Leadership Challenges for the Armed Forces

 By Maj Gen Yashpal Singh Mor SM (Retd)

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent”.

 Gen Douglas MacArthur


Leadership in any organisation inspires people by providing a purpose and direction. It seeks to accomplish the mission while concurrently striving to improve the organisation. While the leadership attributes in all walks of civil life are by and large the same, military leadership is significantly different— the most obvious difference being the extremely high levels of motivation required to achieve the objectives. The leader is required to motivate his men to be prepared to follow orders, which may result in putting one’s own life at stake.

It is very common to debate the age-old adage i.e. are leaders ‘born’ or ‘made’ ? This however does not hold true for leaders in the military. Time and again, this aphorism has been proven wrong by military leaders, who through conscious and relentless efforts, have developed leadership traits and applied those most successfully in the challenging circumstances. The Indian Army (IA) has, since independence, shown many examples of ‘leadership under fire’. For instance, the saga of bravery in Op MEGHDOOT; our deployment on the Siachen Glacier since 1984, etc. — fighting not only a determined enemy but also inhuman weather conditions— where victory was achieved through professional dexterity accompanied by innate courage of our soldiers and officers. What bought to the forefront in these operations was the leadership of the Young Officers.

Defining Military Leadership

Many great leaders and academicians have provided their own versions of the definition of leadership according to circumstances and conditions prevalent in their times.  The most common definition of leadership is “the art of influencing and directing men towards an assigned goal in such a way so as to obtain their willing obedience, confidence, respect and loyalty”.  Military leadership has also been described as the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction and motivation. Military leadership requires  a combination of persuasion, compulsion and setting examples that makes subordinates and colleagues ‘willingly do what you want them to do’. In essence, leadership is taking responsibility for decisions; being loyal to the organisation, superiors, peers, and subordinates; inspiring and directing assigned forces and resources towards a purposeful end; establishing a ‘teamwork climate’ that inspires and stimulates success; demonstrating moral and physical courage in the face of the adversary, and therefore providing the vision that focuses as well as anticipates the future course of events.

Notwithstanding the terminology used in each of the above definitions, leadership evolves as an ‘art of handling men’.  It is the practice of inspiring confidence in men towards their leader.   Leadership, therefore, amounts to “knowing what to do” and “getting things done”.

Importance of Military Leadership

The importance of military leadership needs to be understood in context of the complete spectrum within which it is applied and practiced in the armed forces i.e. direct leadership, organisational leadership and strategic leadership. Direct leadership, which is practiced at Junior Leaders’ level in the profession of arms, is most demanding, challenging and crucial because of the following options- life or death, honour or humiliation, victory or defeat. On the other hand, organisational leadership deals with a wider cross section of people. An inept handling of any situation at this level may induce adverse repercussions that will render both direct and strategic leadership ineffective. Therefore, having is very crucial to achieve victory. At the strategic level, the consequences of incompetence can be catastrophic—both for the organisation and the nation.

Another aspect which makes military leadership different from political or corporate leadership is the fact that there are no ‘runners- up’ during war. The consequences of failure of military leadership are too high. Hence, from the professional viewpoint, a military leader at direct and organisational leadership levels may have to fulfil =many roles i.e. of a heroic leader, a military manager, and  also  a father figure. At the strategic level, he may have to supplement these roles with that of a politico- military expert, a public relations man or even a quasi-diplomat.

It is equally relevant to note that no two leaders can be alike ;  no two situations in which leadership has to be exercised can be alike and no two groups of people who have to be led can be alike.  The secret of success, consequently, lies in strengthening the ‘base’ of leadership.  If the ‘base’ is strong and balanced, then a leader can confidently take on challenge. The improvement of the ‘source’ however, is a never-ending process.

