Leading the Millennials

"Leading Millennials will require a shift from a style of top-down command to collaborative inspiration. Commanding Officers today are leading a millennial force, should be able to visualize what engages them and use that to lead them."

Leading the Millennials

(Disclaimer: The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement. Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author)


Modern times hold much challenge to leadership in the military context. To adapt to environmental dynamics, commanders need to foster competing demands. They must seek to encourage autonomy and control, support individuality and teamwork, ensure flexibility and efficiency, balance creativity and discipline, energize novelty and utility, and enable soldiers to reach their limit and at the same time show social responsibility and attend to their well-being.

The paradox of above mentioned tasks of a Commanding Officer today has another unique demographic challenge and that is leading the ‘millennials’.

Leading Millennials will require a shift from a style of top-down command to collaborative inspiration. Commanding Officers today are leading a millennial force, should be able to visualize what engages them and use that to lead them. While the ends may be the same the ways and means may have to be adapted to suit the present.

While it’s impossible to paint an entire generation with one broad brush stroke and find a one size fits all method, one thing is clear: leading Millennials is much more effective than commanding them. "Focus more on people and you’ll demonstrate leadership, more on results and you’ll perform management", writes O’Leary.

Nothing new for the armed forces most of us would say but then a miniscule pause for introspection would germinate a contrarian thought, are we focusing enough on leadership or are we more concerned with day to day management or more colloquially put ‘fire fighting’ from one crisis to another, after all who said command of a battalion was going to be a cake walk.

Context of Military Leadership

The aim of this little treatise is to contextualize command in the present times by personal experience and it would be prudent to put a disclaimer at this stage that while this is based on personal experience it may not work for all, all the time and thus just an attempt to contextualize the travails of command as a reference point for anyone willing to use it. Following paragraphs are covering a few key issues of leadership today with a phrase or a theory of mine.

HEP Family

HEP is an acronym coined; Happy Efficient and Professional. The unit is characterized by its “totality,” controlling almost every aspect of the life of its individuals and by logical extension their family members. Subsequently, the dependency on the leader is greater than that at any level. This results in a system of expectations of leadership that is the broadest and most comprehensive one possible and leads to a core expectation that the leaders address their subordinates from both a task and personal perspective.

Happiness as an idea is difficult to quantify and qualify but the basic feel of Joie de vivre is an absolute must; life in the unit must not be a hurdle. With happiness arrives efficiency where an individual is willing to extend his mandate to be able to efficiently finish his task and be assured that he has nothing to dread and conservation of effort and resource is not epiphany but routine.

A logical flow of happiness and efficiency would be professionalism when as CO there would be availability of time and resource and an upbeat atmosphere to improve and learn. The definition of Gross National Happiness by Bhutan would be an apt indicator to what is the ever elusive happiness.

Rapunzel in Stone Tower

We have grown up with stories that Commanding Officers were not to be seen but they were there doing something vitally important and therefore not available, well the Rapunzel better get out of the stone tower and get hands dirty, Troops and officers alike want to grow, they frantically seek feedback and guidance from their leaders.

Take time to check in with your troops; while the lure of tasks in Brigade HQ and higher HQs may be there, staying connected and being present have two different meanings, amongst other leadership style the latest is ‘command by mobile’ while it may be convenient it surely is not productive in the long run. Troops today need to see their leader's energy going towards a goal before they'll invest their own. A leader's mood can influence the entire team.

Everyone loves to feel needed and part of something greater than them. Making time for mundane events like your presence during ‘Shramdan’, presence in Cook house at night not to check but to be there can engage your unit and align their efforts towards a shared vision. Acting in isolation is lonely and ineffective. By including others within your space and vice versa, you have a ready source of feedback, new ideas, challenges to your way of thinking, and alerts to new opportunities.

