I am not really going back on my word to write only on matters not concerning General Staff, in this column. The great idea of HQ Army Training Command (ARTRAC) of conducting a two day seminar on Nurturing Strategic Leadership (as initiator of its Silver Jubilee celebrations) demands that it gets a column dedicated to it. I do not consider this subject the exclusive domain of the General Staff as a sub set of training. Very correctly the initiators of this wonderful event termed their theme ‘Nurturing’ although I was given the subject of ‘Training’. I didn’t take that literally and followed their main theme. Nurturing and may be even training, the formal structured part, are really the responsibility of all of us; it is a question of establishing a culture because such nurturing never comes to an end.
This commentary cannot take in all the aspects of the event due to limitations of space, so let me just air a few of my views, mostly those I aired at the event. One of the first things I noticed was that perhaps there was a lack of clarity on who really requires such nurturing and why. There exists a common perception that it is needed so that when officers reach higher ranks they should be able to think in a strategic way; classically, only the Chief or Vice Chief are strategic leaders because they deal with issues at that level and are consulted and called upon to take strategic level decisions. This is a flawed approach because strategic thinking is required at different levels by commanders and staff officers. A theatre level (level of an Army Commander) or operational level (Corps Commander) decision making cannot be in isolation or in a void. Each consideration has to take into account the strategic level implication because that is the level where the ‘effect’ will be felt. Similarly staff officers at the Army HQ and Field Army/Corps level have to war game and arrive at options they present before their commanders. As such, it is not relevant that you have to be functioning at the strategic level to take strategic decisions; such decisions have to be taken with a strategic orientation. That is why I consider the term ‘strategic orientation’ as the most relevant term in this discourse. Army officers at most levels need a ‘strategic orientation’ more than anything else, to appreciate the big picture. For this you need to create a ‘strategic culture’ in which officers are nurtured and grow. It translates figuratively into thinking at least two levels higher and two levels lower to get the full picture. Both have to be done consciously but come naturally to those who have the necessary orientation. These issues rang loud and clear, through the seminar.
I placed my understanding of strategic leaders and events before the attendees by focusing on four examples. I quoted Deng Xiao Ping as one of my favorite strategic leaders and specifically referred to the four modernizations identified by him in 1978 which helped take China to its current position of strategic strength. I identified one of the most important operational-strategic decisions of our times as the decision of General Nirmal Vij to construct the LoC Fence in 2003-4 which led to the reversal of the mathematics of terror in the Valley, with more terrorists being eliminated each year than the number who could infiltrate. That decision heralded the conflict stabilization stage of the sponsored internal conflict in J&K. I usually quote the example of the Bush Administration’s decision to undertake regime change in Iraq as one of the worst strategic decisions. The decision to go after Osama bin Laden and bring about regime change in Afghanistan was based upon the emotional and shock orientation after 9/11 but not Iraq. That decision, brought the US and world economy to its knees.
In an earlier commentary in this column I referred to William B Lind’s seminal essay – ‘An Officer Corps that Cannot Score’, while discussing military intellect. Lind rues the fact that there is a downturn in strategic thinking in the US Armed Forces. We all tend to link intellect with strategic culture orientation. To that end it is not difficult to admit that the current generation of the junior and middle level officer cadre of our Army is absolutely outstanding in tactical orientation; I call them all the most marvelous ‘craftsmen’ but somehow strategic orientation hasn’t moved on. Lind defines a professional as – ‘one who has read, studied & knows the literature of his field’. I think that is a rather base level understanding of professionalism. There is much more and I expressed my views at Army War College on what else constitutes a professional and by implication an officer with a strategic orientation.
