LEADERSHIP IN THE NAVY – PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

We Revere Our Heroes

1. ‘Band of Brothers’; is that what we expect our youth to become in tomorrow’s battlefield? Nelson used this phrase on a number of occasions to describe the remarkably close and friendly relationship that existed between him and the captains who served under his command at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798. The phrase also connotes a personalised or ‘collegiate’ style of leadership that Nelson personified, whence doctrine was often substituted by dinner table conferences just prior to battle. Nelson established himself as one of Britain’s most successful fighting admirals. He established a personal rapport not only with his captains but with his men too, through particular attention to their welfare, training and trust. His ‘band of brothers’ knew instinctively what was required of them. On the day of his funeral, according to Collingwood, there were tears in the eyes of ordinary seamen. Nelson loved them and they loved him. He trained his people by example, persuasion and sometimes sterner measures.

2. Even though his personal life was never exemplary, his men followed his other sterling qualities and largely ignored his aberrations. As described by Admiral Arun Prakash in his essay ‘Nelson – The Quintessential Naval Hero’, “While history has, on the whole been kind to Nelson, many biographers have not glossed over his frailties. Pages have been written about his ambitious nature, his thirst for public acclaim, his greed for prize money and his vanity about his own accomplishments”.

3. In the modern era, I quote an incident from ‘The Golden Book of Delhi’ by Commander Hugh Gantzer, on the occasion of the decommissioning of this illustrious ship. The annual Pulling Regatta was in progress and ships vied for the coveted Cock – a symbol of not only rowing prowess but also of the spirit and indeed the general efficiency of the ships. In a particular race Delhi’s boat won by many boat lengths. The euphoria about the victory was short lived when it was found that the crew had taken part in the wrong category race. It came out that unless the same crew took part in the next race, of the correct category, Delhi may not win the Cock. Here was a crew totally fatigued, profusely sweating and frustrated that their best was wasted in the wrong race. No one could have expected of them to take part in the next race let alone win. It was a lost race even before it started. But then the Commanding Officer of Delhi, a legendary figure by the name of Captain RL Pereira, stepped into the boat and talked to his men. Suddenly despair changed into hope and resolve, exhausted faces gave way to grit, and tired muscles had new life in them. The men not only took part in the race but won.

4. Both these are fine examples of Personalised or Direct style of leadership. As one of the Commanding Officers of yore declared, more with a sense of pride and responsibility than with arrogance, “Hum God to nahin but God se kam bhi nahin” (I am not God, but, am not less than Him). When we joined the Navy, John Winton’s ‘Rules on Seeing the Captain’ were prevalent and never questioned: ‘Rule 1: The Captain is always right; Rule 2: If the Captain is wrong, Rule 1 applies’.

5. Are these examples then of timeless traits of leadership that should be unquestioningly inculcated during the initial training and formative years by emulation? How many Nelsons and Perieras have we cloned so far by this process? What about those who do not become these legendary figures, and that includes the vast majority, but are still required to lead? More significantly, are these styles of leadership relevant now and for tomorrow’s Navy? If yes, what are these time tested qualities and how do we ensure their inculcation? If no, or partially no, how else to groom the youth?

We Believe in Timeless Traits of Leadership

6. Let us start with timeless traits of leadership. Even though Kautilya’s Arthshastra, a 4th century BC treatise, is largely perceived as a set of principles for Economic Administration for a king to preserve the integrity of the state and sustain it for the future, there are fine lessons in leadership too. Kautilya stressed on the importance of such core values as knowledge, skills and attitude. Some of these would be relevant even today: Character (Shilavan), Thinking Ability (Pragna), Communication Skills (Vangmi), Vision (Prabhu Shakti), Mission (Mantra Shakti), Concentration (Drudhachitta) and Watchful Alertness (Daksha).

7. These were followed by Dharma and Karma and Maryada or Izzat during the days of Mahabharata as the essential qualities of a Kshatriya. These have been translated in our times as: The well being of your nation and service comes first; the well being of your men comes next; and your own well being and comfort always comes the last. And, Service with Honour.

