The military officer selection system has been elaborately covered by the Victory India Compendium of books, Fauji India and Mission Victory India over the past decade. This poignant piece on Angular personalities in the defence services by Brig. BL Poonia adds a new dimension to the subject of military officer selection.
The article links it interestingly with the nuances of selection and its implications on quality of leadership. Such selected officers with traits of Angular personality on reaching higher/apex ranks adversely affect the organisation, especially their subordinates who perforce are destined to serve under them.
An interesting dimension has been added to our over seven decades old Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) based Services Selection Board (SSB) officer selection system.
What is an Angular Personality? These are the people whose personality graph at some point shows a prominent kink. They are generally difficult people? But how do we define difficult people? They are a 'miniscule minority' who are capable of making the life of others difficult. In a social group, they are capable of screwing the happiness of even a matured majority.
They always want to remain in the limelight and dominate various social groups without having the caliber or the competence to do so. Basically, they suffer from a complex. In the Defence 'Services Selection Boards' (SSBs), they are classified as 'Factor Two' cases. To cut the story short, they are the people with low 'Emotional Intelligence'.
They lack 'Tact', which involves skillful management of feelings of the person being dealt with. They don't care two hoots for the feelings of others, and derive a sadistic satisfaction in hurting people, in case it can satisfy their ego, because they lack the ability to put themselves into the other person's shoes.
One may wonder as to why do these people always fire shots at a tangent! That is because they are 'Angular Personalities'. But then how did they get selected in the SSBs, and some of them even managed to reach very high ranks, to include Maj Gens, Lt Gens, Army Commanders or even Army Chiefs? I am aware of two such Army Commanders (one from Armoured Corps, and the other from Engineers), and one Army Chief (ex Infantry).
And that's because in SSB, such candidates are border line cases in 'Social Factor', but are at times pushed through by the Assessors by giving some grace marks. Those of us who have been Assessors will recall that not all candidates in the SSBs are cleared by all the three assessors, ie by the GTO, the Psychologist, and the Interviewing Officer.
Quite a few of them are cleared by giving grace marks. Otherwise the shortage of officers in the Defence Services will shoot up to unacceptable proportions. There was a time during 2001-2005, when the shortage of officers in the Defence Services had crossed the figure of 12,000, which has now been brought down to a little more than 9,700.
So to begin with, let's understand the basics of selection system in the Defence Services. In the SSB, a candidate is tested for 15 different Leadership Qualities, under four different factors. These are:
- Factor One: Planning and Organizing Factor.
- Factor Two: Social Adjustment Factor.
- Factor Three: Social Effectiveness Factor.
- Factor Four: Dynamic Factor.
You will be surprised to know that even a person whose Planning & Organizing, and Dynamic factors are very high, but the Social Factors are weak, can rise to the highest ranks, in case he can manage his bosses. Because the sufferers of the deficiency of the 'Social Factors' are not the seniors, but the juniors and the colleagues. And they are rightly known as 'Factor Two' cases (not 'Factor Three' cases), because 'Factor Three' of a person in any case, can never be higher than 'Factor Two'.
Hence the officers, who are professionally competent, but socially cunning and clever, will always remain a pain for their subordinates and colleagues. Not only do they become a pain for others, wherever they go, but some of them manage to rise to higher ranks too.
Moreover, not attaining a particular rank in the ladder does not necessarily mean that the officer was not as good as the one who made it. Let's not forget that there is something called 'Destiny'. I would never like to consider anyone more knowledgeable, or a better officer, purely because of one's rank.
But I would certainly respect anyone and everyone who is a gentleman with strong human values, is open to conviction, and respects the feelings of other people. In short, these are the people with high Emotional Intelligence.
But let me clarify, that not all officers are 'Factor Two' cases. 95%of them are really good, but it's the miniscule minority of 5% that I am talking about. And you will find such officers across the spectrum, in different ranks; rather more in junior ranks, though a few manage to reach higher ranks too.
Another typical problem, the Defence Services are confronted with, is the extremely steep pyramid structure for promotions. In fact, it would be more appropriate to call it an Effiel Tower, rather than a pyramid with a steep gradient. As a result, many competent officers get left out, and don't make it to the ranks they could have possibly done so. And the best part is that the Civil Services are not faced with a challenge of climbing such a verticle structure.
As a result, in the Defence Services, many of us have been deprived the privilege of reaching higher ranks purely because of the lack of vacancies, and not necessarily because of the lack of competence. Had we had promotion avenues at par with the Civil Services, atleast 10% of the officers who retired as Brigadiers, would have made it to the rank of Lt Gens, 25% to the rank of Maj Gens, and almost 100% of the selection grade Colonels, who retired as Colonels, would have made it to the rank of Brigadiers.
In fact, the Civil Services have gone a step ahead by using the logic that since 100% of their officers are competent, it is the lack of vacancies which prevents them reaching the level of Central Govt Secretary or State Govt Chief Secretary (ie equivalent to an Army Commander), hence they must be compensated through NFU (Non Functional Upgrade) Pay. And they are.
May be we can not afford to apply the same template in the Defence Forces, as the requirements are totally different. However, the aim is neither to condemn the SSBs or the training institutions, nor the selection system post-commissioning, since the selection at all levels is based on judgmental system.
