Mission Victory India spoke to Major General Anil Sengar (Retd.) as part of an MVI exclusive interview series highlighting military literature. Maj Gen. Sengar is a celebrated author with five published books to his name—Militarily Crazy (2011), Battalion Command: Dare to Lead: A Tiger's Tale (2016), Four Decades in Olive Greens: Pride, Passion, and Perspectives (2017) published by Pentagon Press followed by Leadership Foundation and Self-Development for Junior Leaders in Uniformed Services (2019) and The Be- Know-Do of Generalship (2020) published by Notion Press.
Q. Sir, you became a published author after spending a lifetime in some of the most coveted military appointments. That must have been a great story. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey from being a young officer to a General before going on to pen down an authoritative series on military leadership?
Ans: I had joined the army for one reason alone, the love of the uniform and what it stood for. The name I would often write on my notebooks in school, Ghorakhal, was Major Anil Sengar. I served almost 24 years with my battalion, 5 Guards, a pahari paltan with troops from the Himalayan region of the country from Jammu and Kashmir to the North East. They were my greatest friends, philosopher, and guides; not by lecturing on a squad post, but by their loyalty, humility, dedication and conduct as proud soldiers and never ever complained.
I was fortunate to serve and command in all kinds of operations and terrain that helped me to experience the dynamics of soldiering – the euphoria of success and the sorrow of losing brothers in arms. This journey of four decades seemed really short, for I loved being part of it every day. One reason why my journey was so splendid was that I had liberated myself from the usual ambition of the next rank, early in my service. It made life really fun and focused on making the best of today.
It is quite interesting that after four consecutive outstanding reports in operations including perfect nines, I was sacked in my first report in a peace station, and that was the cut off report for the promotion board from Major to Lieutenant Colonel. The corps commander, who was my senior reviewing officer (as a Major) wrote for me in my Annual Confidential Report (ACR), “This officer will prove dysfunctional to the organization if promoted to higher ranks.” Pardon my lack of humility, I know my standing and reputation that hundreds of officers try to follow the values and personal example that I lived and served by. They still call up regularly and seek guidance through my books. So, where does that report stand?
This journey also exposed me to some of the worst leadership examples by senior officers in pursuit of next rank that put men’s lives in danger. Having seen it consistently, I reached a conclusion, as a general statement, that the army deserves to be led by better quality of Generals. It has been a fantastic journey of great relationships, professional challenges, and a satisfaction that I earned a reputation of a General who walked the talk and practiced what he preaches in his books.
Q. What inspired you to write from ‘Leadership Foundation and Self-Development for Junior Leaders in Uniformed Services’ to ‘The Be- Know-Do of Generalship?’ Secondly, what particular aspects do the books cover (individually) and how do you feel the books, if read in succession will empower the reader on the nuances of the subject matter?
Ans: I have to sacrifice humility again to honestly answer this question. During the course of service, in fact from the academy itself, I had begun to fathom that I live by values that my subordinates wish to see in a senior and they wished to emulate my approach. Over three decades, I was quite certain that I enjoyed the credibility and the reputation in the army to write on leadership and motivation that would be seen as written by the author who has walked the talk all his service, even when there was price to pay.
As for the book Leadership Foundation and Self –development for Junior Leaders, I had seen units where young officers got no grooming and in fact were maltreated. Thus, this book is my effort to provide a readymade guide for the self-grooming of young officers, for I believe that developing oneself professionally as a leader is a personal responsibility. The shortest way to lose the trust of men is by demonstrating incompetence and lack of character.
The second book, i.e, The Be-Know- Do of Generalship was inspired by two reasons. First my personal experience of seeing and analyzing the performance of Generalship since independence. The second, in the last five years, the unprofessional manner in which the military hierarchy has handled many sensitive issues such as disability pension, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, One Rank One Pension, etc which brought opprobrium to the military.
This reinforced my belief that majority Generals do not measure up to the demands of Generalship at this level and in the times that we live. Just one example says it all and that is, why did 700 hundred officers bypass the command chain to knock the doors of Supreme Court against the dilution of AFSPA. Is this not a telling statement on the leadership today? And this points a direct finger at the selection system of Generals who get thrown up who fail to deliver repeatedly.
