The Art of Generalship, the Science of Selecting Generals – 1


‘Generalship’ is, perhaps, that segment of leadership which is uniquely valuable to the Army, and to the nation. To become a general officer is to join an exclusive club; to become a Head of Arm (HoA)/ Head of Service (HoS)/ Corps/ Army Commander is to be in the most elite club. The system is geared to seek out the good General with the right intellect and attitude, and has proven its credibility over a long time. Becoming a general is based upon multitude of judgments of institutional, demonstrated and personal criteria – judgments mostly rational and objective; though some may be on parochial or subjective rationale. A clinically quantified merit based largely upon annual reports makes for the near total decision support.

The dramatically changing character of warfare in the 21st century is challenging the Army — to transform! Technological sprint is directing newer doctrines of warfare, from its multi-domainal character to non contact/ non-kinetic frameworks.  The oncoming operating and administrative environment has a complex matrix of factors that is leading to ‘decision making’ becoming very challenging. Warfare in future indeed will be fully chaotic, non-linear and unpredictable. Contextually hence, a General of tomorrow will have to be a mythic, intuitive person, a change agent with a clear vision of the future who endeavours to remould the mold and believes in innovating passionately.  Excessive reliance on tactical expertise will make only tactical generals and not visionaries that the environmental realities will demand.

The General of tomorrow has to make a difference to the organisation, while working within the larger system, which is by itself a challenging notion.  Any organization, even the Army, periodically needs to shake itself up and reinvent.  The attempt herein is to objectively contemplate and envision future imperatives for future ‘Generals’, selected without any biases, like that of schools, regiments, arms or service, or whatever else of parochial, short-sighted segregations!

The Perplexing Art of Generalship

 Taking a step back, what indeed is generalship? In many ways, we need to unfreeze the notions of Generalship. The fact is that the responsibilities and attributes of a general are totally different from what goes in ranks prior to becoming a general. The transition is dramatic, and the formative years under-prepare an aspirant for what lies ahead.  As decisions taken (or avoided) in formative years are constantly under gaze and the promotional structure is awfully steep, more and more military commanders gravitate towards orthodoxy, yes-manship, playing safe, remain risk averse or avoid risks altogether. Many prefer to micromanage tactical subunits and remain status-quoist, for personal careerism.

Assuredly Generalship is to possess superior military skills and vision in a higher commander that equips the general to be effective in the sphere of influence, and way beyond. The exercise of generalship carries with it tremendous difficulties, huge responsibilities and on most occasions while working directly with the Government functionaries, think on the feet, independently and with no fall back options. There are no really conclusive treatises on what makes a good and an effective general in Indian Army (of course there are leadership traits, etc). Three issues are contemplated below.

Firstly, even though a General would prefer or profess to be singularly a strategic (or Operational) leader (reveling in ‘I am a lifelong operations-man– the Col GS/BGS/ MGGS/MO/PP syndrome!); management is equally and importantly juxtaposed in the articulation and accomplishment of Generalship.  Military, more so the Army is also about soldiers and human dynamics – which itself is in immense transition and is hugely complex. Military is also about administration, of anticipation and provisioning material and equipment – involving operational logistics, supply chain management and land construction planning. Armed force are increasingly also about financial management and fiscal prudence.

To lead’ as well as ‘to manage’, in war or peace, is crucial.  With near-total focus on leading at higher rungs of the Army, stereotypical managing is considered boring, tedious, dumped on to staff, relegated to a passé function and considered of lesser value in promotional merit.  Hence many of the strongly aspirational kind, at lower levels and as Generals, assiduously avoid assignments of the managerial kind especially those relating to human resource, land and material management. These have difficult choices and inculcate taking risks that matter to soldiers well being. Hence Generals when accosted with administration issues, become procrastinators, naysayers or strongly status quo-ists.  While to lead is important, to manage effectively and proactively brings in credibility to a General. As was said anonymously, ‘…the most essential quality of leadership is not perfection, but credibility’.  Any definition of Generalship for Army must juxtapose leading and managing expertise.  Leading and managing are not inculcated only by years of service; these have to be ingrained-in over a period of time, through focused efforts.

Secondly, an officer rises in his career by professional training and knowledge, and rigours of hard work and experience. Are knowledge and experience enough on the altar of producing credible generals? A general, to be a role model, should have referent power, that is, unrelated to his rank or appointment, people in and out of military must refer to him and seek counsel. This also depends on accessibility of a General to one and all.  To get to that, important is to have expert power that is based upon broad perceptions that the General has a high level of knowledge and specialized skills and that he is approachable for guidance. Expert power is a great asset to have, as it provides leaders with a robust base from which they can lead and manage their command confidently. Expert power is more important than reward based or coercive authority in leading effectively. Of course these have to be hard earned and require great deal of credibility fashioned over a long period, energy and focus.  More than seniors, the best discerners of expert and referent power, of an aspiring General are the led!

