Leadership Lessons From a Retired Indian Army Brigadier
How to lead from the front without turning into a demanding drill sergeant.
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Imagine waking up to the deafening sounds and earth-shattering vibrations of artillery bearing down on you. Our natural human instinct is to fear for our life, hide or run from danger. But, members of the armed forces can be brave to a fault. What military principles transform an ordinary person into a warrior?
To find an answer, I interviewed retired Brigadier Arvind G. Kundalkar of the 4th Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army, who was decorated with the Sena Medal in 1980 and who served in the military for 35 years. He's also my uncle.
Kundalkar says the armed forces are no different from the corporate world: Both are relentless towards their pursuit of a successful mission. A military background can provide you with a variety of useful traits, all of which translate into useful business and leadership skills.
Below are four core military leadership principles that we discussed.
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Esprit de corps
Virtually every task in the armed forces is a team task. For instance, When capturing an enemy bunker, soldiers in an assault group might be tasked to close in and destroy it by lobbing a grenade or placing explosives against the bunker walls. At the same time, a support group must provide cover and suppress the enemy fire. In such a situation, the assault group must have unwavering trust in the professionalism and commitment of the support group. Any doubt could result in mission failure and loss of lives.
For genuine esprit de corps to develop in the corporate world, a leader must consciously build his team culture around following three emphases:
- Making others successful. Give people what they need to be successful. At the same time, teach your team to nurture relationships and find their own success. Your team's behavior will demonstrate your competence as a leader.
- Focus on higher purpose. Facilitate effective collaborations between teams for a common north star. This will help you avoid turf wars and aid communal behavior.
- Plan team-building activities: Invest in team-bonding experiences like game nights or outdoor group activities. This allows employees to get to know each other and build common interests, goals and attitudes.
Leading from the front
Share all the highs and the lows, the risks and discomforts that your subordinates go through. War is not like you see in movies: the fighting is fiercer and you incur casualties. Leaders understand these risks deeply, and they have a vision for what the victory is going to look like.
A leader is never absent from the action. They are taught to be responsible for the fate of the mission and the fate of their people.
When the first bullets start flying, people can get pinned down, and once a person goes to the ground, it is very difficult to get up again while bullets are flying. Often, a leader must make the first move. When you show you're still moving, your team is bound to get motivated and follow your lead. Thus, the central spirit of leadership in the armed forces is encapsulated in two powerful words: Follow me.
In the corporate world, leading from the front does not mean you do all the work. It means you understand the details of all the work and maintain three essential habits.
- Be accountable: Be responsible for your team's failure as well as your team's personal and professional growth.
- Be present: Participate in product planning, architectural design and final product releases. Be the first to guide the team during urgent production issues, firefighting situations or other adversities.
- Stay relevant: If possible, take turns to be on-call. Assign a few bugs or tasks to yourself and work them together with the team.
Art of making decisions
According to Kundalkar, in order to learn the art of decision-making, one must also understand the science of human behavior. Life experiences shape our mental models to make relatively rapid, unconscious decisions driven by familiarity as well as slower, more deliberate decisions made in unfamiliar circumstances.
In the armed forces, indecision can be catastrophic. The book, Himalayan Blunder, is one such account of the most crushing military disaster during the Indo-China War of 1962. The inability to make decisions by the top brass led to a military disaster, national shame and avoidable loss of hundreds of precious lives through no fault of their own.
We have all wished we knew what to do when standing at the crossroads of a dilemma. Kundalkar explains a four-step process to learn the craft of decision-making.
- Acknowledge ambiguity. Great leaders acknowledge that most situations are ambiguous. You will never get a full and accurate picture until the situation is over. Hence, you make the best possible decision with the available information. You should also use your gut feeling, which contains years and years of experience stored deep in your subconsciousness.
- Believe in yourself. As the saying goes, "shradha and saburi" (trust and patience or perseverance). This means mutual trust as well as self-trust in your own abilities, training, methods, philosophies and principles.
- Overcome overthinking. Avoid the overthinking and self-judgment traps, biases and tendencies that plague us. You can achieve this by leaving the "why" out of critical situations. In a time-constrained situation, the "how" should consume more of your time.
- Expect opposition. Back yourself up on why your choices are the right thing to do.
Don't be paralyzed by fear of failure. Make decisions from the paradigm of hope and the chance for success rather than fear of failure. No significant success has ever been achieved without facing multiple failures.
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Teach the science of war
Willpower alone is not enough to win battles — you need immense technical competence. Training and education of an officer or soldier in the military is a continuous process from entry to exit. This process enables him to understand the science of combat.
So, how do soldiers go about accomplishing missions in various operations of war, such as patrolling, ambush, attack or defense? The processes typically comprise three stages: Briefing, preparation and rehearsals, execution and debriefing.
Commanders and staff at all levels use briefing as a rigorous means to communicate in a precise way, exercise control, ensure coordinated actions, make decisions and get questions answered. The length and comprehensiveness of the briefing, as well as the aids used (such as powerpoint, sand models, maps, sketches, ground sheets and videos), depends on the complexity and level of operation.
Briefings are centered on, but not limited to, the following aspects:
- Mission briefing. This covers the terrain on which the operation is to be conducted, weather forecast, information about the enemy, their strength and more.
- Logistical briefing. This includes detailing ration, ammunition, duration of self containment, arrangements, responsibilities for evacuation of casualties and repair cover.
- Staff briefing. Select the troops, assign roles and responsibilities, analyze fitness level, energy level, current health conditions such as coughing, sneezing and allergies. A staff briefing is not a forum to settle issues or present decisions for approval.
- Contingency planning. Prepare for plans A, B, C, D and the enemy is still sure to surprise you with plan F. You can never be fully ready, but do the best you can.
2. Preparation and rehearsals
Preparation is where all elements of briefing come together in the form of a sequence of events. This is followed by rehearsals. The best insights come from demonstrations, and both mental and physical walk-throughs allow you to visualize the operation and the complexities of the changing situations. This is where you can find mistakes in content delivery and understanding of details. Rehearsals tend to reveal gaps in the planning.
3. Mission execution and mopping up
Mission execution requires mental flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, speedy decision making and dealing with setbacks. Equally important is the stage of mopping up. Here, the teams conduct searches around the area, analyze the aftermath, take stock of ammunition, search for casualties and find more information.
An operation is not complete until a thorough debriefing is conducted. Debriefing includes a complete rundown of events, challenges faced, things that went well, things that did not go well and recommendations towards continuous improvements.
The science of corporate business is no different. A successful product life cycle includes multiple sequences of an idea followed by a plan, development, demos, releases, retrospection and feedback.
Military leadership qualities are formed in a progressive and sequential series of carefully planned training, educational and experiential events. The military teaches how to lead in a way that will not only improve efficiency but also effectiveness. Corporate leaders can leverage time-tested military practices and approaches to create lasting competitive advantages.