Competency Based Senior Military Leadership for 21st Century

Sub Title : Need to move away from traditional templates of selection

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2022

Author : Lt Gen N B Singh, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC (Retd)

Page No. : 54

Category : Military Affairs

: January 21, 2022

The rapidly changing character of warfare necessitates, like never before, that senior military leaders are equal to the challenges that will obtain in the future battlefield milieu. To this end, we must move away from the traditional templates of selection and focus more on merit and have domain specialists tenanting appointments related to specific fields

The tragic loss of the CDS Gen Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash last month has left a vacuum yet to be filled. In the absence of any written rules, as is the case in some countries, it is for the Government to make the choice. Earlier, there were reports that with the impending creation of integrated theatre commands, the Government was considering a more progressive and merit-based policy for the promotion of officers to C-in -C and three-star ranks. A committee comprising the Vice Chiefs was to make suitable recommendations. Various shades of opinion had been expressed in the media, some had declared that the seniority-based system is best suited as there is very little to choose from the top rankers, as each one is equally competent. The approach of deep selection could lead to politicisation of the military. They have concluded that the military’s selection process remains ultrasound and unquestionable. Similar sentiments have been expressed for the search of a successor to Gen Rawat.

The military`s promotion process is ACR-centric. The quantified merit-based selection process has weightages for confidential reports mainly, with some marks for courses, awards and value judgement. It is as objective as the assessments in the ACRs can be, where more than performance and abilities, social capital has started playing a significant role. Social capital is signified by the amount of goodwill and support to which an individual has access through his network of available social relationships. The pen picture, which is meant to highlight abilities and performance, seldom contains any differentiation. It has created an organizational culture where its members are forever competing with each other. The large number of senior officers knocking on the doors of the Armed Forces Tribunal on promotion issues does indicate that well considered reforms are required. Over a period, certain ethnocentric practices have also taken roots. ACRs have become akin to earning good grades in a class and do not reflect any critical ability of significance for higher ranks. It may be worth recalling the observations of the Supreme Court in (2000) 6 SCC 698, Union of India vs Rajendra Singh Kadian and another:-

“ .. considering the nature of the sensitivity of the posts involved and that each of the officers feeling that he did not get the best of the deal at the hands of the Government or that the members of the force being aware who is the best is not heading them will certainly weaken the esteem and morale of the force. Therefore, the standards to be adopted and applied should be of the highest order so as to avoid such an impression in the force.”

While it is maybe general belief that there is little to choose from senior leaders who have come up after a stringent quantified selection process, a deeper analysis of the overall persona of candidates may reveal the presence or lack of certain competencies that are required more than ever before. Is the leader adept at travelling down an eight-lane highway or a single one-way lane? Can he successfully extract knowledge from one field and apply it creatively in others? Is he capable of avoiding the same old patterns and repeating a flawed process? These competencies seldom get captured in dossiers. Quantified merit or seniority cannot be taken as a single path to excellence and the master key to all doors. It would be tantamount to giving absolute powers and taking away any discretion the Government has. A predictable process can always be tinkered.

An analysis of the broad competencies of senior military leadership prevailing during the Kargil war and the standoff at LAC, could throw up some interesting results. Both caught the military off guard and were a cultural copy of each other. It is possible that the leadership had many similarities, doing more of the same, absence of open skills, and mastery over closed skills. Could be that near similar tenure-oriented frog`s eye view was prevailing, which the adversary identified and exploited to launch a capability surprise. In contrast, the diverse and determined leadership during 1971, altered history. Half a century after this triumphant event, it may be time to revisit the military`s HR policies and find a balance between tradition and competence in the selection of senior military leadership.