To return to the question –are knowledge and experience enough for Generals? Knowledge stems from acquisition of facts, information, and skills acquired through experience, research, investigation or education. There is however difference between knowledge, and wisdom or cognition.  Wisdom is to discern and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true, right, lasting, and applicable. It is the ability to apply that knowledge to the greater scheme of life. It is also much deeper. Cognition in its commonsensical meaning includes the senses and terms/concepts of ‘knowing (knowledge),’ ‘awareness (understanding),’ and ‘judgment (decision-making and execution).’ Simply, wisdom or cognition cannot be acquired through reading books/ article/ online study, on-the-job-training and experiences (OJTE) or courses of instructions.  It is not important how much one reads, but how much one understands and imbibes on personal terms. Cognition has to be individually extracted in the growing years, from the books, OJTE and courses, and experiences – both good and bad.

A large number of us feel that experience is the best teacher.  In the Army specifically, gaining experience is tough but can be severely bounded and encased, like for example, in isolated domains –say J&K or deserts/plains, or in typology of operations, like special operations. There is also an imbalance of very short time from Brigadier to Lt Gen vis-a-vis from commissioning to a Colonel! The short tenures (though attempts have been made of late to address this) from Brigade Commander to Corps Commander, disallow cognitive growth, meaningful contribution in rank/appointment or judgment of potential. Paucity of an all rounded experience even after long years of service and becoming General, impairs the organization.  It may not be wholly an officer’s fault in seeking safer pastures (even though challenging) of previous experience which will facilitate careerism. Ensuring broad-based all-rounded experience is the responsibility of human resource managers. This becomes a severe lacuna when due to paucity of availability of appointments (or even parochial reasons), a General is thrust to discharge assignment in hithertofore totally uncharted waters. It can be detrimental to the career of a top-calibre General and also to the organization.  Experience can also pass through an officer undigested. Experiences need synthesis to learn from them; otherwise it does not tantamount to gaining wisdom.  Selecting genuinely cognitive generals is a great challenge!

The third and a significant issue is ‘’creativity’’ and the desire to be creative among Generals. In 1932, JFC Fuller had identified the most essential attribute of successful generalship as having “creative intelligence.” What is creative intelligence? Creative intelligence includes finding a novel solution to a problems or situations, as a process of creating new ideas and concepts, unencumbered by established doctrines. Words like original, imaginative, inspired, artistic, inventive, resourceful, ingenious, innovative and productive come to mind.  The ideas do not have to be revolutionary; they just have to be new and advantageous for the Army. Creative people are willing to take the risk new ideas will pose, and will even accept failure if it happens. Creatively intelligent Generals would also allow time to their commands to think creatively, generate ideas and tolerate ambiguity.

In this context a deliberative status quo bias by a cognitive General is intentional cognitive conservatism. Actually cognitive ability and conservatism are negatively correlated, when intelligent Generals, who are supposed to be change leaders, prefer things to stay the same, with tendency to resist change, or by sticking with a decision made previously.  Major reason for this is a reluctance to rock the boat and play safe. Status quo bias is consistent with risk adverseness and avoidance, focused on higher rungs, even in causing stagnation to thinking and action in the organisation.  Such status quoist attitude among Generals, even if with a façade of creativity, invariably leads to herding, when the led keep quiet and play wait-and-see game, rather than exhibit novelty of ideas.  Converse to cognitive conservatism will be cognitive adaptability, which is not only the ability to change, but to change with knowledge to derive the maximum benefit of that change.   Though Stephen Hawking had written that “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”, in the current information age, it is imperative for a General to be ‘cognitively adapt’.

In good organisations, the led must have a responsibility to place contrarian opinions for consideration, where conformity or yesmanship is not the best for the organisation. Seeking out the right officers with singularly cognitively adaptable qualities, broad-based knowledge and experience, with the capabilities to lead and manage simultaneously, is imperative for the future General. These are the hallmarks of a General having left a constructive mark, and remembered positively. Of course there is a need for charisma and communicability to cumulate to effective Generalship, but those are matters for separate debate.

  An examination of the systemology prevalent and envisioning the selective processes, will be matter for a continued article!

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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He has had extensive operational experience in Jammu and Kashmir, North East and on the Western Borders. The officer had trained the Botswana Army for three years in Africa, and attended the National War College at Abuja, Nigeria. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma had attended the NDC at New Delhi and was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He has done PhD in Defence Studies. General Rakesh Sharma commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh responsible for Kargil, Siachin Glacier and Eastern Ladakh – facing both Pakistan and China.The General was the Adjutant General of the Indian Army responsible for the Human Resource Management and superannuated in 2017. He has been awarded with Param Vashisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vashisht Seva Medal and Vashisht Seva Medal. He is a regular participant in seminars, lectures in various institutions, and regularly writes for newspapers and military journals. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma was Chief Defence Banking Advisor with the Punjab National bank. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.