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Whats Your War Cry? - Leadership Lessons from the Military
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Posted by : thedesk   Feb 1 2008
Leadership is best learnt on the battlefield, where the smoke, pace, heat, grime, dust and the momentum of battle, the aggression of the opponent and the unpredictability of elements lends to the character of the conflict a rugged, realistic feel and teaches lessons that you don’t quite learn that in the operation planning rooms or boardrooms. To use a cliché, a battlefield teaches you what they don’t teach you at Harvard! more
Leadership is best learnt on the battlefield, where the smoke, pace, heat, grime, dust and the momentum of battle, the aggression of the opponent and the unpredictability of elements lends to the character of the conflict a rugged, realistic feel and teaches lessons that you don’t quite learn in the operation planning rooms or boardrooms. To use a cliché, a battlefield teaches you what they don’t teach you at Harvard!

Every institution is built on time-tested fundamentals of proven leadership successes that shape its management style. The Indian army is amongst the busiest defence institutions in the world and its leadership mettle and methodologies are constantly shaped by the testing environments it operates in.

With the high voltage involvement in insurgencies, young military officers are baptised in harsh conditions, just after the management and tactical lessons in a training school. Though it is argued that the risk is far too heavy, throwing a young apprentice to the deep end is seen as a ways to make him swim ashore and create the culture of accountability. The value of training of young officers was realised during the Kargil War when it was the young lieutenants and captains who led the charge.

What Does it Take to Win

Look at the Big Picture and Break it up into doable tasks
During the Kargil War, the entire military operation was broken up into smaller yet integrative tasks that could be accomplished by middle level leaders at various levels. Colonels, who were in charge of battalions, which actually fought the battles on ground, knew what their objectives were, and how the accomplishment of the battalion objectives meant a step forward in the larger objective of recapturing Kargil.

Strong team leadership can help business increase productivity, reduce turnover and enable and empower individuals to contribute. For Navy SEALs, failure is not an option. Leadership and management lessons from military management in the SEALs program include communication of objectives; flexible, dynamic organization; superior staffing; gaining trust and loyalty; preparing for crises; and effective, relevant training.

Tip: Tap potential! Create a team of doers who are effective and can take decisions. Ask yourself if they have what it takes to achieve the goal!


Strategic Anchoring
Every man in an organisation must be aware of the direction the organisation wants to move forward. Consciously anchor every concept in the strategic context. To give an example, before leading an attack, a company commander in the army gives a brief about the overall situation. Also, soldiers are made aware of the bigger picture, so that they know what they are fighting for, and are motivated at the highest level. Sometimes, a subordinate with vast experience in a relevant field can provide the right tip at that moment. Strategic anchoring ensures you tap a reserve that can turn out to be a valuable asset.

The concept of strategic corporal is crucial, according to General Charles Krulak, and this means at the level of a corporal too, one must be aware how his actions are affecting the larger objectives. The negative publicity at Guantanamo Bay that the US copped can be attributed to a failure of the strategic corporal concept where the lower rank personnel’s actions actually harmed national reputation.

Communicating the organisational objectives to the shop floor is very essential if you want to avoid a Guantanamo Bay in your company!

Tip: Create Strategic Corporals at the shop floor!


Courage of Conviction
When Indira Gandhi, the then PM in 1971, asked Field Marshall Manekshaw, the then Indian army chief, to launch an attack on the Pakistani army in the middle of the year, the general refused to toe the line. Instead he proposed to launch the attack in December. Among other reasons, it is said that the general reasoned that floods in Bangladesh would lead to disastrous consequences for the advancing Indian army. Hence December was, in his opinion the opportune moment to launch the strike.

In those days, it was almost unthinkable to disagree with Indira Gandhi, given her stature. But the General was a man with courage of conviction about his abilities and plans. The rest is history. Till date it remains the only comprehensive and total war victory in the world since World War II! For a corporate leader to achieve success, he has to have self-belief in what he chooses to do.