Collective Responsibility

You're not the only person who has great ideas and works hard. Neither are you the only custodian of unit ‘izzat’, as leaders know this and know the importance of conveying the contributions of each member of the team as a stakeholder. It's up to the CO to create a sense of community and of being part of something important, something that matters.

A trio of three high achievers from the NDA looking forward to becoming officers

If you show no passion, why should your troops? If you believe that your job ends with making decisions and providing resources, you are in for a hard time. It's possible to learn how to be more inspirational and enthusiastic, even if it drains your energy. We must be ready to hold people accountable, set high expectations for quality, efficiency and the bottom line.

New COs struggle with holding others accountable because they believe that it is only them and them alone who have a stake in progression, well the responsibility of the unit’s gravitas is every one’s while the buck may stop at the CO it is not for others to walk away scot free.

Carry Your Own Mill Stone

Another paradox which has the propensity to flummox a CO is to be better than the rest in every job he expects his soldiers, subordinates to do but still not do it for them. A CO may have been an absolutely fantastic company commander but he doesn’t have to be one or act as one while he is the CO, let the company commander carry his own mill stone even if you are very good at it.

He will never ever learn and you are not helping the cause, mentoring and grooming is what the leader is expected to do. As CO you need to carry the mill stone that belongs to you, evolve, grow and improve as a CO rather than exulting in being an immaculate company commander because that is the comfort zone. A malice which ails the forces today of all leaders dropping into their comfort zone and and doing someone else’s job.

Command by SOP

Another challenge for CO exists between actions in light of clear and defined organizational arrangements ie SOPs and the needed flexibility of action. This tension is built into the assignment and creates two paradoxical needs. On the one hand, one needs a regimen, the creation of standards and strict procedures. On the other hand, initiative, breaking boundaries, creativity and even guile are required.

An action that complies with organizational arrangements can be interpreted as conformity, rigidity, or alternatively as conservative and disciplined. Flexibility can be interpreted as adaptability, creativity, innovation, action adapted to the situation or, in contrast, lack of organizational discipline and lack of professionalism, a Hobson’s choice.

The distinction between routine situations and crisis or emergencies is not dichotomous and the two situations closely interact. The premise, then, is that there is constant overlap between the patterns of action that are suitable for routine periods and those that are not.

Hence, the formation of a paradox between the two ends of the spectrum of flexibility and order, it would be prudent to be able to make the decision of when to throw the rule book out and there would be many occasions to do that. The words "can't" and "should" can hold a CO back if they aren't examined critically. Can you change the rules? Are you interpreting them too narrowly? Leaders who see themselves as powerful are willing to shift things as they see fit.

Ride the Information Wave

As digital natives, this demographic portion of troops is used to finding just-in-time information from Google and YouTube rather than sitting around a fire and waiting for divine intervention of the CO. Information for them is both situational awareness and also knowledge, don’t be fooled, troops today are more inquisitive and want to

learn from peers just as much as they want to learn from the so called ‘ustads’. Troops today are more likely than previous generations to want to do purposeful work but they do want to know that the specific work they're doing makes a difference.

As Eisenhower had said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it". Assigning tasks "because you or some senior said so" may not work; get them on board by being transparent about why each little task matters.

When leading troops today it may be good to remember that even though you lead the team, you’re also one of the key players. Is your communication only one-directional? Are you talking to troops or talking with them. It is key for the CO to listen to those around them, even those in much lower in the food chain.

Leaders must take the time to elicit communication from others. Good CO knows they have as much to learn from their troops as they have to teach. As you develop your team, keep the lines of communication open. You may be surprised at what you learn as well. Plus valuable information would reach you that wouldn't surface otherwise. You would then not be the last to know that trouble is brewing somewhere.

Banyan Tree Complex

As CO the spotlight is always on you, it slowly grows on you and feeds you with this inexplicable sense of being the ONE, while it may be right there is always space to give five minutes of fame to deserving or even un-deserving team members.

