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Leadership and the Art of War
07 Jun 2013

The 6th century BC Chinese military treatise, ‘The Art of War’ by legendary warrior Sun Tzu is considered one of the most successful strategy and leadership manuals of our times. And not surprisingly. The armed forces have often been considered as the finest, and most challenging training ground to develop the spirit of true leadership.

Leadership in battle is not about profit and loss, it is about survival and the defence of your nation. It is often about raw courage, about the ability to take calculated risk, and it is about knowing that thousands of individuals have vested their trust – and therefore their lives – in you and in your ability to lead them to success. It is about multi-tasking, multi-performing and strategising at the highest level, when a lot more than the next quarter close is at stake. Life in the armed forces is also about managing within a system, of leading teams but being answerable to a huge spectrum of stakeholders at all times.

Very similar, though on a very different plane, one might say, to the lives of top managers, who are expected to deliver this one intangible that can make the difference between success and failure. In many ways, leadership in the armed forces is but one manifestation of leadership in life, just as leadership in industry and business is another. Both worlds have much to learn from each other.

General VP Malik, former Chief of the Army Staff in India, shared his perspective on leadership, its key components, and how it is embodied in the armed forces, at a CFO Forum session in Pune – his views are expressed in the following pages.

Defining Leadership

A leader is defined as one who is influential in guiding and impacting the activities of others as they relate to organisational and individual goals. It means leading a group of humans to achieve a vision, a goal, or a mission. Regardless of whether one leads five people or five million, the ‘essentials’ of leadership remains the same.

Leaders are seldom born – but instead, usually emerge through a combination of self-belief, hard work, experience, and opportunities. Nor is leadership merely about ‘knowing things’: a study found that effective leadership is a combination of knowledge (12%) and people skills (88%). Clearly, then, the ability to manage and connect with people is the overriding factor in making a good leader.

Leadership means different things at different levels. At the top management or Board level, it relates to company performance and succession planning. At the middle-management level, it is about whether an individual’s career development is given adequate importance. Junior employees, on the other hand, look to the type of leadership that can ‘get the best’ from them. For potential employees, good leadership is about creating the brand and values that attract the best talent. Finally, at the shareholder level, leadership means solid financial results and a higher share price.

Developing leadership: lessons from the Army

The question of how to identify and develop good leaders remains contentious, but some insights may be garnered from the Indian army. There – starting at the Cadet level, and going all the way up to the General level – a continuous process of learning and development builds good leadership at all ranks, and throughout the hierarchy. In this context, General VP Malik, over the course of a 42-year career with the Indian military, identified a set of essential leadership traits that can apply equally to top management in the corporate sector.

Character, ethics, and values

Perhaps the most deep-rooted and sustainable leadership trait – particularly in times of stress and strain – is the belief in a value system. Good leaders tend to have ‘sound’ character – which is epitomised by high ethical and moral values. Naturally, merely believing in certain values is not enough, and the military strictly applies a code of ‘speaking the truth and acting according to the duties and obligations of the rank’. Although a large number of companies have documented ethical codes, it is the job of top management to articulate and ensure that double standards are eliminated from the organisations, and that they are living examples of the firm’s ethical values.


Discipline enables one to channel one’s energy towards the organisation’s goals. Honour and loyalty to the organisation, the team, and to oneself, are signs of discipline. The courage to uphold values – especially when facing conflicting interests – is therefore essential. In the military, the stated (and practised) ethics of leadership holds that ‘safety and honour to the welfare of your country come first, always and every time’.

Professional knowledge

A thorough awareness of the different facets of the operating environment is crucial for any top manager, CEO or CFO – especially when developing one’s business across the world’s far-flung regions. Even those that seek to expand into other parts of India will only succeed if they have a firm grasp of the social and economic value systems of those regions. Knowledge enhances the quality of one’s analysis, decisions, and the subsequent actions. Articulating a clear vision and goal is essential for effective leaders. Professional knowledge therefore ensures both, that leaders know what they want, and that they can align their actions with the organisation’s goals.

The ability to communicate

One cannot understate the importance of communication – and the use of body language is one of the most effective channels of communication. Often, good body language can subtly convey messages that even words cannot. For instance, soon after the Kargil war began, General Malik was asked to give a press briefing that would be broadcast worldwide. With the pressures of war upon him, and uncertain about the overall military strategy, this was not the best time to communicate with the press. However, throughout the briefing, the General held a smile, and portrayed a sense of confidence using positive body language. This did not go unnoticed. Similarly, India’s ex-Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw, despite his poor knowledge of Hindi and other Indian languages, could use body language to communicate effectively with anyone from a cadet to a king.

