(What followers look for in their leaders)
Much has been written on leadership over the years. Field Marshals and Generals from the leading armies of the world, with successful military careers behind them, have shared their wisdom on what it takes to lead men in war, and in peace. However, there is another silent judge of leadership - those who receive orders from the leaders - the simple soldiers and junior officers - who then execute the tasks assigned.
The intention in this article is to present an alternate view on leadership - a view from the bottom, so to say. How do we at the lower end of the hierarchy see leadership? What qualities set apart some leaders in the eyes of the subordinates? These ten rules are a compilation of observations over twenty years.
Rule 1- Can he take pressure?
This is probably the quality of the leader that the subordinates respect the most. “Man, this man is unflappable!” - is the ultimate tribute! Juniors can quickly see through genuine anger, desperation under pressure, and the plain old flapper! However competent the senior commander is, he loses most of his respect if he raves and rants and loses his cool under pressure, especially in operational situations. It is not whether you feel pressure, everyone does at some time or another, but it’s how much you show it that counts. Showing panic in front of his superior is of course the worst on the scale! Good commanders they say are like ducks on a lake, cool and calm on the outside, but paddling away below the water!
Rule 2 - Can he take quick decisions?
Senior commander’s decisions affect the military command like no other. Speed of decisions, in fact, may even be more important in military decision making than the precision of the decision. I served under a General at the Infantry School who never arrived at the office before 9 am and nearly always left by 1 pm. He rarely missed his evening tennis and even had time for the odd social event and the occasional movie. The General’s hallmark was his decisiveness. He never procrastinated over decisions major or minor. Files rarely stayed at his table and staff officers hardly ever spent more than a few minutes in his office. The School functioned at its very best and his subordinates couldn’t have been happier. What amazed me was his ability to take major decisions with about 70% facts, he obviously used his instincts for the rest of the 30%! It reminded me of a famous story of a corporate legend who was asked about the secret of his success.
“Two words,” he said, “Right decisions”.
“And how do you make right decisions?”
One word” he replied,” Experience”
And how do you get experience?” the junior man asked.
“Two words again!” said the magnate. Wrong decisions!”
Those seniors who can rarely take quick decisions are those who are constantly waiting to be provided with 100% information. It’s unlikely to happen: rarely in Peace and almost never in War. All that happens is that you get a very exasperated command!
Rule 3 - Can he see ahead?
Junior officers particularly, enjoy, and feel challenged, when working under someone who is often looking ahead. The routine nature of work in the Army when not in battle conditions, is simply to execute tasks assigned. Normally these are day to day affairs, monotonous and laborious. A commander who looks ahead usually comes up with ideas and actions that others fail to see. Juniors see in such work opportunities for personal growth. This makes work more interesting, challenging and exciting.
Rule 4 - Is he a winner?
The entire world loves a winner and the military junior is no exception. A winning commander leads a winning team, is proud of the achievements of his outfit and says it openly. He ensures that his outfit excels and achieves the desired goals. What he really does with this attitude is that he stimulates a positive spiral in his unit. The little flaws then iron out, because everyone is out to maintain the high standards of the leader and the unit just gets better and better! How often we see units that excel in one field, excelling in others, officers and NCOs talking highly of unit and exhibiting pride in their achievements. One of my Commanding Officers soon after taking over command, promised huge incentives to our football team if they came first in our Regt competition. We had never won in thirty years. He also set the platform for the team to excel, by employing professional coaches and monitoring the progress of the team. Not only did the football team win, but soon the Volleyball team, hockey team, Mortar platoon, Mine laying party; everyone was just winning! The positive spiral just didn’t stop. The unit’s morale was on an all time high.
Rule 5 - Can he push me to my professional limits?
Contrary to popular belief, subordinates enjoy working under someone who pushes them hard professionally. Tough training exercises, the three day Counter Insurgency operations, the climb in the rain, the incredible distance covered during the night are all great lunger talk, the banter may of course include the uncompromising bastard, but that itself is a statement of respect, awe and admiration! A tough commander is like the 40 km run in the Commando course - horrible when you are going through it but wonderful at the end of it! The sense of achievement under a commander who pushes you to your unexplored limits makes the man a revered and adored figure simply because in these subordinates see opportunities for professional growth. Patton is one example who illustrates this point.
Rule 6 - Does he listen?
Seniority gives us one indisputable right. The power to be heard! While the senior goes on and on: conferences, sermons, old stories, good natured advice - sometimes what the poor bloke down there wants is a commander who is an attentive listener. Someone who genuinely makes you believe that your views have some merit too. I remember how in the middle of the Thar Desert as a young 2/Lt, I advised my first Commanding Officer, as his IO, on navigation. They were all fresh ideas from the Academy and I now know, completely irrelevant to the desert conditions! My CO heard me through quite patiently, said I had made some good points, and then mildly corrected a few of my observations. I truly felt very important. Often you would come across commanders during their visits, who jump to conclusions before you have barely begun, ask a lot of questions, say a lot of things and go away without having heard any of the issues you thought were important!
Rule 7 - Does he respect my time?
Tireless waits, un-ending conferences and discussions, frequently postponed appointments and visits are a definite sign that the senior has little or no respect for the subordinates time. Juniors are quick to throw their judgment on what is a waste of time: its normally what could have been finished in about half or sometimes one tenth of the time than it actually took! In the busy times of the 21st Century, time is the rarest resource. Even our men today are so busy that they rarely have a family life in most peace stations. In the Army, there is nothing called “My Time”, we are always on duty, and while we are fussy about the start time of office hours there is no pack –up time. In such an environment commanders who ensure that time is not wasted of subordinates are greatly respected. The General in Rule 2 was a great follower of Rule 7 too.
Rule 8 - Does he constantly berate me?
While tough talkers on professional matters are strangely always appreciated, those who constantly bullshit without any respect for the other mans service or age especially in the presence of other juniors rarely get a good press from their subordinates. While it is absolutely true that military leadership is not about a popularity poll, those who openly say so to justify their methods are just covering for their weaknesses in handling subordinates.
Rule 9 - Does he care?
There are some officers who fit into every one of the moulds that the theory of good leadership talks about; courage and bearing, decisiveness and initiative and all the rest of it, but at the end of it all something seems to be missing when he is up for judgment by his juniors. “The man simply doesn’t care for us!”- is the indictment. Care and concern for the men under command, can only be judged by the subordinates themselves. No senior can judge accurately if an officer junior to him truly cares for his command. And to the men a caring commander comes through quite clearly. His main attributes are; he does things for them that he doesn’t need to, and in a personal crisis, he responds humanely and not necessarily by the book. As a Lt, I remember asking a Naik in my unit about an officer of our battalion who was a terror in the NDA when I was a Cadet. He said when the Major was the Adjt the men would duck to avoid even his gaze, but they loved him because he genuinely cared for them!
Rule 10 - Does he exhibit a sense of humor?
It may sound strange but a large number of subordinate’s feel a sense of humor is an important attribute of a good senior officer. The easy ability to share a laugh or a joke makes the subordinate immediately connect to the senior and shows a human side of him. There is also a feel good part of such a personality that has a huge motivational effect on subordinates, which is contagious. So to end this piece, let me tell you a favorite joke of my first company commander:
“What do you do when Santa throws a pin at you?”
“Run like hell, he’s got a grenade in his mouth!”