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

Previous Article postulated that “…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.”[i]  The prime necessity of 21st century of erudite, innovative senior military leadership is singularly profound. Within the realms of discretion, this sequel builds on the previous article on the subject and would attempt to zero on negatives and postulate some pathways.

Creatively intelligent Generals are call for Indian Army Next. Any contemplated change faces status-quoist mind-set or motivations of parochialism. Understandably, Human Resource managers have an onerous task to balance force objectives versus career aspirations in a steeply pyramidical structure. A revolutionary change is improbable, and maybe not even be necessary.

Imperative at the outset is to accept that there are issues that need to be defined. Procrastination is not conducive for a committed organisation.  The case is built on six candid premises:

  • First, envisioned land warfare in its conventional form, without the clutter of grey zone, 4/5/6G, hybrid, multi-domain, non-contact or non-kinetic warfare, has immensely dissimilar connotations. The Army has to fight many divergent wars, against different adversaries at incongruent levels, which mandate contradictory doctrines and strategies, structures, competencies and training. The high-pressure combat of insurgencies and terrorism continues, destined for perpetuity. The Western Front by itself has severe differentiations of super, high altitudes, riverine sectors, built-up and obstacle ridden developed areas and desert terrain.  The Northern frontier is fraught with warfare in super high altitude in under-developed regions, against a sophisticated adversary.  Competencies for each of these demand field command and control tailored in exactitude, with jointness as an imperative. This balance of knowledge and experience remains wanting, even at threshold of generalship.
  • Second, ‘Command-Orientation’ is capstone for the Army that has been cemented under the Mathematical Model (command exit model), by the Honourable Supreme Court in Feb 2016. This is matter of separate consideration. In furtherance of careerism, commanders at higher levels seek safer command assignments, in previously well known areas. Repeated exposure in similar assignments does facilitate specialisation and is advantageous to finding right man for the right job. This however lends to the premise that command in comfort-zone type field or peace stations is ‘fixed’ to promote careers and conversely to stagnate promising careers! A mechanised officer commanding Corps in super/high altitude and an infantry officer of plains strike corps, with no previous experience, is pointless, may show the General in poor light, is counter-productive for the organisation and detrimental to promising careers.
  • Third, the General Cadre (GC), (Infantry, Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry) and Non-General Cadre (Artillery, Air Defence, Army Aviation, Engineers and Signals), is perplexing. This denies large number of competent Non-GC officers opportunity to contribute to strategy at higher command. Similarly, in the logistics streams, remaining sheltered in individual service is also counterproductive.
  • Fourth, ‘to lead’ as well as ‘to manage’, in war or peace, is crucial for the Army. Varieties of staff assignments lend the correct gravitas and the eye for detail; inculcate vision of management of force. It is fashionable and suits career-orientation, to stick to operations branches, as against the exacting administrative and material oriented staff. The importance of staff assignments in quantified merit is grossly underplayed. Repeated postings in select branches at Army HQ, where postings are felt protected, shine in records of service, even if it lacks freshness of vision and thought. Such phenomenon produces gladiators of competence in limited fields, not all round developed Generals.
  • Fifth, effective Generalship and its effect on the organisation can only be with adequacy of payback time to the organisation! As is generally true, ratio of service in ranks prior to becoming general and as a general is approximately 32 years to 8 years. This is severely lop-sided. In this metered-down scenario, officer attempts hurriedly to prove his mettle, is unable to train the command or re-visualise the tasks. Many are able to portray competence in limited time, many rise to higher glory but reputationally remain also ran, and many competent ones do not get adequate opportunities to be suitably gauged in potential.
  • And lastly, despite earnest efforts to sensitise the environment, hyper-inflation mars reporting. In this quantified merit ironically, 89.123 is suitable Brigadier or a General, while 89.122 is not – value based additionality notwithstanding. The pen-pictures are abnormally similar as if from templates. ‘I will have the officer in war with me’, means nothing literally. The generic record does not indicate field in which officer has gained expertise. In addition parochialism (school/ arm/ regiment/ service, etc) is a serious bane, benefits many undeserving, and as corollary disallows meritorious ones to achieve requisite status! The best part is that the organisation at large is very knowledgeable and understands the typology of parochialism that had propelled promotions/ assignments!

