While the fundamentals of leadership have remained constant, these have to be applied keeping in view the leadership challenges of the 21st century.
Our crisis in leadership stems from the fact that on the one hand we have compromised with these fundamentals due to leadership development programmes not having kept pace with the times and on the other hand, we have failed to bridge the gap between the omnipresent individual and organisational failings and idealistic requirements of military leadership by strict application of rules, regulations and military law.
The Indian officer corps has acquitted itself creditably both in peace and war. Our officers and men are held in high esteem by the society. The officers have led from the front and performed exceptionally in war, and are the envy of all armies. The high causality ratio of officers to soldiers signifies their courage and bravery, though ironically it also reflects poorly on the leadership in not empowering their subordinates.
So, what I am going to say is relative. Over a period of time, a lot of shortcomings have set in that impinge upon the performance of our leadership. As Major General Wingate would often say in respect of military leadership – “Good not good but enough!”
The directive of the Chiefs of Staff Committee to the Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) is simple – you shall develop leadership qualities in the cadets. What then is the problem? The leadership development programme at the NDA is inspired by the principles evolved by the British Army a century ago. If not in concept then in application it is based on breaking the will through subjugation to ensure discipline, uniformity and adherence.
Apart from the rigid unimaginative leadership development programme, a large part of the “leadership development” is done in the barracks by senior cadets where bullying and illegal punishments amounting to physical abuse are rampant – a practice done away by all modern armies.
Individual creativity and initiative are killed. A curious form of initiative focused on avoiding the draconian system is developed. A trait that impinges on the organisational mission in later years. The academic programme at the NDA lacks imagination and is based on a standard BA/BSc degree rather than on militarily relevant academic subjects like man management, military history, military psychology, aeronautical/naval science, space science, weapon technology, nuclear physics and so on.
Instead of producing self-actualised and creative leaders driven by military ideals, we end up with “adherent under supervision” leaders whose inherent and acquired shortcomings due to the flawed environment remain latent and come to the fore when they get higher independent commands. The situation in other service academies is no different.
The in-service leadership development is done through self-actualisation and organisational support in terms of self-study, mentors, appraisal system, counselling by superiors, unit/army ethos and application of rules, regulations, and law. There are no further formal leadership development programmes and only a limited time is devoted during courses.
Critique of military academies notwithstanding, the young officer still comes out with a reasonable degree of idealism. This gets shattered when he faces the reality of unit life. He is faced with below par duplicitous mentors/superiors, a flawed appraisal system and an environment where mediocracy rules the roost. He ends up either flowing with the tide or becoming a cynic.
Off late, there has been a tendency to give short shrift to the application of rules, regulations and military law. The reason for this is the compromised leadership, particularly in higher ranks, which lacks moral courage. This has had the most serious impact on leadership standards as this was the final check that works when everything else fails.
Of course, the issue is relative. Military leadership probably still stands out as compared to other institutions. But I repeat that our leadership is “good but not good enough” as the military profession deals with life and death. An honest assessment of leadership standards vis-a-vis the military ideals shows that 50% of the officers measure up only to the average standard, 30% are high average, 10% are above average and outstanding and the remaining 10% are below average.
Yet so flawed is the appraisal system that 80-90% of the officers are assessed as above average and outstanding making no difference between the good bad and the ugly. This not only stymies reform but also leads to a flawed selection system and further dilution of leadership standards in higher commanders.
Due to compromises with leadership traits and principles, most leaders do not qualify as role models for their subordinates. This has a cascading effect on the junior leadership. Integrity, morals and ethics, particularly among senior officers have become suspect. Abuse of privileges is rampant and cases of moral turpitude are on the increase. That two Army Chiefs and one Naval Chief by inquiry and admission were part of the Adarsh Scam and by implication involved in perpetration and cover-up, tells the whole story.
Intellectual military education deals with the “why” of matters military and involves a wider study of the theory of war and military history. Training deals with “how” of matters military. Our army neglects military education leaving it to the individual and primarily focuses on training. Without the former, the latter hangs in mid-air. We were shocked when one Chief removed the military history paper from the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) entrance exam. With great difficulty, it was reintroduced a decade later.
The performance of the officers in DSSC entrance examination has been pathetic. Out of 1000 officers who appear, the number passing remains in double digits against 250 vacancies. For the balance vacancies, the best are selected from the worse. The performance in promotion examinations is no better. The assessment has been diluted to avoid embarrassment and loss of seniority. In a nutshell, the intellectual military education of the officers is high on emotions and low in substance. The Armed Forces have been brushing this issue under the carpet.
What is most disturbing is that the first requirement of military character – bearing and fitness –have been given a short shrift. Fifty per cent of officers and JCOs cannot pass their physical fitness tests. A large number of officers, Colonels and above are a public embarrassment because poor bearing due to being overweight.
The moral courage to stand up for what is right has been diluted to the extent that we have become an army of “yes men”. The current sorry state of civil military relationship where rather than apprise the political leadership of the real state of the Armed Forces to force reforms, the hierarchy has simple joined them to fool the nation.
Will and initiative are the hallmark of creative leadership. What is left of these fundamentals after the military academies is killed by the autocratic rigid and “no mistake” approach of the commanders. A non-creative leadership can only produce average results. Non-empowerment of junior leadership is probably the biggest shortcoming of the army. Consequently, there is a call for more and more officers. Whereas the JCOs and NCOs should be the mainstay in the grassroots battle, in our army the officers have to fill the void.
There is an urgent need for the armed forces to revamp their leadership development programmes both in the military academies and in service. Rules, regulations and law must be strictly applied to prevent dilution of the fundamentals and bridge the gap between military ideals and individual failings. The appraisal and selection system must be overhauled to select the best for higher command as the rot begins with the head.
Lt Gen Harcharanjit Singh Panag, PVSM, AVSM &VSM last served as GOC-in-C, Northern Command and GOC-in-C, Central Command. In December 2008, after his retirement, he was appointed as an Administrative Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Higher Command Course, Mhow and the National Defence College, New Delhi. He has authored several publications concerning Indian defence forces and national security. This article was first published on January 21, 2018,in the ‘Shooting Straight’ column of the Times of India Blogs, reproduced with due author’s permission. He can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')