A few issues I outlined on the above include the inevitable – Knowledge; here I alluded more to General Knowledge (GK) than focused specialized knowledge. The latter too is important but it is GK which promotes a common sense approach of keeping things simple; specialists sometimes confuse with infusion of detail which in strategic orientation is not as essential. This aspect drew some flak and is indeed debatable. The next few aspects I included in my list of qualities are the capabilities to read extensively, absorb, analyze, listen and optionalize. I consider the power of listening without interfering as one of the hallmarks of any leader. This gives you the power to ideate, in my opinion the single most important requirement of a strategically oriented leader. Ideation is simply the putting together of different minds from different levels to consider a problem and find options to resolve it. It is an uncanny thing that sometimes the most tactical brains can find simple solutions to intractable problems at higher level. The inclusion of different levels adds to the flavor of the quality of thinking which could be based on experience or simply practical orientation. A fine example in my experience was the problem of ego between the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and Special Forces (SF) units in Kashmir; this prevented sharing of intelligence by the local RR units with SF units and thus the organization failed to bring together the best intelligence and the best strike element (although RR units are as good at strike). The problem was festering for long until I decided to get together a few sector commanders, RR COs, SF COs, team leaders and company commanders together for dinner at home. The Ideating Session went on for over four hours with great exchanges and free flowing thoughts from all present with no one holding back. Two officers strategically located in the drawing room of Chinar House ensured that all was recorded on paper. We found solutions which helped us overcome ego problems regarding attribution of success. My dream is to see the day when an ideating session can take place at Army House where every rank is represented; over drinks and dinner the Chief would probably get greater thoughts and ideas than all his PSOs can put together. That is what happened to me when I introduced Brown Bag Lunch in the Military Secretary’s branch in 2012. My story titled ‘Brown Bag Lunch’ is doing the rounds on social media so I won’t mention that any further.
While continuing to look at attributes of strategically oriented leaders (those who can make a difference wherever they go) one cannot overlook the need for rock star like communication skills. The whole object of introducing debate in JC Wing in 2009 was to give officers a chance to express and convincingly argue a case. Of strength of 400 if 250 could debate at least once it would add oodles of confidence to their personality and gravitas. In structured methods of nurturing strategic orientation debate is a great tool as is a novel idea picked up at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), London. There every member debates as also speaks ten minutes on a strategic leader of his choice emphasizing on why that leader is considered strategic in outlook. RCDS also gave me a great lesson on how to bring a strategic outlook to our elected representatives in Parliament. Five such elected members from the House of Commons join the Course every year and attend all events. A suggestion to this effect by our NDC, Delhi to the Parliament’s Secretariat did not elicit a response. Come to think of it, the RCDS Decision Game each year is conducted jointly with BBC and Channel 4 which brings a realistic strategic media orientation to both, the Course members and the media houses.
Among other recommendations I offered the fraternity which had gathered at the great environment that Army War College offers at Mhow, was the need to ensure that each officer superannuating as Army Commander or PSO speaks at the Higher Command Course (HCC). This talk must include the ideas that he had acquired through service and how he tried implementing them; where he succeeded and where he failed, the latter being more important. A member or two of the HCC must be nominated to produce a short document on the same and submit to the Faculty which in turn must produce half yearly bulletins on the same. This will ensure that all that senior officers experience is not lost in the humdrum of superannuation and reinvention of the wheel is avoided. A recommendation was also made to the effect that HQ ARTRAC must become the nodal organization to oversee the development of leadership in the Army. In fact the Army Commander ARTRAC should be the Leadership Adviser to the Chief. It is also time the Army set up a Center for Army Leadership, perhaps utilizing some of the infrastructure of CEME Khadki and the Institute for National Integration (INI). The INI itself could be expanded to take on this role. Whenever the National Defence University becomes a reality it must include a Department of Leadership. A last point on this. It stood out loud and clear that strategic orientation does not necessarily relate only to the operational environment. The field of Logistics and HR Management are as significant for orientation lest we have more of those unfortunate decisions such as creation of the Command Exit Model, recently overturned by the Armed Forces Tribunal Principal Bench.
I came away from Mhow well satisfied. This was also because there was an honest attempt to include academia in the exercise. Our aim should be clear. Besides enhancing thoughts on nurturing strategic leadership we need to recreate and occupy the space that the Army (read Services)has always occupied in the realm of leadership at all levels. This time let us start from right up there, the strategic level. Yet, let us also be fully seized of the fact that we have a long way to go but a beginning, and a fine one at that, has just been made by ARTRAC.