So, I wrote the book in the hope that people who aspire to hold higher ranks must understand their core functions and what it needs to be an effective and not a good chap General. This book is in two parts. The Part I covers almost eighty aspects of generalship that an officer has to understand and build on to be an effective General. Part II is a critical analysis of Indian Generalship since independence, particularly in the recent past. It also examines our promotion system and makes concrete recommendations to address the anomalies of the present system that sacrifices merit for mediocrity.
While you have mentioned two books, I have actually written five on military themes. In the leadership series there is a third book which fills the gap between junior leaders and the Generalship. It is titled Battalion Command Dare to Lead. This book is being extensively used by commanding officers.
Q.Who in your mind are the core readers for both the books? And how do you feel that they further add to the discourse on the subject of military leadership?
Ans: The book on Leadership Foundation… is meant for young officers up to company commanders in all uniformed services. It is about building the foundation for effective leadership and self- development through self -help. It is best suited at the earliest stages of the career.
The second book, The Be- Know -Do of Generalship is meant to be read for officers of the rank of Colonel and above. The foundation of good Generalship is built over the entire service by the ways that I have suggested in that book. Trying to learn when you have already become a General is too late, even though you can still improve yourself through the study and practice of this book.
As I said earlier, there is an important stage, that of commanding a unit. I see that as the most demanding assignment for an officer as that is the level at which the rubber hits the road. A direct responsibility for 800 men who look you in the eye. And for that I have written a separate book called Battalion Command- Dare to Lead.
Q. Could you tell our readers about the research which went into writing both books? What was your process and how did your contemporaries and juniors respond to the finished products?
Ans: The basis of all my books has been my own experience and practice of leadership. Having said that, the second book on Generalship, involved a lot of research and analysis. I examined a plethora of reliable material on Indian conflicts and conflicts, campaigns and wars right through human history to get an insight into the dynamics of leadership and why some fail and others succeed.
The book on Junior leadership is being widely studied and used all over the army. Large number of formations all over have conducted officer studies and book reviews and speak to me on this book. As late as last week of May 20, there was a presentation on the book to one division commander in J &K. Some publishers have expressed the desire to publish this book through them. So, it has been worth my effort as the purpose of writing this book is being achieved. Similarly, Battalion Command: Dare to Lead has been described by many as the Bible for commanding officers.
Both these books were recommended by the Deputy Commandant Army War College to the Senior Command and Junior Command College Course students.
The second book on Generalship has still not caught momentum. I guess, not many Generals are voracious readers and feel they have nothing more to learn. But officers who have read this find it an excellent book not only for the military but the corporate. This book was recommended by some retired Lieutenant Generals to the Army Training Command and Army War College, but they seem to have not responded positively.
In fact, one serving Colonel, who read my book Four Decades in Olive Greens: Pride-Passion and Perspectives, spoke to me and said, “this is the best book written by a General in the 21st century, but no general will read this book. Written from the heart, this book is a mirror that very few can look into. It must be read by every officer.”
Q. What did you learn during the writing process? What surprised you the most during your extensive writing journey? Could you tell us about some of the key challenges you faced when writing the series of books? Did you experience writers block, if so, how did you overcome it?
Ans: The greatest learning while writing was that I became aware of my own ignorance and the realization that, despite being an ardent student and practitioner of leadership, I had lot to learn to on different aspects of leadership. When you write you read a lot, research and analyze. A General may think he is the repository of all wisdom but when you read and introspect, you realize that you may not be the smartest man in the boardroom.
What surprised me was a peculiar phenomenon. I can sit and think, and I won’t get ideas to write. But the moment I sit on the computer, it seems a reservoir of ideas opens up and the fingers keep moving non-stop. Some people expressed their reservations about a critical book on the military for open circulation. I went ahead because I believed that the army knew most of what I was writing and I had made same presentations to the two chiefs, but they chose to ignore. So, it is better to be embarrassed when there is time to fix the malaise, rather than pay the price by the lives of men and the nation’s honour as happened in 1962.
No, I never experienced the writer’s block. Once on the computer, ideas just flow from somewhere.
Q. What can you share about your books that are not written in the blurb or synopsis? Is there any particular chapter from your books which you would like to share or highlight? If so, what does the chapter specifically deal with and why does it stand out for you?