Building team spirit

Although ‘team spirit’ is easy to talk about, actually building and running a team involves going through enormous stresses together, and a deep belief in each others’ abilities and commitment. Identifying with colleagues is not just about ‘getting the work done’. Today’s top managers – many of whom suffer from the ‘Blackberry syndrome’ – tend to call their teams anytime and anywhere, without thought to privacy or to their personal circumstances. In contrast, in the military, people share their happiness and sorrows with each other – and this helps build a genuine team spirit. In fact, the army functions like a large extended family, comprising of both current members, and ex-servicemen and war widows. Bonding is the key to commitment and the key therefore, to delivery. In the armed forces, many people die for the nation, but many more die for their regiment. Learning from this, it should be the responsibility of the CEO and the company Board to provide leadership and inspiration to their teams.

Decentralising and empowering

As a business grows, it is essential to let others take over. Gradually, the CEO’s role must shift towards facilitation, and managing the environment for better results, rather than micro-managing. Executive directors must be made responsible for adopting mentoring systems and building leadership among the high-potential members of their teams. Similarly, an army General’s job involves grand strategy at the military level, and interacting with Ministries that support the Army, instead of direct combat. Further, it means the creation of a conducive environment and circumstances, which ultimately helps to win battles on the ground.

Anticipating and managing change

Many successful companies go into decline because they continue to do the same things repeatedly. Times change, technologies keep changing, and the operating environment continues to evolve. Making the most of opportunities requires the anticipation and management of change – especially in the face of globalisation. Successful top managers must embrace change and continue to look ahead, even when his/her company is earning healthy profits. Regularly reviewing – say, every 5 to 10 years – one’s leadership practices, from selection to development, is essential to align the company with the changing environment and circumstances.

Motivating people

Given that leadership is mainly about people skills, it is essential for leaders to motivate people to join the organisation, and to give their best to the organisation; after all, there is a strong link between motivation, satisfaction, and performance. However, rather than adopting a blanket approach to motivation, it is key to show respect to individuals’ needs. Further, it is crucial to motivate people in bursts, as it is difficult – and perhaps impossible – to keep everyone, always, at peak performance levels. To do this, any top manager needs to have substantial ‘face time’ with his people, and spend considerable time meeting his team.

Developing leaders

There are three basic tenets that any CFO must follow in order to develop a strong leadership base:

  1. Provide leadership and inspiration:

  1. Make sure that senior managers understand the link between leadership practices and above-average financial results.
  2. Increase interaction with high-potential leaders and adopt strong mentoring practices.
  3. Make sure that deputy holds his or her team responsible for building leadership in the company.
  1. Maintain a strong and dedicated focus on developing talent:

  1. Develop comprehensive processes for the management, selection and compensation of high-potential talent. Companies often select people based on their resumes, but intelligence, judgement and foresight – combined with integrity and commitment – are ultimately more important than qualifications.
  2. Recognise success through a company-wide acknowledgment of the contribution of high performers.
  3. Get to know the high-potential talent, even outside of one’s immediate department.
  1. Put in place the right programmes, and implement them correctly:

  1. Identify the critical capabilities of subordinate leaders, and ensure that they support the future direction of the business.
  2. Regularly review one’s leadership practices.
  3. Measure oneself against a higher corporate, i.e. compare one’s practices with companies known for their leadership development.

Practising Leadership

Leadership can be built and acquired, but this requires continuous action. The ability to identify and act on an opportunity – based on a careful analysis – is a strong leadership trait, while hesitation is not. The Gita teaches us that ‘all actions without exception culminate in knowledge’. Further, it holds that ‘knowledge and action both lead to supreme bliss. However, action is superior to knowledge’. If you wait to acquire 100% knowledge before you take any action, there is every chance that the opportunity will have been missed. Assimilation of facts is crucial, but the critical mass can be at the level of 60-70%, after which, you must act, based on a combination of intuition and calculated assessment.

Analogously, the military uses a cycle of observation, orientation, decision and action (OODA). In this scenario, each time an action is taken, the environment changes, and the cycle restarts. The combatant that can go through the OODA cycle faster will tend to win a battle. Similarly, CFOs who can run through such a cycle faster will win in the corporate landscape. Leaders tend to simplify debates, doubt and ideas into a format that everyone in the company can understand and act upon.