Battles are won at tactical level by junior leaders and men driven by primal instincts. A leader’s primal task is an emotional one – to articulate a message that resonates with his followers’ emotions and their sense of purpose. As a consequence of the cultural engineering at the academies, junior leaders remain optimistic, authentic and highly energetic in their formative years. Their followers feel and act that way; quick to create shared values, beliefs and norms in teams. This cultural engineering enables young leaders to lead in battle. If the senior leadership is authentic and inspiring, it adds to the outcomes; if not, they still continue to accomplish missions for sake of the comrade to their left or right.

It is only as leaders climb the highly competitive space in senior ranks that they begin to manage their inner lives such that emotional and behavioural chain reactions occur. Some get on to believing in an inspirational and inclusive outlook that incubates an organizational work culture where any challenge is surmountable. On the other hand, some get cognitively entrenched and adopt a few rigid rules – unreasonable and uncaring, creating an organizational culture that resonates negatively and creates a climate rife with fear and anxiety. A tense and apprehensive command can produce good results in the short term, but these never last.

There is a common saying that effective staff work is a significant key to success in both pre-war planning and in wartime operations. The concept of General Cadre (GC) has its origins in the Prussian concept of General Staff or the Great General Staff adopted by many militaries. In a broader sense, the Prussian General Staff consisted of officers qualified to perform staff duties and formed a distinct military fraternity. Their exhaustive selection was intended to produce a body of professional military experts with an expansive world view, common methods, and outlook not belonging to any specific corps. General Staff qualified officers alternated between line and staff duties but remained lifelong members of this special organization. Over a period of time, this has ended up forming an elite club of generalists with a mythical aura of omnicompetence. The element of the range, specialization, academic education, transferrable knowledge, open skills has got waylaid in the face of social capital and ethnocentrism.

In the Army, the GC is a body of leaders who are supposedly experts SOUTH ASIA DEFENCE & STRATEGIC REVIEW in conducting combat operations. Their principal responsibility is to ably lead a composite fighting force. This is because of the skewed exposure post their empanelment in the GC, mainly confined to operation verticals. Those with adequate residual service move on as Cs- in- C, others get positioned as Principal Staff Officers(PSO) in critical branches -a practice that can be designated as the Incidental Positioning System(IPS). Because of the relative rarity of their employment in junior ranks in these branches, most do not understand how to function within it or use the processes effectively. For strategic decision making, a large amount of background knowledge and information is needed, in the absence of which, decisions are taken based on individual experience, anecdotal information and assumptions. Some spend their tenure adumbrating, hesitant to take decisions, finally fading away on retirement.

Aside from its inherent imperfections, IPS`s major flaw is that it usually ends up fitting a square peg in a round hole. This traditional shallow competency model imposes a dangerous dichotomy between everyday operations and long-term integrated capability development. The collective signal that this method sends throughout the profession is that if it is not important enough for our senior commanders to deeply study issues like intel, cyber, space, IT, sustainment engineering etc, then it is not so for junior officers too.

General K Sundarji, possessing a rich cache of knowledge on technology and operational art, had very well understood this vulnerability and tried to address it by preferring diversity and ability in the placement of PSOs, but his initiatives did not find traction later. Some path-breaking doctrinal and organizational changes were carried out under his leadership. One of the prime reasons for the short sighted leadership that overlooked the bigger picture and risks, has been the absence of strategic vision driven by knowledge and competence, ignoring the power of long term planning. As a result, larger areas of developing an integrated capability response for evolving military situations has moved at a glacial pace. One of the prime reasons for the discord on theatre commands is this differential in bandwidth and inability to reach common ground.

It is time human capital or intellectual firepower and competency is given due weightage. Competency revolves around the three words of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA). Competency is a set of demonstrable characteristics that enable the efficient performance of a job. Competencies are not skills, although they are similar. Skills are learned, while competencies are inherent qualities an individual possesses. They fall generally under three categories – Behavioural, Technical and Leadership. Skills are acquired – like gunnery skills; competencies are individual characteristics that come through self learning and experience like problem solving, strategic planning, conceptual thinking, negotiations and are laced with motivation and willingness to excel. The existing quantified merit-based selection process does little to map such competencies.

