Scholar Warrior

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue 2 May - June 2016
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Happiness for all: a function of command
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Touchy subject and I know I am walking a gauntlet in addressing this. However, I do not think there is an element of command responsibility which is as important as this; the provision of all round happiness to everyone around you commensurate with the context and without compromise with the task; it is as much a staff responsibility.  Best of professionals fail in doing so, perceiving their job to be leading in achieving organizational effectiveness; but organizational effectiveness is best achieved if a happy environment exists. Since many good people seem to be addressing this issue in the Army and yet many who aren’t it clearly fits in very well for an analysis in this column.

I am just back from a trip to an isolated formation HQ in the heart of Central India. It is a formation my late father raised 50 years ago and so obviously I was representing him at the golden jubilee celebrations. Prior to that I visited its superior HQ and was invited to address the officers and ladies. While my talk was peppered with multifarious topics and themes I did emphasize most on achievement of happiness. To me these poorly connected military stations in unglamorous parts of India have a recipe for unhappiness, persistent cribs and self-pity; especially given the proclivity to link happy times with modern metropolises after strenuous field postings. Families of all ranks too look forward to ‘mall evenings’, twinkling lights and labels of modern living such as Flipkart delivery and Dominos pizzas. Yet, I found happy faces and positive body language among all I met. Most people were well informed thanks to smart phones and connectivity, were well linked to professional responsibilities and loved the fact that they were relatively undisturbed by VIP visits or high profile events which would take away much of their time, create tension all around and lead to little learning and least happiness. Obviously these organizations were doing the right thing; leaving people to do their jobs, demanding nothing extra, no unnecessary manpower attachments and absolutely minimal VIP culture. Training standards of such formations and units are usually averagely much higher.  The senior officers I met were well known to me and I could see that they followed a fine balance between freedom and control. The formations and units under them are fortunate that a few good men came together with a right understanding; it won’t always be.

There will be tenures of senior officers with king sized egos and at times their better halves competing with them. There will be interference in every sphere of activity and there will be projection to the higher circles on how much is being done to enhance happiness while in effect everything is in the negative. Why does this happen and why can’t the example first quoted not be a mantra amongst all?

Ours is an ambitious officer cadre; beyond the optimum level where legitimate ambition should provide motivation and inspiration. This is the bane of the system. Time in senior ranks is short, just 6-7 years at two and three star rank and unless you have not built a blemish free spoken reputation the time in senior ranks isn’t sufficient to establish yourself. The AVSC vacancies in senior ranks have expanded the approval rates. How does this impact? Simply because there are some who may not have reached such high ranks in the ordinary course but have suddenly been elevated. This is ABSOLUTELY LEGITIMATE and was needed no doubt because the Army has an abysmal promotion rate. Yet it is ALSO RETROGRADE because there are leaders who now perceive the need to build reputation to achieve even further promotion which too is legitimate.  However IN DOING SO, SOME OVERSTRETCH. In the short tenure syndrome this leads to a command or even staff tenure driven by zeal but little time for other responsibilities. For example organized welfare activity becomes a demonstration for effect and little time is left to pursue or receive feedback on how strenuous is the pressure. Time spent in offices stretches and leaves little else in your hands.

This is where personal staff makes a great difference. For someone who is simply cussed at heart and wishes to allow power to be heady nothing will make a difference.  Except perhaps an observant superior who will quietly or otherwise point out that there is something amiss in the command; competent superiors usually do have a quiet way of telling their subordinate commanders if they are creating unnecessary stress. However, once again if senior officers have selected their personal staff diligently and empowered them to get back with negative and positive feedback they will be the force multipliers for happiness. My personal staff would quietly suggest to me my program and my agenda and I never questioned their wisdom because they had their ear and nose to the ground. I do remember that I had not visited the transit camp near my HQ for long and in winter there was simmering negativism emanating from there. I had other more important things in mind as major operational events were coming up. However, my personal staff virtually led me by the nose to take a look at the problems. No regrets, they were right and I could immediately direct corrective measures for the transit camp which was directly responsible for the happiness or unhappiness of thousands of troops who were transiting up or down to/from the LoC or RR camps.

Happiness is proportional to trust; if trust levels are high, the subordinate will never let down his superior. Trust also spreads rapidly in the environment. It dilutes tension, promotes bonding and directly contributes to happiness. Trust does one more thing- it reduces unnecessarily long conferences which seem to be the norm these days and were the norm with some senior officers a few years ago. These conferences prevent functionaries doing their real job as they drag on for most of the mornings. It is not unusual to see organizations of our Army in conference from 8 AM to 11 AM. The consequence is late office sitting through afternoons and evenings. That in field areas is still acceptable but in peace stations can create much stress.

My experience also reveals that anything by compulsion leads to tension and unhappiness. Organized entertainment is one of them and is an issue which promotes least happiness. Events must be organized, responsibilities must be distributed but participation should be entirely voluntary. 

Reducing VIP orientation is a facet of achieving higher levels of happiness and setting trends which subordinates will wish to emulate when they achieve similar positions. Pomp is good sometimes, not all times; it adds to dignity but equally can make you much undignified. If senior officers de-arrogate their pride they can be witness to the positive effect. If they are authorized an official flag car and back up vehicle but turn up at the local garrison cinema in a private car or sitting alongside their personal staff in their car, it will cause a flutter but a positive one.

Happiness is enhanced manifold when people serving below you know that you will be there for them when the chips are down. The Separated Family accommodation (I know it is called differently today but this is as much to explain to the non-uniformed friends and allow veterans of yore to reminisce) is the place for the senior spouse to put her focus and most big stations have such accommodation. The other place to keep visiting and doing so officially and unofficially is the local medical facility. Visit just one ward and spend enough time with patients and people who are accompanying them.

My personal experience is that much happiness is spread when people receive an unexpected pat on the back. Care to visit a cook house and dining facility, enjoy a sample of the food and if all is well do reward the staff. Cooks in the Army are the most ignored set of people. Conduct a ‘sammelan’ of your conservancy workers and let them all have high tea with you, listen to their woes and if even ten percent can be resolved do so with a little extra effort.

My own philosophy, learnt through observation, was simply that I would meet those who were never met by anyone, reward those who none would remember and shake hands with those who would always be in the background. I also know that in the Army there are many who would classify my philosophy as ‘cheap popularity’. I am/was willing to accept labels of any kind. What’s in a label if I can make a few more good men happy and through them the system more effective.

At senior levels, it is most important to have someone who can honestly joke with you and tell you when you are displaying arrogance of rank and appointment. The best person is your spouse or the senior member of personal staff.

The last point I have in this analysis which can have a hundred more suggestions, is the belief in giving accolades to your predecessor. Once you recognize that much has been done before you which makes you comfortable and your command more effective, you will slow your pace and appreciate that you only have to build on that and not aim to uproot everything and re-do it. The pressure on your subordinates will dilute and you will be recognized as a senior worth emulating.

There is no mantra for spreading happiness but just a few basics. In my perception the most important factor is your own ability to look inwards and see which way you wish to be remembered and how much change you wish to effect in your brief tryst with power.

If I were to relive my past perhaps the one thing I would have changed is the format of all briefs for visiting officers. How Happiness is being promoted in your organization would form the first heading of that format.

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