8. The essential traits of a good leader have evolved over a period of time. There may be differences of opinion about some of them or their relative importance but by and large the following are accepted as desirable traits:

• Bearing
• Courage
• Decisiveness
• Dependability
• Endurance
• Enthusiasm
• Initiative
• Integrity
• Judgment
• Justice
• Knowledge
• Loyalty
• Tact
• Unselfishness

9. Some have considered the following additions, in modern times, but, in many ways these are present in the original list:

• Assertiveness
• Candour
• Commitment
• Competence
• Confidence
• Coolness
• Creativity
• Empathy/Compassion
• Flexibility
• Humility
• Improvement
• Maturity
• Self-discipline
• Sense of humour
• Will

10. I am not going to take all but only a few to illustrate a point:

(a) Bearing. This demands the highest standards in carriage, appearance, and personal conduct at all times. By and large we don’t have any problem with carriage and appearance. But we do have some reservation about the changing ethos of personal conduct. Emulating icons such as Nelson, sometimes means that all is forgiven as long as one is a great leader, eg, Bill Clinton in modern times.

(b) Courage. This is the mental quality that recognizes fear of danger or criticism, but enables a man to proceed in the face of it with calmness and firmness. Let us see what Clausewitz has to say: “If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable. Firstly, an intellect, which even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of a light which leads to the truth; and secondly, courage to follow this faint light wherever it leads.” How does one acquire this trait, if one does not have this all along? Like the Army ad says, “Have you got it in you?”

(c) Decisiveness and Initiative. The ability to make decisions promptly and to announce them in a clear, forceful manner should be backed with the ability to take action in the absence of orders. A sub trait of these traits is the Propensity to Take Risks. The good old tenet ‘nothing ventured, nothing won’ is as true today as it was yesterday. Battles and wars are not won by all those who are very adept at naval ops but since all situations cannot be foreseen, we require not only knowledge or net-centric warriors but also prudent risk takers. Is it the fear of failure that lets a leader take the relatively safe middle path?

(d) Combative Spirit. I shall place Combative Spirit very high in the traits that I would want to inculcate in the youth joining armed forces. It is the main trait that differentiates a military leader from a corporate manager. It is a combination of many of the traits given above. In the present atmosphere of vying to improve Inter Personal Relations, especially with seniors, Combative Spirit has become almost non-existent. Physical courage, as given above, is easy to inculcate but there are not adequate examples, in our times, of combative spirit – the ability to meet challenges squarely, with calmness, without fear of consequences.

But, We Do Have a Changed Scenario

11. We have this undeniable fascination with tradition and heritage. After the Kargil War, this strong fascination translated into a series of articles by senior retired officers about crisis of leadership or otherwise. An article by Admiral Nadkarni, however, brought out that the young officers had vindicated our system of imparting values and in battle had displayed traits better than (expected) by the senior hierarchy.

12. Nevertheless, many far reaching changes have taken place in the environment. The Indian Navy’s ‘Strategic Guidance for Transformation’ acknowledges that the Indian Navy faces a fast-changing environment due to variety of factors, which include geo-politics/geo-economics, emerging technologies, rapidly evolving capabilities in our maritime neighbourhood, and, the changing role of the Armed Forces.

13. It would be naïve to assume that the grooming of our youth would be the same as hitherto. As brought out in the ‘Transformation’ document, “The demands of the 21st Century require that we become and remain First Class in the way we lead and manage the affairs within the Navy.” This requires, as brought out in the document, “Clear-headed leadership at all levels, adequate empowerment at senior and lower levels, flattening of the Navy’s internal bureaucracy, and adoption of technology-related ‘best practices’ from industry and/or the navies of other countries.”

14. As far as Personnel policies are concerned, amongst others, we need to revisit HRM in totality, encourage out-of-the-box thinking and reward intellectual inclinations, and a focussed approach towards professionalism, whilst simultaneously enhancing the attractiveness of a career in the Navy, by reviewing compensation and welfare packages and even preparing personnel for a ‘second-career’ beyond the Navy.

15. To give credit where it is due, the Navy has already started experiencing and working on many of these changes. Let us look at some of these. RMA is the readily discernible change but there are others too, which impinge on leadership in tomorrow’s battlefield. Here is a representative sample, and not exhaustive:

(a) There is a blurred distinction between peace and war. From Enemy Beyond, we have now Enemy Within; from well defined states of readiness leading to declaration of hostilities, we now have perpetual tension and alertness. In such a state, it is not uncommon for personnel to get frustrated and either commit suicide or shoot/berate their superiors or both.

(b) There is an explosion of information. As a result, the earlier adage of ‘you can fool some of the people some of the times’ has lost much of its relevance. Nowadays, even young officers have to reckon with an ever inquisitive media, which leave no stones unturned to break news even when none exists. Whilst some have misused the media to carry out campaigns of calumny with vested interests, there are other occasions when the aberrations of the armed forces personnel have been aired openly even when we would have wanted to keep them in wraps.

