No, not Intellectual Property Rights, though enough debate has been generated in the public forum on that too. This article is about Inter Personal Relations. During my tenure of approximately thirty-seven years in the Indian Navy (including training time) I have been on the receiving end of a charge of having less than satisfactory IPRs with some of the others, which included a Commander-in-Chief. I have done a little soul-searching and come to the conclusion that perhaps we need to sort out this scourge that has now reached epidemic proportions in the Indian Navy.
Inter Personal Relations have always been important. Just as it takes two to make a row, it takes good IPR to make a substantial difference to what can be achieved when a person or persons interact with a person or persons. A few years back the Indian Navy officially recognised good Inter Personal Relations as one of the desirable traits in its officers. These were amongst the attributes for which officers would be judged and reported upon in their Confidential Reports. A very desirable and lofty idea? Yes and no. Yes, because there is no denying the importance of politeness, tact and empathy whilst dealing with others. If one can, one should avoid treading on other people’s toes. If one can, one should seek to steer clear of controversy and confrontation. No, because not unlike the concept of Religion or even Goodness, it is subject to individual interpretation. And that is where the danger lies. Sometimes, the real interests of the unit and the navy are sacrificed at the altar of IPR. Sometimes, individual differences are reflected in the assessment about overall IPR. Sometimes, individuals who could not get along well with anyone at all comment upon the IPR of others as if they are an accepted authority.
A few years back when I underwent the Staff Course at Wellington, Tamilnadu, it amused me to note that we were not to ‘disagree’ with anyone. At best, we were to ‘agree to disagree’ or ‘beg to differ’. A few years back, General Musharraff, during the Agra Summit, became a hero of sorts with the Indian media, with his “straight talk”; the media having acknowledged this “disarming” quality in an army officer. They must have presumed that ‘straight talk’ or ‘shooting from the hip’ is what the armed forces officers are good at. If only they had attended the DSSC, they would have been shocked to realise that the injunctions about disagreements were being given for IPR between peers! One shudders to think what form of IPR would have to be evolved whilst dealing with superiors: “I have a different idea, Sir, but I beg to agree with you, yours is the most wonderful one”.
I think it was Winston Churchill who had once stated, “I may not agree with you but I will defend to hilt your right to disagree”. It would surely be an eye opener for those in authority who feel that good inter personal relations are completely dependent upon those they are expected to command.
A few years back, in an article in the USNIP, a comparison between the essential attributes of combat officers and staff officers was brought out. It was recognised that single-mindedness-of-purpose, brashness, and the ability to call a spade a spade, would be desirable in combat officers. However, since such qualities would tend to show these officers in poor light, during peace time, especially to their superiors, they would have dimmer promotion prospects in comparison to the staff officers, who are generally pleasant, and hence at good wicket, with their superiors. The article went on to add that both the qualities, that is of combat and the staff officers, were welcome in their particular areas, as long as, during war, it is the combat officer who is at sea and not the (good-in-IPR) staff officer.
Sweeping the dust under the carpet has been perfected as a national pastime. A country of one billion finds it well-nigh impossible to produce just one medal winner in Olympics. And yet, any number of sports persons line up to lay their claim to the Arjuna Awards. An article in the newspapers brought out that many a time these awards are based more upon good inter-personal relations than performance. Recently, we had the sad spectacle of Ministers of Parliament falling head over heels to nominate for Padma Shri a certain NRI with dubious past record but good IPRs.
There would have been no harm if IPR were treated as one of the many attributes for which officers are judged. Unfortunately, though not stated or intended, it becomes the most important attribute. Assessment of even performance and promotion potential is made dependent upon the IPR. There is, for example, no attribute called ‘Combative Spirit’, because almost all Professional or Personal Qualities assessment is based on virtues desirable in a good staff officer. It may be argued that Combative Spirit would come naturally to all those who are professionally competent, mentally and physically agile, and meticulous in staff work. But, combative spirit is not exactly the same as competence and agility. For one thing, if you haven’t got it in you, it can’t be faked. Most Indians, whenever they lose, are described as good losers. An apt criticism doing the rounds, after the recent World Cup Hockey, is that we may not be just good losers; we may be perfect losers.