Tip: Don’t expect your client and employees to believe in something that you aren’t convinced about yourself! There is a saying, “If you don’t exhibit confidence in what you do, no one will be convinced about you.”


Clarity of purpose
It is important to have structured plans, clear lines of reporting and consistent and easily understandable performance measurement techniques.

When a battalion draws up an attack plan, it focuses on a few critical aspects. One of them is clarity of purpose. Before an operation is launched, emphasis is given to information about the enemy, self, logistics and terrain. The plan evolves out of these factors that determine the time taken, the path followed and the level of coordination achieved. A battle drill is also laid down for ensuring a structured implementation to the attack plan. A battle drill is a series of actions that personnel associated with the particular operation are expected to execute, with each member’s task clearly spelt out.

The essence of lessons from the above paragraph is that a structured approach helps in creating clarity in roles for the participating soldiers. It also helps to plan an appropriate counter-measure for each likely scenario. This also helps in earmarking alternatives and every person’s role in performance of tasks in each alternative action-plan.

Tip: The best strategy is the one your people can execute best!


Always have an alternative Plan
Besides a structured plan and well-oiled and rehearsed drills, the army believes in creating alternative plans. It believes that few plans survive the first engagement and sustain for a long time, howsoever brilliant they may be. Changes have to be incorporated after the enemy bears the first offensive and counters it. While planning for an attack, the army plans for the resultant enemy counter offensive that can be launched to regain a lost piece of land. This planning helps the army to rearrange its logistics plan. In a corporate set-up, its important to be dynamic and flexible in decision-making, and prepare by setting up Plans A, B and C - to counter different scenarios.

Tip: Standard Operating Procedures for regular functions helps in simplifying operations, break it into doable parts, optimise time-to-effort ratio, and leave enough time and energy to battle the potentially ‘unknown variables’.


Lead from the front
Leadership is the projection of personality and character by the leader to get soldiers to do what is required of them. The way you conduct yourself steers the way your men carry themselves.

Case: There is the famous and inspiring case of 2nd Lt Arun Khetrapal, who by way of valiant leadership stopped 10 enemy tanks and therefore ensured that the Pakistani army did not breach the Indian defences in that sector. It was also a major turning point in the war. On 16 Dec 1971, during the war, Pakistan armoured regiment attacked defences in the Shakargarh sector. When 2nd Lt Khetrapal moved along with his troops to assist the other squadrons, he and his troops came under heavy fire. As time was at a premium, Arun threw caution to the winds and started attacking the enemy strong points by charging at them. He continued to attack relentlessly until the startled enemy pulled back. Arun broke through towards the B squadron position, but then the enemy regrouped with more firepower. A fierce tank fight ensued and10 enemy tanks were destroyed (four by Khetrapal) in that battle.

Though he was wounded, he continued to fight and stopped the enemy advance. He realised the importance of holding the position. He gallantly kept fighting till his tank received a second hit, resulting in the death of this gallant officer. 2nd Lt Arun Khetrapal had denied the enemy a crucial breakthrough. For his act of supreme courage and leadership,he was decorated posthumously with Param Vir Chakra - the highest gallantry award.

Tip: The best motivation for your people is You! Show them how it’s done. Follow the saying - “Know the way, show the way and go the way”


Have the right man for the right job

The Indian army has a diverse profile in terms of regional origins, languages, caste, and most importantly specialisation. For example, there is varied specialisation with respect to terrain. Traditionally, while Gorkha and Naga troops are better suited for mountains, Maratha troops do well in marine conditions. In 1971, an Indian infantry battalion that was identified as possessing good swimmers crossed the difficult Teesta River, and launched a devastating attack on a Pakistani formation that had never ever prepared for anyone to cross the turbulent Teesta, let alone an entire battalion! Just as a commander must know which are the best people in an operation, a corporate leader must be able to identify the right combination/team of people for the tasks.

Tip: A trained shoe-shine boy will always do a better job than your own gallant efforts on your shoes!


