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Senior leadership and ‘any peg in any hole’ syndrome
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Senior leadership and ‘any peg in any hole’ syndrome, 4.7 out of 5 based on 26 ratings
Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 May , 2013

The news of the posting of General David Petraeus as Commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan must have been received with a certain degree of disbelief by the status-conscious Indian military brass. As head of the US Central Command, his area of responsibility extended across 27 countries including oversight over operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although moving to Afghanistan was a step down for General Petraeus, he assumed the job enthusiastically, his personal status notwithstanding.

In order to achieve optimum results, every dynamic organisation seeks to select the best man for the best job. Personal interests of the individuals are accorded secondary importance.

Compare the above with the prevailing trend in the Indian armed forces. It is unthinkable that an army commander would ever acquiesce to command a lesser force in operations, even in national interest. He would consider it to be an act of sacrilege. For that matter, even the move of an army commander from an operational command to the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) would be highly resented. We had the spectacle of an army commander vehemently protesting to the Government when he was moved from Northern Command to Central Command. He viewed it as relegation. There are numerous such examples.

Whereas organisational interests should be the overriding consideration while assigning duties to senior commanders, the Indian army accords primacy to personal ambitions of the officers involved. Every single move is individual centric. Two aspects – continuity and suitability – have been discussed here to highlight the malaise.

Policy on Continuity

Need for continuity in higher appointments is indisputable. However, the policy cannot be applied selectively. On one hand, a bright officer with less than two years residual service is denied opportunity to be an army commander on the plea that he will not be able to do justice in a short tenure, implying thereby that requirement for continuity is absolutely inescapable. On the other hand, many army commanders are rotated after one year of service to satisfy their aspirations.

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The case of ARTRAC is illustrative of this detrimental practice. The role of ARTRAC is by far the most important during peacetime – to formulate and disseminate concepts and doctrines of warfare; and evolve joint doctrines in conjunction with the other two services. However, as it lacks the glamour of having troops under command, the day an army commander takes over ARTRAC, he starts plotting his move to another command. Resultantly, ARTRAC has been reduced to the status of a glorified parking slot and a transitory halt – it has seen 14 heads in 19 years, average tenure being a little over a year.

…most appointments are made to satisfy aspirations of individuals. Over-indulgence of ambitious and manipulating leaders has made the army lose sight of larger issues of suitability of leadership, thereby sacrificing organisational needs.

Neglect of continuity is not limited to ARTRAC alone. As most top appointments have been graded, both formally and informally, every senior officer eyes the so-called higher slot.  While eyeing the next appointment, he loses focus on his current assignment and the principle of continuity gets reduced to a charade.

At another level, the case of the Corps of Engineers is equally instructive. There are three appointments at the top – Engineer-in-Chief (E-in-C), Director General Border Roads (DGBR) and Commandant of the College of Military Engineering (Comdt CME). As every Lieutenant General aspires to occupy the chair of E-in-C, an annual rotational system (euphemistically called ‘musical chairs’) has got well-established. When incumbent E-in-C retires DGBR side-steps as E-in-C and Comdt CME moves in as DGBR. The net result is that no incumbent stays in an appointment for more than a year and thus contributes little. During the period 2004 to 2010, the Corps had six E-in-C from, with an average tenure of barely 12 months. Organisational and institutional interests were nonchalantly sacrificed to satisfy individual aspirations.

Suitability is no Consideration

Every appointment requires different qualities of leadership. Similarly, no two officers possess similar traits and talents. In order to achieve optimum results, every dynamic organisation seeks to select the best man for the best job. Personal interests of the individuals are accorded secondary importance.

Unfortunately, the Indian army follows the infamous ‘any peg in any hole’ policy. Even for operationally critical appointments, no efforts are made to match career profiles of the officers with the job requirements. Senior officers queue up according to their seniority to seek the next coveted appointment to fall vacant, their suitability being of no consideration.

As soon as the results of a promotion board are made public, every approved officer starts pulling strings to seek appointment under his mentor and patron. There after it is free for all. The officers get posted according to the clout they wield. Instead of the common adage of ‘might is right’, the Indian army follows the dictum ‘jack is might and right’. Suitability for the assignment is never a criterion. Resultantly, a culture of self-seeking predisposition has taken roots.

There is a need to revisit career planning imperatives. Officers occupying specialised and key appointments must be given extended tenures for continuity. Their career prospects can be safeguarded by giving them promotions in situ.

As stated above, most appointments are made to satisfy aspirations of individuals. Over-indulgence of ambitious and manipulating leaders has made the army lose sight of larger issues of suitability of leadership, thereby sacrificing organisational needs. Many senior leaders get placed in appointments for which they are ill-equipped. As they lack competence to deliver, most pass their tenures in insecure vacillation without taking any decision.

When an officer who has no knowledge of the technologies involved and the complexities of the procurement procedure gets posted as Deputy Chief to handle defence acquisitions worth billions of rupees, modernisation of the army suffers. An armoured corps officer without having any experience of serving in mountains is posted to command a division in the mountains while other officers with loads of related experience are wasted out in inconsequential appointments.

It is equally true for most other appointments as well – Director General IT may be totally computer-illiterate. There have been commandants of the prestigious training institutions who had never read a book in their service careers and were never known to possess an analytical mind. Resultantly, they were mere ‘passengers’ and contributed little to improve the quality of instructions.

The Way Forward

The current system is most unacceptable. In the absence continuity and suitability, the army suffers – it is deprived of the best talent available. Performance of inapt leaders can, at best, be sub-optimal. Over-indulgence of ambitious and extra-keen senior officers has made the army lose sight of the larger issues of military leadership. Even national interests are subjugated to individual requirements. Forget the Chetwode motto. Now, the ruling mantra of the senior brass is ‘self before everything else’.

As the quality of leadership is a major battle winning factor, no compromises should be made on that account.

As experience, training and skills required for each appointment are dissimilar; selection for the higher ranks should be vacancy-specific. After establishing qualitative requirements for each vacancy, all empanelled officers should be screened to select the most suitable officer for each vacancy. The army must draw maximum benefit from the expertise acquired by them and not waste them out on irrelevant assignments.

Undoubtedly, no organisation can flourish unless there are strong merit-performance-reward ethical linkages in place. For that, personal aspirations of the officers must be given due consideration. However, it cannot be done at the cost of the army’s interests. Individual interests can never be allowed to acquire primacy over national interests.

There is a need to revisit career planning imperatives. Officers occupying specialised and key appointments must be given extended tenures for continuity. Their career prospects can be safeguarded by giving them promotions in situ. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, a highly regarded commandant of the famous Frunze Military Academy continued in the chair for over a decade. He kept getting promoted in the same appointment.

It must never be forgotten that an army exists to ensure defence of the nation and that is its sole raison d’être. It is not a Rozgar Yojna (employment scheme). As the quality of leadership is a major battle winning factor, no compromises should be made on that account. The army must find the correct man for the correct job. The current policy of ‘any peg in any hole’ is proving highly detrimental.

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Senior leadership and ‘any peg in any hole’ syndrome, 4.7 out of 5 based on 26 ratings
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Mrinal Suman

is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Services Group of CII.

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One thought on “Senior leadership and ‘any peg in any hole’ syndrome

  1. How honestly and correctly put. Jack works. Every one wants to serve under a boss who is from the same regiment, caste, religion, school or region. It is a game of parochialism. The case of Artrac is really sad. How bad can the things go. No expectations from the present Chief as he has risen due to favouritism. It is an eye opener article hope someone does something.

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