Essential Facets of Military Leadership

  • The basis of leadership in any field is the ability to command respect and carry the team along. The real test of leadership is not when your men follow you in success i.e. when everything is going well but is when the men follow you when the ‘chips are down’. The successful display of military leadership is therefore, based on some basic facets which have endured through the ages. These are described below:-
  • Professionalism.   Professional ability is the fountain of success, which bestows upon the leader an ability to fulfil his assigned task with adeptness and satisfaction. It is a self-actuating, prolonged and endless process of professional growth, which should not be mistaken with careerism.  Professionalism encompasses virtues like confidence, vision, knowledge, the ability to take risks, ingenuity and courage of conviction.  Bhagavad Gita eulogises this as “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam” i.e, “competence in one’s chosen profession is one’s bounden duty”.  (Bhagavad Gita , Ch 2, Verse 50)
  • Knowledge. A leader must have the requisite level of knowledge to be successful. The spectrum of knowledge for a military leader spreads across four ‘skill-domains’. Whereas, ‘conceptual skills’ provide the ability to understand doctrines and concepts for accomplishment of the mission, ‘tactical skills’ endow on a leader the ability to make right decisions concerning employment of his command during combat. ‘Interpersonal and technical skills’, on the other hand, provide the leader the ability to understand men and to familiarise with weapons and equipment placed under his command.
  • Service before Self. Selfless service or ‘Nihswarth Kartavya’ is defined as putting the needs and goals of the nation, the military and the unit ahead of one’s own needs and interests.
  • Primacy of the Led.  Man is indeed the raison d’etre for a leader.  How can there be a leader without the led?  In the armed forces, it is imperative that the leader and the led not only knows each other well, but the former is also able to share both the pains and happiness of the latter. Compassion is the basic fabric of military leadership.  In the words of Omar Bradley, “Compassion, far from being a handicap to command, is the measure of it.  For unless one values the lives of his soldiers and is tormented by their ordeal, he is unfit to command”.
  • Motivation.  Motivation is an offshoot of inner happiness and is reflective of the attitude towards life.  It is a desire to achieve a goal, combined with the energy to work towards that goal. Soldiers who are motivated have a desire to undertake their tasks and win in the   Motivation, in the military context, has also been described as the combination of desire, values, and beliefs that drives soldiers to take action. Motivation is thus the ‘mainstay’ of military leadership.
  • Leading by Example. Effective military leadership hinges on the premise that officers and men will always abide by time -tested tenets of honour, dignity, loyalty and selfless service. A military leader plays a critical role in motivating his troops so that they willingly undertake the tasks that they are assigned to carry out. A military leader who leads by example motivates his men to follow him anywhere— irrespective of the hardships and dangers that are involved. Since ‘actions speak louder than words’, it is axiomatic that a leader “walks the talk”.
  • While courage is an essential prerequisite for direct leadership— at organisational and strategic leadership levels— moral courage assumes relatively greater importance.  Moral courage is  the willingness to stand firm on your values, principles and convictions, regardless of consequences. At senior ranks, the pressure to stand up to ethics and military values are much higher.
  • Creativity and Ingenuity. Creativity and ingenuity are essential qualities in a leader. Success in an uncertain environment is derived from ingenious approach and creative thinking. The leader should be able to ‘think out of the box’ and respond quickly to changed circumstances. He should continuously look for unconventional and unpredictable course of action, as this would lead to victory in the battle.
  • Vision.    Vision and foresight are important attributes of a leader. The ability to ‘visualise and look beyond the obvious’ is an important aspect in any combat situation, where unpredictability is rife.  At the strategic level this becomes one of the most important attributes of a leader. A strategic leader needs to have a long term vision for the future, like developing  futuristic weapon systems. Ability to anticipate the changing nature of warfare and plan for next two decades should be an attribute of a visionary leader.
  • Diligence and Perseverance. It has been rightly said that “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”. A real leader is one who follows up his ideas with equally determined effort and ceaseless labour.  Perseverance implies the steadfast pursuit of an objective despite setbacks that may occur in the process. It is this attitude that enables a leader to defend his ground on  the face of adversity and succeed.
  • Ethical Conduct. Ethics are rules of standards based on one’s judgement of what is valuable or important in life. These guides a leader to do the right thing. While the general ethical standards in our country have been falling rapidly there is a need to insulate the Armed Forces from such trends. There are no absolute standards of honesty.  The individual standards of honesty, however, must fall within the ambit of moral acceptability. The leader should always observe the highest standards of ethical conduct and financial propriety as these are not just personal values but also have institutional overtones.
  • Social Grace.     It is an invaluable intangible asset of a leader, if properly cultivated.  A healthy and youthful profile, excellent track record, sociable attitude, attractive conversation skills, neat attire, dignified conduct, tasteful living standards and well-cultivated talents – all adds to social grace.  It is again as much a personal value as it is an institutional one.
  • Time Management and Work Ethos. Time management and correct work ethos are essential for any successful leader. It is necessary to take a pragmatic view of modern management techniques and modify them so as to suit one’s work ethos, without compromising one’s basic values.  The working environment should be devoid of tensions, idiosyncrasies and wastage of effort. The work culture should promote a ‘relaxed and efficient’ working environment, where result oriented activities are encouraged and all ranks are given due time to pursue outdoor activities and to honour their social obligations.
  • Feedback Mechanism.       A good military leader will continuously assess the effectiveness of his leadership by seeking feedback from his team through monitoring of specific indicators of command effectiveness. These include state of morale, esprit de corps, discipline and proficiency. Creating an environment which encourages feedback especially from the subordinates is essential.