Know your Men
This is connected to the above paragraph. Its only when you know your men that you can allot them the right job, isn’t it?

In the army, small team operations are useful in understanding the ability of different soldiers. Inputs of junior level leaders and middle level commanders are used to understand the suitability of different competency levels. There is also a system of regular interaction where the company commander interacts with his troops often to know more about them. This can take the form of individual sessions, group interactions and debriefings after operations and completion of tasks. Before proceeding on leave, there is a system of interview where the commander gets to know more about the frame of mind of a subordinate, his personal problems and issues. There is another interview after a subordinate rejoins work from leave. A constant bridge with subordinates helps in three ways:
a) helps you to have the right man for the right job
b) ensures minimal difference between expected performance and actual delivery
c) helps in assessing your team/department’s capacity and potential better

Tip: Knowing your subordinate well does not only mean recognizing the skill sets he has. It also means knowing how many children he has at home, how is his ailing parent or when is he getting married.


Make your subordinates look good
In Kashmir, during the peak of insurgency, there were two battalions that fought hard side by side. As time went on, one of the battalions began to get more success and their junior leaders regularly smashed militant hideouts. The other battalion that was initially doing well, gradually began to slacken and suffer casualties in skirmishes. A survey was done by the higher headquarters to find out reasons for the widening gulf between two battalions in the same area and operating under similar circumstances.

A surprise, casual observation at one of the social interactions revealed the real reasons for contrasts in their operational fortunes! While the commanding officer of one battalion was always publicly backing his young officers and praising them, the other was running his young officers down and berating their work publicly. Soon, while one battalion saw its young officers work with feverishly buoyed spirits, the other saw a dip in morale due to non-acknowledgement of performance.

Tip: Never forget that behind every successful manager is his team!


Regimental pride, esprit de corps, camaraderie act as motivators
The Indian army units swear by the traditions, history and culture each one has. Each battalion has a war cry, which it uncorks before an operation. This war cry is a guttural yell that lifts spirits and performance drive to very high levels and builds up a collective thrust that promises to hack down an enemy. It reflects and creates the coming together of pride and honour regarding the organisation and the nation.

Picture a section of Sikh soldiers charging enemy bunkers with their belligerent war cry~- bole so nihal, sat sri akal! Or Gorkha soldiers charging up a hill screaming - Jai Mahakali Ayo Gorkhali! It’s indeed a chilling thought if you are in the opposition!

The building up of regimentation is through training and an organisation culture that focuses on teamwork. A soldier is tested under individual training cycles as well under group training cycles, and the gaps in performance between the two is a measure of how much of a team-man one is. The gaps are ironed out and a review is done in the next training cycles.

There will always be some amount of turnover in an organisation. If the emphasis is on pride, ethos, work culture and professional satisfaction, the collective thrust will result in better productivity.

Tip: Build a strong character of your team. See how Google takes pride in what they are!


There is an axiom that says that while amateurs only talk strategy, professionals also talk logistics. There is the important concept of sustainment of an idea or a strategic move. It has to have sustainability over a period. In war game exercises in the army that are held over sand models and through computer software, the emphasis is on logistics. If you can’t hold your plans over a period, they will fall apart.

One of the reasons the Chinese succeeded in the 1963 Sino-Indian war is because the Indians never used its much superior air power. If India had used its air power, the Chinese logistical train that linked their rear to their attacking front would have been broken and that would have thus denied their ability to provide a logistical lifeline to their assaulting units. The Indian political leaders, bereft of strategic thinking, never took this into view. During the Kargil war, one of the major reasons the Pakistani army survived the Indian counter attacks for a long time was because they had built up a good logistics train and their link to the rear was shoring up their forward areas.

In the corporate world, an idea sometimes takes time to gain shape, acceptance and yield results. Also, an idea that may initially appear appealing may actually have a less shelf life. Therefore, while taking a business decision, a corporate leader must take the aspect of logistical survival and durability into view.

Tip: Running a marathon like a short distance runner will doom you. Know the distance and pace yourself to survive!