A leader must always be accessible and approachable. In fact, the moment subordinates stop bringing their problems to their leaders, is the same moment that they are no longer being led. However, being responsible does not mean always being nice – and a leader should never be afraid to ‘tell off’ defaulters. Although it is often difficult to correct someone’s actions – and particularly, to dismiss non-performing individuals – a leader must be able to do this unfailingly.

Equally, one must recognise that a leader is, by definition, a lonely person. Even as it is possible to create an informal, open and collaborative corporate culture, the ‘buck’ stops at the leader’s desk. While encouraging participatory management and involvement, ultimately, the essence of leadership is the willingness to make difficult and unambiguous choices that will impact the fate of the organisation.

The commander in the field is always right – and the one at the back is always wrong – unless the front commander proves otherwise. This is why the Army works to build strong bonds, based on trust, across the officer corps.

There is a time for everything, and today’s CFOs must learn to take leave – and spend time with their families – when they have earned it. Nobody likes a grim work colleague or a ‘pompous pretentious professional’. Such individuals, in fact, should be sent to work for one’s competitors!

Key attributes of successful leadership include the ability to:

  • Keep yourself fully informed of all developments. Foreknowledge is critical to decision making. In business, this would involve the creation and acquisition of comprehensive databases and assessments.
  • Remember that both knowledge and experience are important – one without the other will not work.
  • Maintain a mindset that is hard, but humane. HR is critical in today’s world in any field. You must be humane, but disciplined, with the ability to take tough decisions when required. Sun Tzu’s warriors were meant to have a warlike temper and a combination of hardness and tenderness.
  • Simplify! Your dullest colleague must be able to understand your commands and train of thought – that must be your benchmark.
  • Decisions and goals must be unambiguously clear, indicating unwavering firmness and consistency.
  • Never neglect details! An eye for detail is critical and you must, within the sweep of one view, be able to identify both problems and opportunities.
  • Avoid an obsessive routine. It leads to complacency and the inability to think beyond the box and respond with alacrity to changing dynamics. Process and routine are critical, but can undermine performance if overdone.
  • Do not get pushed by experts and ‘elites’. Very often, they have more data than judgement, and you must learn to take your own calls, even if you may use the data provided.
  • Never forget your roots. As firms get larger, they tend to forget what got them business in the first place. Those values and processes must be kept intact.
  • Nothing beats being on the field. As a famous military saying goes, 1 visit on the ground is worth a 1000 on a map. Top managers – including CFOs – must spend time in the market and with their teams if they are to gain insight into the reality of the environment on the ground.
  • Anticipate when new skills are required and ensure their acquisition before time.
  • Find opportunity in change. Comfort with the status quo is the death knell of both progress and leadership.
  • Communicate. If words of command are not clear, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the General (top management) is to blame for any shortcomings in the business. This is best possible with enough face time with both customers and teams. Communication via email and ‘sms’ is a poor substitute.
  • Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier! It signifies confidence that is infectious and employees need that to achieve stiff targets.
  • Recognise that a state of constant over-achievement is unsustainable. Teams – and high performers in particular - must get the time to re-group, re-vitalise themselves as extremely high achievement cannot be sustained in perpetuity. There is a risk of burn-out which can be far more damaging in the long run.

At the end of the day, a leader has to be happy and content with his/her achievements – without becoming complacent, or letting it inflate one’s ego. Much like drinking fine wine, leadership should be enjoyed slowly, rather than letting it go straight to the head. Finally, it is important to realise that leadership is an inexact science, but not an inert one. It is both an applied science, as well as an art. Hence, CFO’s must learn leadership as a science, and then apply it as an art.

The contents of this paper are based on discussions of The India CHRO Forum in Mumbai and Delhi with General VP Malik, India’s former Chief of the Army Staff, in April and June 2013. The views expressed may not be those of IMA India. Please visit www.ima-india.com to view current papers and our full archive of content in the IMA members’ Knowledge Centre. IMA Forum members have personalised website access codes.

This article is tagged under the following categories:
Subject: @Business   |  Category: Strategy and Best Practices   |  Subcategory: Human resources / leadership
Subject: @Business   |  Category: Strategy and Best Practices   |  Subcategory: Corporate Strategy

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