Ans: One thing I wish to emphasize is about training. It is most necessary that military leaders understand the dynamics of the future battlefield. Unless an officer does that with fair clarity, he is only training his men to be cannon fodder for the enemy. We must learn lessons from the last war, but prepare for the future war.
The higher leadership must understand that their most important responsibility is to ensure that the organization is always evolving to be future ready. Thus, the need for vision and foresight and the ability to get things done against the bureaucratic and the political friction.
Q. Other than your books are there any other pieces of literary work on the subject of military leadership you would recommend being added to the Army’s reading list? Could you elaborate on your reasons for those recommendations?
Ans: Honestly speaking, the list is long. Important thing is that officers must develop the habit of reading. It will be the wisdom acquired over decades that will make a complete military officer. He will need to understand military, international relations, economics, diplomacy, national governance, politics, emotional intelligence etc. In the book on Generalship, I have touched on important 80 aspects of Generalship. Thus, it is a life- long endeavour and analysis of a wide range of subjects.
Q. Why is reading important for our military and/or the nation at large and how has writing made you a more analytical thinker and security analyst?
Ans: The two biggest obstacles to growth are ignorance of one’s own ignorance and a misplaced belief in one’s own wisdom. Reading exposes the ignorance of a man to himself and shows you the reality. Reading gives you the benefit of learning from others’ experiences, thus allows for fast-track growth. My book on Leadership Foundation...is 166 pages. It is four decades of experience, review of mountains of literature and took two years to reduce it into a book. The benefit and wisdom of experience is evident for those who decide to read, chew, and digest the book.
For the military, the lessons from past conflict and leadership are universal and eternal even though the character of warfare keeps changing. Applied in the relevant context, it can prevent repeating the similar mistakes of the past. The best example is the German offensive into Russia in the Second World War, where the same blunder was committed by Napoleon a hundred years ago and ended the same way, a complete rout. Military officers should not only read history but analyze history. When you write, it is in the open domain, and open to criticism. You have to be sure of what you write. Thus, every word written there is scrutinized, analyzed, and researched. It widens your horizon and makes you analytical.
Q. Are you of the opinion that military veterans should be encouraged write about their unique service experiences or share their professional views in the form of a book? How do you feel this will empower the next generation of military professionals and policy makers?
Ans: Yes, I agree. Large number of officers have experiences that can be shared for the benefit of the military in many ways. Second, during the service, many officers for many reasons, that includes lack of moral courage and a ‘yes man’ trait, do not speak their minds. Thus, honest, unfettered veteran feedback, devoid of career pressures can be good sounding boards for improvement of the system.
I find it disappointing that officers who held important senior positions criticize the very policies which were in vogue during their service time, and they did nothing about it. This notwithstanding, veterans with constructive experiences must share them. Also, the serving military leadership must look at these feedbacks positively as a sounding board and not a criticism that needs to be contested.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you like to give a veteran who has a story to tell however does not know how to formulate it in the form of a book, how would you be recommend they go about the journey?
Ans: What I would say is that if a person has a story to tell, he must examine if he has the personality and the reputation that will carry the story. Every General cannot write a book on leadership or morals and ethics. They would need to have walked the talk for the book to be taken seriously. However, there are subjects that do not need to pass this filter. This aside, they must seek advice of people who have written books for a well -directed efforts.
It is a laborious but an enjoyable endeavour and can consume two years of a writer to do justice. If he has half the mind to write a book, he must go ahead. These days, self-publishing portals make publishing easy for the first-time writers, as long as the author is prepared to put in the effort and bear the publishing cost. Book writing is an enjoyable, yet an energy and time-consuming exercise. It will not fetch you many returns, but the satisfaction of having your book in your hand is worth all the effort. If nothing else, you can use it to motivate your children and grandchildren. Go full steam ahead. You won’t know how it goes unless you have tried. You may surprise yourself.
About the Interviewee
Maj Gen. Anil Sengar, 5 GUARDS has served in most varied environment as an Infantry and a Mechanised officer. Commanded battalion and brigade in Counter Insurgency Operations, division in a strike corps, raised a division in the North East as Deputy GOC and retired from the DGMF. He has written five popular books. Served as Defence Attache in Turkey and has a reputation of holding no punches when it comes to professional views.
(Views expressed are the respondents own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')