Cockfights and Turf Wars

March 11, 2024

Organizational turf wars. At best, they leave you with a feeling of “ick.” At worst, they make you feel like giving up.

Today I’m going to share a story that always challenges the way I look at turf wars. It’s a story that has subtle but profound lessons about culture, leadership, power, and the centrality of human connection. The story comes from one of my favorite anthropological texts “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz.

In April 1958, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his wife visited Bali, Indonesia as government approved researchers. It was not their first time traveling overseas, and they were used to being met with throngs of curious locals whenever they arrived in a new country. This trip, however, turned out to be different.

After arriving in Bali, the couple endured several days of perplexing disinterest from their new community. Apathy may be too light of a word. The locals pretended the couple didn’t even exist. The Balinese were experts at evading and avoiding any approaches from the newcomers. Eye contact from the Americans would be returned with an unfocused gaze at a rock or tree behind them in the distance. Attempts at conversation were ignored with awkward efficiency. Geertz and his wife began to wonder whether they were in fact nothing more than an invisible ghost or a neutral extension of the inert landscape. He called this the “gust-of-wind” phase.

That was the way of things… until the couple attended a traditional but illegal cockfight, which ended in a police raid.

Cockfights have long been a central part of Balinese culture and is a major way that money circulates in that society through the betting involved in the event. For people wagering smaller amounts of money, the purpose of the betting is, not surprisingly, to get more money. For people engaged in high-stakes bets, however, it’s less about money and more about status and demonstrating an investment in the collective good. In other words, it’s not just about dollars and cents but about social connection.

As it turns out, the bloody spectacle of roosters fighting to the death while onlookers gamble and cheer didn’t bode well with the image of a modern Bali that government officials (only recently freed from Dutch rule) were trying to establish. Thus, the practice had been outlawed. But like prohibition in the United States, this didn’t stop local groups from hosting their own events. In this case, the event had the backing of the village chief and was being used to raise money for a school that the government had been unable to fund. All the appropriate bribes had been paid, so the organizers felt it was safe to host the event in the city square.

Boy, were they wrong.

Geertz and his wife were watching the fight when the police, most of whom were not actually Balinese but Javanese, showed up brandishing guns, as Geertz puts it, “like gangsters in a motion picture.” You can imagine what happened next.

The crowds went running in every direction. Those closest to the ring collected what they could of cocks, spurs, and coins before fleeing. With the anthropologist’s credo “When in Rome,” Geertz and his wife joined the chase, heading in the opposite direction of their own house toward what seemed like nothing but “rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano.” Even the village chief ditched his sarong, jumped into a river, and pretended he had been bathing the whole time.

In the chaos and commotion, the Geertzes ended up following the lead of one local who eventually scrambled into his own private compound. The three fugitives tumbled into the courtyard where the man’s wife, with surprising composure, pulled out a table, three chairs, and all the necessary items for serving tea. Without speaking a word, they all commenced to sipping tea and acting as relaxed and natural as possible. Within moments, the police invaded the courtyard with intentions to begin interrogations, but they were stunned to find the “white men” there in their company. The Geertzes were also stunned to hear their new hosts giving the police a thorough and accurate description of who the foreigners were, their possession of official papers, their status as American professors, and their rationale for being in the country - to write a book about Bali to teach Americans about their culture.

The police, dumbfounded, left them alone and satisfied themselves with fining the chief despite his alibi. The community pitched in to pay the fine and moved on to their next priority - reveling in the story of the Americans who had joined them in the fray.

From then on, Geertz and his wife were beloved members of the community. The entire town demanded a telling and retelling of the police chase, laughing harder and harder each time they heard it. They asked why Geertz and his wife hadn’t just shown their “papers” and explained to the police that they were just observing and not betting on the fight. Nevertheless, the way the couple aligned themselves with the community promoted them from invisible ghosts to actual people – a very happy consequence indeed.

I’ve been chewing on this story for years, and the longer I sit with it the more profound it seems. Here are a just a few of the takeaways that stick with me:

1.     All cultures are complex. Turf wars offer a unique glimpse into organizational culture. But be cautious of your initial judgments because there is a lot going on that you may not see at first glance.

2.     Leadership is not a matter of titles… because power is omnidirectional. It’s not always the people with titles (or, as in the story, with guns) who have power. Power works in every direction at every level. Power is not always loud; it ranges in expression from the overt to the discreet. The people at the bottom of the hierarchy have tremendous upward flowing power that can make or break the goals of those at the top. And vice-versa. Companies with the best cultures understand this and shape their practices around it. Which leads to the biggest takeaway of the story for me…

3.     Human connection is the key. Everything hinges on relationships. And relationships hinge on trust. That being said, who is considered to be “in” and “out” can change fast. Focus less on the corporate ladder and more on relationships. That will give you a glimpse of the true power structures at play. And it will keep you rooted to the only thing that will last once the life-size monopoly game has been folded up and put back in its box.


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