The aim is only to examine the same objectively. After all the assessment of human personalities has to be based on human judgment, and we have to continue with the same, by constantly reviewing the methodology, with the aim of progressively improving the same, to the extent possible.
Moreover, the principle of 'Demand and Supply ' is applicable to the officers selection too. For example, we can't to afford to have the doctors of Army Medical Corps (AMC), and Army Dental Corps being screened through the SSBs. If we do that, the already existing high percentage of shortage, will shoot up to unacceptable levels. However, the Remount & Vetenary Corps (RVC) officers are already being screened through the SSBs, since their size is so small.
And if hypothetically, the total requirement of the officer cadre is reduced to 75%, no grace marks would be required to be given. But day by day, the strength of the officer intake is increasing ; which necessitates us to define, what constitutes an 'Average Officer', rather than looking for an 'Ideal Officer'.
Moreover, qualities of Honesty, Integrity, Loyalty and Moral Courage cannot be judged in the SSBs, these simply need to be monitored continuously throughout the service; as there is no way out.
Another factor for the dilution in the selection system had been due to the introduction of 'Trainability' in the SSBs after 1972. Additional marks are given for this, based on a candidate's age, motivation level, background exposure, self-awareness, and the length of training.
Moreover the SSBs assess a candidate based on his 'Potential', which means that the candidate has some qualities lying latent in him, which by the end of the training period would be developed, up to the required standard. Logically it makes sense, but the results have never been validated.
And yet we find that some the officers who were screened through the SSBs even prior to 1972, when no marks for 'Trainability' were added, have also turned out to be 'Angular Personalities'. So it's really a very complex phenomenon to eliminate this category all together. To a certain degree, we have to rather learn, to live with it. No system can guarantee 100% efficiency. The aim therefore, should be to minimize the inefficiency to the extent possible. And that precisely, is the real challenge.
Moreover, our officers have performed so well in all the wars and various operations they have participated in. So our selection system per se has stood the test of time, and should not be looked upon as an outdated system. However, it needs a regular review, as there is always a scope for improvement.
As far as the Pre-Screening Tests in SSBs, that were introduced about two decades ago, may be re-examined, so that no potentially competent candidate is weeded out due to the constraints of time and shortage of Assessors available with the SSBs. A certain degree of physical fitness tests could also be introduced, the manpower for which could be provided for by the local formations. All this needs a serious attention lest it results in injustice to any competent candidate.
Another point we need to remember is that the rank of an officer is not the exclusive criteria for his competence and caliber. Some of the officers, who retired in junior ranks, have made a immense contribution. We have primarily inherited the selection system from the British Defence Services. Capt Basil Liddle Hart, a British Army veteran, even as a Captain, had enunciated his famous military theories:
- 'Theory of Expanding Torrent' for Offensive Operations'.
- 'Theory of Contracting Funnel' for Defensive Operations'.
And the same had been accepted by the Generals and the Field Marshals of the British Army. In fact, they applied these theories during World War ll ; and so did their opponent German Generals like Rommel, Guderian, Manstein and Von Rundstedt.
It's only when we close our minds and restrict our thinking capacity to the last rank that we have held, we end up with the complex of our inability to match the ideas and wisdom of the senior officers. And it's this psychological handicap, which motivated Capt Norman F Dixon to come out with his famous book: "Psychology of Military lncompetence", an intelligent man's guide to the defects of the military minds. Its conclusions are incontrovertible, and it is still considered a valuable text in studies of 'Leadership'.
Even as a Captain, he had the vision and courage to condemn even Field Marshal Montgomery for his dubious and inhumane decisions during the conduct of Operation Market Garden (17 - 25 Sep 1944) to seize the bridges over River Rhine in Holland, leading to 7000 men killed, wounded and missing, all in the one-up-manship to win the race for Berlin.
In fact, he was awarded the 'Carpenter Medal' for his work of exceptional distinction in 'Experimental Psychology', by the University of London. Moreover, Field Marshal Montgomery is just one example, he in his book has covered all the generals starting from Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Chingez Khan, Napoleon and Hitler, just to name a few.
Coming back to the Angular Personalities. You will find this miniscule 5% lot spread over all over the country, and partly we have to learn to live with it. In everyday practical life, you don't need to be a psychologist to find them out ; what you need is just close observation. Just remember what Mr Bruce Patterson, a renowned psychologist had once said, "Psychologist is a man who, when a beautiful girl enters the room, watches everybody else."
About the Author
Brig BL Poonia, VSM (Retd) was commissioned in the 2nd Battalion Brigade of the Guards in Jun 1974. He commanded a Company as well as a battalion in Nagaland during the height of insurgency. Had been a GSO-3 (Intelligence) of a Brigade, GSO-2 (Intelligence) of a Corps in J&K, GSO-1 (Intelligence) of a Corps in Kashmir Valley, and Colonel General Staff (Intelligence) of a pivot Corps during Operation Prakram. Commanded an Infanty Brigade in the Western Sector, and was the Deputy GOC of an Mountain Division in the Eastern Sector. He retired after serving the Indian Army for more than 35 years.