CO can’t afford to be the Banyan Tree which hogs all the sunlight and everything under him withers for want of sunshine. COs must be as comfortable out of the spotlight as much as they are in it. One must give others credit or acknowledge one’s own mistakes.

Young Officers posing with their 'Royal Enfield' bikes

They must empower others by showing that they and their opinions and contributions are valued. Acting as a leader means helping the troops develop skills in a way that’s consistent with their aspirations and in a way that builds your organization’s talent pipeline.

Impatience a Virtue

While all rule books will lead you down the path of patience and stoic behaviour. Impatience can be a tool to create urgency, to inspire others to achieve more quickly or more effectively than they thought they could. It gets us past doing just what's comfortable. Impatience in a leader gets projects initiated and maintains their momentum. CO must

use their impatience to support their vision of a better future. Their own sense of urgency and excitement adjust the expectations of those around them and enlist others for support and investment. Troops today are competitive, they want their leaders to do more and find new opportunities.

They want to be successful and be recognized as a force to reckon with in the formations. Leaders who put unnecessary restrictions can keep themselves from finding new opportunities or from having the courage to act on them. Humans intrinsically respond well to confidence and conviction.

You can't make decisions people will believe in without showing confidence. Confidence shows a commitment to—and confidence in—one's self and one's team. Want someone to follow you into the unknown? Then show confidence in being able to blaze (or stay on) the trail. Confidence allows you to make the tough decisions and it's also reassuring for your team.

Missing the Woods for the Trees

What would a minimalist approach to leadership look like? How could we refashion leadership in a way that is intentional and focused on what’s important and is about making a measurable difference? Here in emerges another paradox of leadership, the devil is in the detail but are we missing the woods for the trees. A tough ask to declutter and focus on bare essentials.

Detail is different for everyone and every appointment, what may be detail for a section commander is not required to be detail for a company commander and surely not for the CO. The intrinsic idea of teamwork is the trust that each link in the chain would do its assigned task and to the best of their ability.

Representational image of a young army officer

Most COs are struggling to find a way to best leadership tools and techniques to use, after all everyone is looking for a success story, everything is a priority; the end result is you-can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees. Events and situations sometimes cannot be seen as simple situations as they really are while we are in the midst of them.

In short, we lose our perspective when we are too heavily invested. It may be prudent to once in a while do a reality check of why we are heading in a certain direction, how we are heading to it and are we on the right route.


The exposition above reveals that despite the clear and necessary advantages of a paradoxical and hybrid leadership in the army, the ability to experience, cope and lead in a manner that will always address the paradoxes is complex and a burden for each CO who has to carry his own grind stone.

However, in order to allow COs to lead in a dignified manner, which would allow room for paradoxical thinking to exist, leadership training is critical as is commander oversight in the field and spheres of action. The training and oversight that support this manner of thinking will allow commanders to learn, gain experience, and study its advantages and disadvantages, including development of expertise in transitions between the ends of the paradox, as well as simultaneous hold on to both ends.

Finally and most importantly messages conveyed by senior levels are highly important, as is forming an organizational culture that respects, facilitates, and rewards paradoxical leadership as the optimal mode of action. Without this type of support COs and the system will always lean toward overlooking the complexity and turning to clearer and simpler channels of leadership that do not facilitate strong coping with the challenges currently being faced by COs who command the millennial generation.

(Colonel Harsh Vardhan Singh is an alumnus of National Defence Academy was commissioned into the Indian Army in June 1995 and commanded a battalion along Western Theatre. The Officer has had operational experience both in Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorist Operations CI/CT operations in Jammu and Kashmir and on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Eastern Ladakh.

He has done instructional tenures in the Indian Military Academy, Defence services Staff College and served as Chief Instructor at Regimental Centre. The Officer has attended various important courses in foreign countries and has served on a UN Peace Keeping Mission. Col. Harsh is a prolific writer and his articles have been published in various journals. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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