One of the greatest pitfalls of the assessment of IPR in the navy is that since it is seen as one of the stepping stones for success, all attempts are made to get it right in relation to seniors, especially those in judgmental positions. This is often at the expense of one’s juniors who have to bear the brunt of their senior’s penchant for excellent IPR with their superiors. In such a system dissent is often equated with insubordination. In such a system since everyone is busy being positive and improving inter personal relations, often the first signs of cracks in the system are aired outside the system, say media.
Was it always like this? No, I would like to believe. Stories about the navy’s most revered officer, Admiral Pereira, are legendary. He almost became a cult figure. During the Staff Course we would go out of our way to talk to him. Once when I met him there after getting my transfer orders to Vizag, he started telling me about his own postings to Vizag. “I enjoyed commanding the Fleet”, he told me during the course of our conversation, “but there was this C-in-C always trying to interfere. One day (his eyes had the characteristic glint when he said it) I barged into his office and told him a few things and thereafter we never had any problems again”.
I would like to believe that many of my own superiors had the courage and good sense to take disagreements in their stride. Arguments, many a time heated ones, would ensue and yet were never carried forward to reflect general adverse state of IPR. During one of the battle of wits with one of my Commanding Officers, we were all getting it good and proper from him, a little unjustly I thought. I kept drawing doodles on a paper. As soon as he noticed me doing it, he was enraged and snatched the paper from my hand. I had drawn a cricket field with him batting and all the other officers in various fielding positions. He had one look at it and I thought he was going to fulminate. Instead, he asked me to draw my own position before he would decide what to do with it and me. With trembling hands, I took the paper from him and correctly placed myself at Silly Point! He just pocketed the paper and we went about our work. The whole day I kept thinking of how I had thoughtlessly got him on the wrong side. We were very busy in various fleet exercises and hence it was late in the evening when his response came: ‘From Captain to Silly Point: Come and have a glass of beer with me’.
Many others too did not make it mandatory for us to agree with them on all points. One could give one’s point of view without fear or favour, especially at seminars and debriefs. Professional views were countered with professional views and not with pulling rank and seniority. Inter personal relations were as important as today but no one stopped to give too much of thought to them. No one begged to differ but did so boldly. And if once in a while things got out of hand, well, the beer was always kept chilled!
And what do we have now? The other day I sent this coarse, though highly effective, joke to those who matter or mattered:
Many years back a Sub Lieutenant bought a bicycle from the Canteen Stores Department. Noticing that it did not have the rear carrier, he sent his orderly to have one fixed. When the bicycle came back he noticed that whilst the CSD man had fixed the carrier he had removed the stand. Enraged, the young subbie went to CSD and asked the man as to why he had done this. The man in charge there, a grey haired veteran of several decades, told him, “Sir, you appear to be new in the navy. Navy mein ek baat seekh lo: agar career chahiye to kabhi stand na lena (If you want career (to flourish, that is) never take a stand (on anything)).
Sadly, the majority of the lot today has taken this rather seriously. This majority has seen the rise of those who have never ruffled any feathers and reached heights that they aspire to reach. These have, hence, become role models now and have large fan following, golfing partners, and hectic social lives. The race to win the popularity contest is on. Whosoever wins, the navy is the loser!
Our fine navy had many an article and many a poem about the loneliness of command; it is because as a leader of men you were expected to stay apart. Of course, you would do all within your means to ensure the welfare of all those junior to you but that did not interfere with your standing apart. Today, if you stand apart, you are lonelier than ever before.
Here is what I wrote to this C-in-C with whom I was accused of having unsatisfactory IPR: A veteran teacher was preparing a rookie for his first lecture. By way of advice he told him, “As you lecture in the class you will be annoyed with this one student who will nag you with persistent questions. Don’t be put off by him. He may be the only one paying attention.” I was suitably rewarded for having penned this to him and I had my chilled beer alone. But, I was happy that I was not encumbered by the thought of my sea time or promotion.
I remember when Admiral Pereira was the Naval Chief he had written to all Commanding Officers to guard against the trend of yes-man-ship and zero error syndrome. A visionary, that he was, he had seen the early signs of the virus affecting the Navy.
The old-timer never mixed business with pleasure. Many amongst the present lot do not know where one ends and the other begins. We need to set the balance right again.
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