de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Route to Nowhere. LMD. May 2007. Page 169. Volume 13, Issue 10. ISSN 1391-135X.
Underlining the importance of acquiring cultural intelligence and the resultant ability to guide a nation’s destiny.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne reflects on ‘cultural intelligence’
‘There is a over butterfly there”. “Where?’ “Over there”. “Where exactly over there?’. “On that bush ”. “Which bush?” Gesturing strongly “That bush”. “Oh, where on that bush?’ “Next to the dead leaves”. “There are a lot of dead leaves Sudha”. “In relation to that single big orange dead leaf, where is it?. “To the left, on the long leaf curling down”. “Oh I see it, I see it.” I inch closer to take a photograph. “Damn it has just flow off. Sudha, look quickly, see where it lands”. Sudha looks hopefully then turns rueful, “Sorry, it vanished into the forest”. I will never know what it was. Another enigmatic little blue. Perfectly camouflaged at rest, a brilliant metallic blue in flight. A missed opportunity. An opportunity missed because time and time again we cannot explain to another in a structured manner. Over the next few days I had this issue a few times and I began to wonder how many opportunities we miss at a national level because we lack certain traits of ‘cultural intelligence’.
My point here is not whether I missed an opportunity to photograph a butterfly. It is about something far more complex. It is the issue of ‘intelligent guidance’. Conceptually, this issue, is an all pervasive issue which affects every sphere of life. The ability to provide intelligent guidance or the failure to do so is a barometer of how developed a nation is.
Having lived in the UK for fifteen years, I am often struck by how unable the average Sri Lankan is to give coherent instructions, even to find a place. Stop someone on the road and ask for directions and put this to the test. More often than not, people even get confused between left and right. ‘It is on the right’ they will say confidently, if you are coming from Cadjugahawatta Junction”. “Well” I say, “As I am not familiar with Cadjugaha Junction, if I go straight ahead from where I am, will it be on the left or right?’ This usually reduces the giver of directions to a babbling wreck.
“One smew”, Richard boomed across to the group”. One smew is hard to find on a lake of a few square kilometers on a cold winter’s day when my wits are dulled (usually are) by cold weather and sleep deprivation. “3 o clock to me about one hundred yards out do you see a group of about ten mallards? About 50 feet to the left are three coot. Look behind the left-most of them and the smew is about ten feet behind, a little to the right of the coot”. Almost instantly the entire group lock on to the smew, a beautiful duck that has frozen the icy Scandinavian winter. The Europeans, the Americans, the developed nations in general are so good at this. A manifestation of an ability, a cultural intelligence to provide intelligent guidance not ‘text book regurgitation to pass the exam intelligence’.
Compare the field guidance of the average Briton leading a countryside walk to a typical day in Yala. “There is a leopard on that tree”. “Which tree?” “That tree”. “There is a million bloody trees there. Tell me which one!” “The tall one”. “Oh good, that’s reduced it to half a million trees”. Imagine the British wildlife tour leader in action’. “Ok chaps, see the bush a few feet in front of me with the orange laves on the crown. About 11 o clock to it, 50 feet back is a tall palu tree. Go that? OK. It’s not on that tree. But behind it, about fifty feet to the left, there is tree about a fourth of the height with drooping branches. That’s a Maliththan tree. Go up the trunk starting from the bottom. Take the first left fork, it divides again. Look along the branch upper fork. Continue along it and you will see the leopard’s tail dangling beneath just beyond the middle of the branch’.
What is clear is that it’s all about the thought process. An ability to take stock of a situation and say where are we, where do we need to get to. It is about understanding how best can we orient people from where they are to where we want them to be. Guiding the eyes of others to a leopard or butterfly needs an ability to grasp a situation, and build a road map for guidance. An ability to give coherent instructions. It is no different in business.
Are our corporates good at taking stock of where they are? Can they give a road map to their employees of where they need to get to? Can they give series of a reference points to navigate from where they are to where they need to be? Over time, the country as a whole will acquire these aspects of cultural intelligence, the ability to provide intelligent guidance. Leadership. Some of it may have to be taught, some of it may be absorbed by observing others. Meanwhile a few wrong turns may await us.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.