(c) Let us look at the prevalence of fast changing knowledge and skills. During earlier days, one could get away with some lack of knowledge and skills, as long as one possessed essential attributes of a leader. This is no longer the case. In the last US Presidential elections, the Republican candidate John McCain only had to air his not being Internet savvy and the media went to town bemoaning his potential incompetence to deal with increasingly significant matters of cyber security and privacy.

(d) Perhaps the biggest change in environment that has taken place as a result of the above two is that there is often no time to subject matters to careful deliberation (pause) and then decide. Leaders of tomorrow will have to take decisions on their feet, in fast changing situations, with an ability to quickly sift real intelligence from a heap of information.

(e) Today, we have many other roles of Armed Forces than merely combat. Although readiness for combat would always remain the absolute sine qua non of naval operations, we have to increasingly reckon with naval diplomacy, HADR, multinational peacekeeping ops and a plethora of other roles, wherein the military leader has to deal with many agencies, both governmental and non governmental.

(f) Joint operations are here to stay. However, the senior leadership has displayed a tendency to be assiduously guarding home turf. Military leaders of tomorrow will have to display larger accommodation and should be trained accordingly.

(g) In future battlefield we also have to deal with the nuclear factor. This requires assimilation of escalation matrix at various levels. A decisive blow to the enemy is to be laced with deliberate restraint, much more than it is to be in LIMO.

(h) The entry of women in the armed forces has brought about many changes in our leadership styles. It is not just that the media went to town with the (misunderstood?) remarks of an Army Vice Chief about women not being suited for combat duty, but, there are other questions such as whether the armed forces environment is safe for women? Does a lenient regimen pamper the ladies? Does this trigger rancour among male peers?

(j) Another reckonable factor is that the attractiveness of armed forces has taken a severe beating. It ranges from the youth of the country not valuing the President’s commission to officers declining the higher command courses. Never before in the past did we have armed forces personnel, even though retired, participating in a procession demanding better pay, perks and status, and also returning their medals.

(k) Last but not the least, there is a distinct decline in morals and ethics, and corruption having reached endemic proportions. Of course, we can blame it on the general lowering of standards in public life but gone are the days when the armed forces were immune to it. We often talked about Armed Forces being not just a noble profession but a way of life. We extolled the virtues of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’, but, now there are an equal number of Booze Colonels and Medal Hopefuls through fake encounters.

And We Need to Do Something about It

16. Once again the list is only illustrative. The idea is to progress the argument that whilst there are timeless leadership traits, time has come to inculcate better suited leadership styles. The Indian Navy’s ‘Transformation’ document has this quote from Bishop G Bromley in the beginning, “Change is inevitable. The great question of our time is whether the change will be by consent or coercion.” Since a considerable percentage of leadership traits are emulated from the prevalent environment, let us see what the current impediments to inculcating leadership traits are and go about systemically correcting them.

17. Confusing Leadership Styles with Traits. We love to glorify personalised or direct leadership. We have this impression that a good leader must be seen to be taking charge of all situations. In recent past there was this senior officer who personally laid down norms for all occasions, which included even dress code and conduct in clubs and messes. The best books on everyday leadership characteristics, that I have read, are Maj Gen Aubrey Redwood’s ‘Follow Me’ series. He described the incident of his going by car and noticing the shabby haircut of a soldier. He was tempted to stop and correct the soldier and then it occurred to him that by doing so he would not only undermine the complete system of grooming but may also indicate wrong priorities. After all, what a senior officer says carries more weight than a junior.

18. Aversion to Other Types of Leadership. As opposed to Direct Leadership (Nelsonian), armed forces officers around the world have traditionally been averse to thinking about changing styles of leadership. Naval professionals had kept doctrine at arm’s length for fear that a binding set of principles might restrict their initiative and independence and hence their leadership style. Mahan said this of British naval officers: “To meet difficulties as they arise, instead of by foresight, to learn by hard experience rather than by reflection of premeditation are national traits.” We have to keep in mind that Direct leadership empowers just one person who gets overstressed to take all decisions, whereas organisational or institutional leadership empowers all personnel at various hierarchical levels. Organisational leadership is unobtrusive and less visible but, even more effective. In the Fleet, for example, with spread out operations in the future battlefield, the days of direct leadership of yore, through flag hoist or within LOS communication are over. The stress is already shifting from ‘where are you going?’ and ‘what are you doing?’ or ‘get back into line’, to more meaningful operations. Many a time when we expect our top hierarchy to display Strategic leadership, we see them engaged in pedestrian issues.