Challenges: Military Leadership

  • Changing Socio-Economic Milieu. The society is undergoing a rapid  transformation on account of the high growth in economy and other related factors including proliferation of multiple social media platforms. This is leading to rising aspirations among the rank as well as significant changes in the value systems and perceptions. The social differences between the leader and the led is constantly narrowing, with opportunity and timings having become the deciding factor between ‘who gets to lead and who will be led.’ Military leadership must be responsive to such changing environment. Subordinates are likely to question the rationale behind decisions.  This improves transparency. A large number of feudal systems which define hierarchy in a stringent manner, need to be made flatter to integrate the rank more closely in military stations.
  • Leadership for New Roles. The nature of war will continue to remain a complex mix  of political objectives, human emotions, cultural factors and military skills, where revolution in military technology will continue to add new dimensions to future war fighting. Nonetheless, it will not be wrong to presume that the quality of military leadership, far more than technology, will determine the final outcome of these confrontations. However, military leadership has to adapt to changes taking place not only in technology but also in the type of operations expected from the armed forces. The non-traditional roles like peace operations, internal security duties and other non-combat roles continue to grow and needs to be incorporated into the scope of military leadership.
  • Evolution of Jointness. Armed forces all over the world are moving towards jointness for a variety of reasons, the most important being that it leads to synergy of effort and streamlining of resources. This trend will eventually lead to integrated forces. This implies that to be an effective military leader in the future, the leaders must not only have the core-competence of their parent service, but also have a thorough understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the other Services, to be able to plan and lead joint operations.
  • Increasing Non-traditional Roles. The armed forces are increasingly carrying out more and more non-traditional roles like peace operations, internal security duties, disaster relief and so on. This calls  for leaders to have an expanded knowledge base and additional skills to be able to adapt expeditiously to the changing situations.
  • Collective Leadership. Modern wars are becoming more and more complex. Hence, future wars may witness collective leadership taking critical decisions rather than individual leaders. This has been made possible due to increased battlefield transparency and shared situational awareness, brought about by network centricity. Accordingly, the key to success in future conflicts will not hinge on a single outstanding leader or even a succession of them, but on a system of collective leadership that transcends individuals.
  • Managing Technologically Driven Change. Future warfare will have a pace, intensity and technological complexity of unprecedented dimensions. The technological revolution is likely to intensify, leading not only to new weapon systems, but also to information revolution which will change the nature of war. Technologically-driven change puts constant pressure on military organisations to reinvent themselves. Successful leaders have to be proactive engineers of change—facilitating rapid institutional innovation without sacrificing order or organisational effectiveness.

Capabilities of a Strategic Military Leader

Strategic Leaders are the military’s highest-level thinkers, war fighters and politico-military experts. They establish force structures, allocate resources, conceive a strategic vision and prepare their military set up for future roles. A senior military leader, depending on his rank and appointment, has to function at the strategic and operational levels. Strategic military leaders must be experts in their field and should understand the national security apparatus and politico-military spectrum in the correct perspective. Strategic military leaders can create huge impact on the overall effectiveness of the armed forces as their decisions not only affect more people, commit more resources but also have wide ranging consequences, transcending into the politico-military domain. They achieve organisational aspirations through a process of astute decision making, communicating, harnessing resources and shaping of the organisational ethos and culture. The competencies of a strategic leader would be a combination of his personal attributes (what he should be), his acquired skills (what he should know) and his actions (what he should do). These are discussed below: –

  • Personal Values and Attributes (What he should be ?). He should be a master of strategic art, a keen student of history, a skilled diplomat, able to deal with cognitive complexity and possess tolerance for ambiguity. He should also be intellectually and academically inclined. He should have flexibility to adapt to the discern patterns and accurately lead the organisation in an environment of uncertainty. His core personal integrity must be above board and self-interest and must not clash with the  organisational goals.
  • Acquired Skills (What he should know?). He should have acquired knowledge at conceptual, technical and interpersonal levels to be able to function effectively. At the ‘conceptual level’, he should  work in an environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This requires him to have the ability to think critically and formulate ‘ends, ways and means’. A ‘strategic leader’ should be able to understand technological and technical interdependencies of critical systems and effectively exploit them towards the achievement of goals.  He should possess technological awareness of the ‘information age’ and be able to select time and space correctly. At the ‘interpersonal level’, a strategic leader should be able to communicate with the broader audience which would not only relate to inspiring others to act but also develop skills for negotiations, consensus building, systems knowledge and persuasive skills. He should develop the skills to represent the organisation optimally to internal and external audiences and stakeholders in the right perspective.
  • Actions to Influence and Operate (What he should do ?). He should provide vision for the future with a long-term focus and multiple perspective, shape the organisational culture and initiate policy and directives accordingly. He should be able to manage the external and internal environment, national level relationships and represent the organisation effectively. Most importantly, he should be able to lead and transform the organisation by effectively managing ‘change’.


Leadership is a dynamic concept and it has to evolve with the changing circumstances especially in the military. Ever since the times of Pluto, humankind has been seeking to determine the qualities leaders must possess, which qualifies them to rise above the others and guides them in their conduct. It has been said that ‘courage, competence and commitment’ are the three individual values that all military leaders must possess. However, there can be no absolute answers to these questions and neither can there be leaders who are absolutely perfect. Even the most successful leaders had their weaknesses but, the management of these weaknesses became a mark of their success. As the Indian Armed Forces chart their way through the 21st century, the success we achieve and the progress we make will be largely dependent on the quality of leadership showcased by our senior officers. The Indian military has produced very good leaders in the past who have provided the requisite direction in war and peace. As globalisation and technology necessitate changes in our military structures and outlook, there is an overriding requirement for our leaders to adapt to these nuances. Our future generation of military leaders should be those who possess the enduring qualities of adaptability and high moral values.

Disclaimer: The article is based on the lectures given by him at various institutions in Army.