29 Nov 2018 19:52 IST

Shifting from a cathedral market to a bazaar world

Unless leaders learn to listen, understand the customer and adapt to this new world, they won’t succeed

In 1997, American software developer Eric S Raymond released an insightful essay titled ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary’. In it, he reflected on the top-down and bottom-up approaches to software development. Here’s an excerpt that conveys the base for his work:

“I believed that the most important software... needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time. Linus Torvalds’s style of development — release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity — came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here — rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches... out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles. The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock.”

Can a parallel be drawn to leadership? Traditional organisations and businesses resemble cathedrals. In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, the bazaar seems a closer parallel, calling for a bazaar style of leadership. What are some of the qualities that could define a bazaar leader?


Cathedrals are quiet. You don’t need exceptionally good ears to hear what’s going on. It’s usually the voice of the bishop or priest that dominates. The congregation often responds with ‘Amen’ — so be it. They follow the bishop’s lead. There’s a sacred, reverential note to all proceedings. There aren’t too many conversations — if there are, they will be quickly silenced with disapproving frowns and grim looks. The bazaar, on the other hand, is everything a cathedral is not. There’s the hustle and bustle of buying and selling. There’s constant movement, lots of noise. You need exceptional hearing to understand what’s going on.

Traditional businesses were often led by cathedral-type leaders. They spoke, and their word was law. Disagreement and debate were encouraged as much as having lunch with the competitor — you were likely to be fired if either happened. In the cathedral world, that leadership style seemed to work fine. But the business space quickly evolved into something very different. An effective leader also needs to evolve, to establish themselves in the bazaar. One of the biggest skills she needs is to listen better — to employees, customers, suppliers, and even competitors. She needs to sift through the noise for real information and insights. She needs to listen, be empathetic and understanding.

Consider Walmart; they ruled the retail space. This Thanksgiving and Black Friday saw all the traditional brick and mortar retailers acknowledging the bazaar reality. Americans shopped more — just not at the malls, but from their couches at home, smartphones in hand. Online sales on Black Friday rose more than 23 per cent compared to the previous year, crossing $6 billion. The same trend is evident in India, perhaps explaining Walmart’s recent acquisition of Flipkart. This kind of a trend can only be spotted by a leader who listens better. She wanders around the bazaar looking for signals and shifts that will inform her choices and strategies.


An Amazon worker, through an anonymous column in The Guardian, described their induction talk where they were shown an inverted pyramid and CEO Jeff Bezos was marked down at the bottom of the pyramid as the ‘least important’. Amazon’s customers were right on top, followed by its warehouse workers. It’s another matter that the worker went on to question whether Amazon was walking the talk.

I remember drawing the same diagram for a colleague earlier this year, when I heard he’d taken a condescending attitude to some of the children we work with. I told him that my co-founder and I saw ourselves at the bottom of the pyramid. Our role was to serve the children we work with and support the team that delivers our programmes to those kids. It became apparent he didn’t buy into the philosophy and we eventually let him go.

The lesson is clear. The bazaar leader does not display the command-and-control style of the cathedral leader. She is much more about connect-and-collaborate. The bazaar leader ensures that the organisation’s resources are built, renewed and harnessed to serve the customer better. This is her obsession. The ‘serve’ belief automatically builds ‘serve’ behaviour. It is not about arrogance but humility, it is not power driven but influence driven, it is not expedient but principled. The whole team draws inspiration and then follows the example set by the leader. Because of this need to serve, the bazaar leader always looks for the best people to help her. This kind of leader is unafraid to bring in team-mates better than herself. She empowers and trusts them. They reward her, with constant effort to serve the customer better.


The bazaar leader is quick to adapt. There are no holy cows for her. She realises the landscape is changing fast, and strategies and tactics must move at that speed. She is, therefore, willing to question traditional strengths and build new ones. She acknowledges blind spots and seeks help. As we know from the history of evolution, it wasn’t the weakest species that went extinct, it was those that failed to adapt.

Jet Airways is a great example of an airline that failed to adapt as the Indian skies changed from a cathedral marketplace to a bazaar one. It continued to be a full-service airline with premium fares, while the customer gravitated to no-frills flying at much lower prices. It then attempted to have the best of both worlds with Jet Konnect, but found that others had a lead and it was playing catch up. Today, Jet Airways is desperately looking for a buyer. The bazaar is an environment that demands innovation and the leader who learns to adapt faster has a better chance of winning.

This is a journey business schools and business students must also make. Are our classrooms changing from cathedrals to bazaars? They must. Otherwise they will do a poor job of preparing us for the bazaar workplace.