by the governments. Countries routinely employ spies to gather information about what is happening in their countries and their enemies’ activities.
Valluvar believes that a king must know immediately everything that always happens to everybody (Couplet – 582). However, present-day managers do not employ spies to gather information about the progress of the projects. They
use information systems, monitor their staff, and use their intelligence to gather information needed to control their projects.