19. Preparing to Fight the Last War. Analysts often accuse Generals of ‘preparing to fight the last war’. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a frog who tried to behave like a man. He stood on his hind legs and lifted his body up. In this manner his eyes were facing backwards. The terrain that he thus viewed looked familiar. Hence, he confidently marched into unknown territory with its newer dangers with the smugness that he had seen it all earlier.

20. Different Perceptions. The best way to groom the youth is to first know them, rather than at all times being judgmental of their motives. As brought out by Harper Lee in her inimitable book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, “The best way to know people is to step into their shoes and walk around in them. Most people are really nice when you finally see them”. We have often dismissed the youngsters with our perception that they don’t have the same values as we used to have during our days. For this, let us examine the Monkeys on a Tree Syndrome, with monkeys perched at various levels of the tree. When you observe from top, you see happy smiling faces; but, when you look up from lower levels, you see assholes. Hence, if we have to groom the youth, we have to stop seeing things from our point of view at all times and have to actually step down to their levels, understand and share their fears, anxieties, aspirations, dreams, biases and perceptions.

21. Zero Error Syndrome. This is translated into being worried not about tackling the situation but the aftermath of the situation. They say that ‘if you are not big enough to lose you are not big enough to win’. To change this perception requires a complete systemic change. Whilst over-exposure in media is always demanding of us to find and punish the guilty, we must be able to differentiate between an honest mistake and intentional or deliberate offences. In his farewell speech RAdm Kirpal Singh brought out that when he faced a BOI he was certain that he would make it to Flag rank because most Flag officers of his era had faced a CM or BOI. Today, with greater promotional prospects, we tend to write off an officer for even imagined offences.

22. Nothing Succeeds Like Success. It is the aspiration of every person who joins armed forces to become as senior as possible. He or she looks around and finds that the adage ‘everything is fair in love and war’ has been made into a way of life. In 2008 I attended a seminar on Terrorism. On the question as to why was it that Army’s Op Sadbhavna had failed to steer the youth of Kashmir away from terrorism, one of the panellists responded that most COs and their staff had translated Op Sadbhavna into a photo op and opportunity to project good image of themselves. Once in a while a case of fake encounters to win medal comes to light. However, in the formative years, the youth looks around and sees his seniors leaving no stone unturned to advance their careers. Thus, at a very early stage he learns that the report of an operation is even more important than operation itself and that he needs to be highly skilled in PPT even before assimilating bridgemanship. He also assimilates the stress on trivial that keeps his ship ticking.

23. Aversion to Out-of-Box Thinking. Out-of-Box thinking has become a popular catchword; but, when exactly do we want our youth to start thinking out-of-box. We are perfectly happy at uniformed personnel imbibing uniform or standard practices and look down on anyone whose cloning is not complete. Once again we must demonstrate that out-of-box thinking would not interfere with our personalised style of leadership. Empowerment at all levels would be the answer.

24. “Positive” Attitude. They say ‘the optimist invented the plane and the pessimist invented the parachute’. In our penchant to improve Inter Personal Relations, especially with those who matter, to be seen as a positive guy is these days more important than doing anything worthwhile. In such an atmosphere the Staff Officer is generally more successful than the Combat Officer, for the former has learnt how to be in good books of his seniors all the while. A Positive Attitude is actually a desirable trait. I only refer to what it has been translated into.

Conclusion

25. Preparing youth for tomorrow’s Navy cannot be left only to the Academy or the training institutions. It should be the systemic approach of the complete Navy. After all, the officer who joins the Navy today would be responsible for our operations tomorrow both in peace and at war. We have a tendency to find technological solutions to all our problems. However, it is the quality of leadership of this young officer, which would make a difference between success and failure.

26. Nelsononian Direct style of leadership was most suited for the era when getting out of line at the wrong moment would spell disaster. These days, we require personnel to think out-of-box, think joint, think fast, think other than war, and be Knowledge Warriors. We should, therefore, lay more stress on Organisational or Institutional Leadership, which is less obtrusive and more effective.

28. Every era is modern in its own times. Timeless Traits of Leadership have withstood the test of time but we need to be more adaptive of changes in our environment. Being constantly judgmental of the values of our youth is not the answer. Making an environment conducive to assimilation of these traits is the only pragmatic solution.

© 2010 – 2015, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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