The current practice of generalists taking over specialist functions at the apex level like intelligence, logistics, sustainment engineering, material procurement, finance, digital transformation, system design, manufacturing, indigenisation; without any procedural knowledge and skills or even aptitude has no parallel. Analysis of events preceding the Kargil war and at LAC last year could reveal almost similar situational un- awareness, intelligence gaps, lack of anticipation, material shortages and panic procurement. The military cannot remain stuck with its World War 2 era personnel management ladder, missing out on match quality mostly assigning wrong roles to senior leaders based on seniority. A leader running a vertical has to do so with elan, tempering it with knowledge and wisdom; there should be a real tour de grace. He cannot just come in as a transient, mess up things and proceed on retirement. It is time for diversity and inclusions to form the cornerstone of the military`s HR strategy.

It remains enigmatic why an Intelligence Specialist cannot be positioned as the head of Defence/ Military Intelligence or a Logistician as head of logistics. A maintenance engineer could shore up equipment readiness as Master General Sustainment and an accomplished Signaller as Deputy Chief IS and Training could usher meaningful digital transformation . Some years back a QMG led delegation found it inconvenient to explain the rationale of a generalist heading the branch during their interaction with the Chief of Rear Services in Russia(4 star). Finally, it was passed over as an inherited tradition. If one continues to hold on to old world views, one begins to look inwards, totally out of sync with the real world. It could end up increasing disorder, panic and aggravate force readiness i.e. ability to fight on a daily basis.

Commanders are always commanders; they are mostly involved in operations, and they always understand the operational principles governing these very well. They need to always think of war; pursuing Clausewitz rather than Peter Drucker. Specialists are intimately familiar with their operational procedures because they operate the same way day in and day out, be it peace or all-out war. Using their respective competencies to improve both routine and wartime operations, under a consistent methodology could bring in more enduring enhancements in overall military capability

To be able to make a smooth transition to theatre commands, it may be a good idea that placement in high-impact appointments is done based on competencies – range and diversity NOT tradition. The late CDS deserves accolades in practicing diversity. The GC needs to think as to how to defeat the adversary; focussing on creativity and operational innovation. Our adversaries are becoming increasingly sophisticated and tactically adept, requiring a much more organized and capable operational response. An unorthodox doctrine on combat in super HAA against a high-tech adversary needs to be scripted. Combat in HAA, not only requires specialized personnel and equipment capabilities but painstaking engineering efforts to make weapons deliver desired mission capability.

Diversity will allow other accomplished knowledge leaders to make enduring impacts in domains like intelligence, acquisition, engineering, IT & communications, space, logistics and HR, etc. Today, there is an indispensable need to work towards integrated capability readiness to support the war fighter, else the military may end up preparing for a typical mechanical grind-out operations.

Abilities alone should be the cornerstone for positioning senior leaders and there is no place for regimental, cadre and other loyalties. It would be good if ability and diversity is given due importance at the highest level by enacting regulations that CDS and his deputy cannot be from the same service. Similarly, the Chief and Military Secretary or head of the personnel branch need to consider not being from the same regiment, arm, branch or cadre as a self-regulating act, to bring in added authenticity in their actions. Joint working requires that senior military leadership thinks of new capabilities to operate at faster tempos considering sister services as equal partners, not merely supporting entities in combat. Diversity isn`t about quotas or pro-rata.

There is a need for collaborative alchemy amongst higher defence leadership to work like a well-oiled team. Working in silos is easier, keep going straight. Breadth is trickier to develop as it entails combining things in new ways. In war, things do not happen according to practiced and rehearsed routines, one has to be prepared for surprises. Knowledge from a host of peripheral domains is needed, with abilities to connect disparate pieces of information. While scouting for the new CDS and selecting leaders for high-impact assignments (Chiefs, Cs-in -C, PSOs) the Government needs to consider Range and Diversity- identifying a kind of modern polymath in uniform with abilities to work across disciplines.