Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
SAM HFJ MANEKSHAW
The first, the primary, indeed the cardinal attribute of leadership is professional knowledge and professional competence. Now you will agree with me that you cannot be born with professional knowledge and professional competence even if you are the child of the prime minister, or the son of an industrialist or the progeny of a field marshal.Professional knowledge and professional competence have to be acquired by hard work and by constant study. In this fast-moving technologically developing world you can never acquire sufficient professional knowledge.
You have to keep at it, and at it, and at it. Can those of our political masters who are responsible for the security and defence of our country cross their hearts and say they have ever read a book on military history, on strategy, on weapons developments? Can they distinguish a mortar from a motor, a gun from a howitzer, a guerilla from a gorilla, though a vast majority of them resemble the latter.
Professional knowledge and competence are the sine qua non of leadership. Unless you know what you are talking about, unless you understand your profession, you can never be a leader.
The next thing you need for leadership is the ability to make up your mind and make a decision and accept full responsibility for that decision. Have you ever wondered why people do not make a decision? The answer is quite simple. It is because they lack professional knowledge and competence, or they are worried that their decision may be wrong and they will have to carry the can.
According to the law of averages, if you take ten decisions, five ought to be right. If you have professional knowledge and competence, nine will be right and the one that might not be correct will probably be put right by a subordinate officer or colleague. But if you do not take a decision you are doing something wrong. An act of omission is worse than an act of commission. An act of commission can be put right. An act of omission cannot. Take the example of the time when the Babri Masjid was about to be destroyed. If the prime minister, at that stage, had taken a decision to stop it, a whole community—180 million people—would not have been harmed. But, because he did not take a decision, you have at least 180million people in this country alone who do not like us.
What comes next for leadership? Absolute honesty,fairness and justice—we are dealing with people.We in India have tremendous pressures—pressures from the government, pressures from superior officers, pressures from families, pressures from wives, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and girlfriends, and we lack the courage to withstand those pressures. That takes me to the next attribute of leadership—moral and physical courage.
What is the moral courage? Moral courage is the ability to distinguish right from wrong and having done so, say so when asked, irrespective of what your superiors might think or what your colleagues or your subordinates might want. A ‘yes man’ is a dangerous man. He may rise very high, he might even become the managing director of a company. He may do anything but he can never make a leader because he will be used by his superiors, disliked by his colleagues and despised by his subordinates. So shallow—the ‘yes man’.
I am going to illustrate from my own life an example of moral courage. In 1971, Pakistan clamped down on the province, East Pakistan, hundreds and thousand of refugees started pouring into India. The prime minister, Mrs Gandhi had a cabinet meeting at ten ‘o clock in the morning. The following attended: the foreign minister, Sardar Swaran Singh, the defence minister, Mr Jagjivan Ram, the agriculture minister, Mr Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, the finance minister, Mr Yaswant Rao Chavan, and I was also ordered to be present.
There is a very thin line between becoming a Field Marshal and being dismissed. A very angry prime minister read out messages from chief ministers of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. All of them saying that hundreds and thousands of refugees had poured into their states and they did not know what to do .
So the Prime Minister turned round to me and said,
“I want you to do something.”
I said, “What do you want me to do?”
She said, “I want you to enter East Pakistan.”
I said, “ Do you know that that means war?”
She said, “I do not mind it is war.”
I, in my usual stupid way said, “Prime Minister, have you read the Bible?” and the Foreign Minister, Sardar Swaran Singh in his Punjabi accent said, “What has Bible got to do with this?”, and I said, “The first book, the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence, God said, “let there be light” and there was light. You turn this round and say “let there be war and there will be war. What do you think? Are you ready for a war ? Let me tell you— it’s the 28th of April, the Himalayan passes are opening now, and if the Chinese give us an ultimatum I will have to fight on two fronts.”
Again, Sardar Swaran Singh turned round and in his Punjabi English said, “Will China give ultimatum?” I said, “You are the foreign minister. You tell me.”Then I turned to the prime minister and said, “Prime Minister, last year you wanted elections in West Bengal and you did not want the Communists to win, so you asked me to deploy my soldiers in penny pockets in every village, in every little township in West Bengal. I have two divisions thus deployed in sections and platoons without their heavy weapons. It will take me at least a month to get them back to their units and to their formations.
Further, I have a division in the Assam area, another division in Andhra Pradesh and the Armoured division in the Jhansi–Babina area. It will take me at least a month to get them back and put them in their correct positions. I will require every road, every railway train, every truck, every wagon to move them. We are harvesting in the Punjab, and we are harvesting in Haryana, we are also harvesting in Uttar Pradesh. And you will not be able to move your harvest.”
I turned to the agriculture Minister, Mr Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, “If there is a famine in the country afterwards, it will be you to blame, not me.” Then I said, “My armoured division has only got thirteen tanks which are functioning.” The finance minister, Mr Chavan, a friend of mine, said, “Sam, why only thirteen?” “Because you are the Finance Minister. I have been asking for money for the last year and a half, and you keep saying there is no money. That is why.”
Then I turned to the Prime Minister and said, “Prime Minister, it is the end of April. But the time I am ready to operate the monsoon will have broken in the East Pakistan area. When it rains, it does not just rain, it pours. Rivers become like oceans. If you stand on one bank, you can not see the other and the whole countryside is flooded. My movements will be confined to roads, the Air Force will not be able to support me and, if you wish me to enter East Pakistan, I guarantee you a hundred percent defeat.”
“You are the government”, I said turning to the Prime Minister, “Now will you give me your orders?”
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have seldom seen a woman so angry, and I am including my wife in that. She was red in the face and I said, “Let us see what happens.” She turned round and said, “The cabinet will meet this evening at four o’ clock.” Everybody walked out. I being the junior-most man was the last to leave.
As I was leaving, she said, “Chief, please will you stay behind?” I looked at her. I said, “Prime Minister, before you open your mouth, would you like me to sent in my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?” “No. Sit down, Sam. Was everything you told me the truth?” “Yes. It is my job to tell you the truth. It is my job to fight and win, not to lose.”
She smiled at me and said me, “All right, Sam. You know what I want. When will you be ready?”
“I can not tell you now, Prime Minister”, I said,
“But let me guarantee you this that, if you leave me alone, allow me to plan, make my agreements, and fix a date, I guarantee you a hundred percent victory.”
So there is a very thin line between becoming a field marshal and being dismissed. Just an example of moral courage. Now, those of you who remember what happened in 1962, when the Chinese occupied the Thag-la ridge and Mr Nehru, the prime minister, sent for the army chief, in the month of December and said, “I want you to throw the Chinese out.” That Army Chief did not have the moral courage to stand up to him and say, “I am not ready, my troops are acclimatised, I haven’t the ammunition, or indeed anything.” But he accepted the Prime Minister’s instructions, with the results that the Army was beaten and the country humiliated.
This takes me to the next attribute: physical courage. Fear, like hunger and sex, is a natural phenomenon. Any man who says he is not frightened is a liar or a Gorkha. It is one thing to be frightened. It is another to show fear.
Finally, for leadership, men and women like their leader to be a man, with all the manly qualities or virtues. The man who says “I do not smoke, I do not drink, I do not (No, I will not say it), does not make a leader.
Edited extract from Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s lecture at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington,November 11th 1998. Quoted in Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: Soldiering with dignity by Lt Gen Deepinder Singh (Natraj Publishers, Dehradun, 2nd Ed, 2002)
First published online at Pragati – The Indian National Interest