The critical part is to select the right officer for higher ranks, one with requisite experience, intelligence and knowledge, intrinsically creative and willing to challenge the status quo.  To do this requires a new rubric of evaluations.  On evolving a newer model, six pathways are considered, only to facilitate a debate:

  • Who is the best judge of competence or otherwise of an up and coming officer? Sycophancy, parochialism, self-promotion and superficiality, or awards, postings and courses of instructions attended, become instrumental in colouring opinions of reporting chain. While one may be meritocratic, assessments can be imperfect and biased. However, facade of competence or otherwise cannot be retained over a long time with subordinates and colleagues. The latter may get bound/ carried away by either fierce loyalty or intense competition. Is time ripe for seriously considering 360 degree reporting? The 360 is one tool to understand how leaders are doing in command or major staff assignments, though multi-source feedback may also be deceptive. Using 360s as part of evaluation processes could create perverse incentives. Negatives apart, to the extent that 360s could be used to supplement or complement existing or future assessments, idea has great merit, with care taken to ensure no overlap with existing assessments. Three issues herein:
  • One, the Military Secretary’s Branch requires – as a good professor said – impurities! Competent social psychologists should be teamed in, to work through documentary profiling in organizational consultation, applied psychology fields, and in niche areas, such as group behaviour, leadership, attitudes and perception.  They may be able to arrive at better prompts of competence or otherwise.
  • Two, highest commanders taken in confidence to assess specific officers on merit or otherwise and comment, to form a better picture – outside the realm of routine annual reports.
  • Three, naturally there will be naysayers, and there are obvious pitfalls, however, a pilot project over a couple of years for 360 degree reporting may be advantageous.
  • As argued above, there is lop-sidedness to the career profiles, wherein, it takes 32 years in ranks before a general, and then seven to eight years to pay back as a general. For best results, 70:30 ratio must be endeavoured. The human resource managers have to create a balance in competencies in the career of officers. It is imperative that clear-cut career planning be endeavoured for command – as Colonel, Brigadier and Major General, irrespective of arm, must be in different environs for all – mountains/ field (including insurgency), plains/ deserts, Northern or Western borders. Similarly staff assignments must balance with joint service, administrative, materials management and operations, at different headquarters. Staff stream can be considered from Colonel onwards. Repeated postings in same directorates like Operations or Officers career management branch, creates senior officers with inadequacies in breadth and depth of knowledge/ experience.  That should be strictly NO-NO for betterment of the organisation!
  • The promotional structure is bound under allotment of arm and service and the merit list (judged by narrower criteria) of commissioning institution.  There is need to normalise this at a stage –an issue for another debate.  The consideration methodology for non-GC officers for inclusion in GC is very restrictive.  As promotions for non-GC arms are also governed by need for in-line assignments, an officer can be given an option for opting out of GC at Colonel itself. For all others, a systematic be created for providing requisite experience and judgement of suitability.  A second opportunity for opting out of GC consideration can be at Brigadier rank, albeit with a haircut. Similar working can be methodised for General Logistics Cadre and in-line logistics cadre. The issue of vacancies is matter of detail.
  • The armed forces lack a focussed leadership centre, and all leadership expertise is expected to be on the job.  Hence a Centre for Armed Forces Leadership (CAFL) is a prime necessity.  Even in the Armed Forces, leaders must be constantly coached/ mentored on focussed leadership and motivational short workshops centrally, or by CAFL faculty on regional basis.
  • Revitalisation of Professional Military Education (PME) is a crying need! In Indian Air Force, an officer submits a contemplative paper on professional subject with every annual report. Rare Brigadier or above gets to write summarily beyond a noting! Unfortunately cut-paste is denying originalities in dissertations and in professional growth. It is also axiomatic that most writings need vetting up the chain that deters thought-provoking penning. It is important to recall that Lt Col Paul Yingling, a serving officer of US Army wrote The Failure in Generalship in 2007 that left an indelible imprint in US.[ii] Serving officers must be encouraged to original writing.  Articles published internationally by doctors are imperative part of their curriculum vitae.  Over-anxiety on secrecy, information loss or image of the Army, is counter-productive to freshness of ideas and vision.
  • Lastly, is the reporting system. This has been has been under internal debate for long. Three issues are highlighted:
  • The grading system has become outstanding heavy. Will second decimal reporting or one that totals to 90, help?  While we may consider ourselves competent to address the malaise, it may be advantageous to incorporate specialist human resource management consultancy like Xavier Labour Research Institute or Tata Institute of Social Sciences. To proclaim that these institutions may not fathom multitude of Army specificities, is to challenge professional expertise.
  • The cleansing process on repeated complaints on promotions or annual reports needs to be set right. Expungement of first report denies corroboration of next complaint.  Hence many keep ascending having reports set aside and expunged regularly, thereby thwarting the entire system.  It may not stand legal scrutiny to deny repeated complaints. Methods can be formulated to check perpetual complainants. Instead of ‘expunged’, a system of ‘discounted’ may be better, when previously discounted report can also be studied for corroboration.
  • Career development and management policies must be resilient and transparent, and not amended with change in personalities. In truer sense, it is impractical to develop policies to satisfy all. Endorsement by the army commanders collegium is insufficient, as the effect of the policies will be to the next generation. With simulation and modelling, involving larger percentage of officers at Major General and below in a consultative process is essential.

In sum, the article attempts to find methodologies for selecting the right Generals for an oncoming era of warfare. There would be manifold other issues that merit consideration, or methodologies that can be built-in for Army Next.  It is not to state that the ongoing system has failed, on the contrary, the aim is to initiate a debate to consider all it right or not right, transcending any bounded parochialism.  Indian polity at this juncture is leading change and taking difficult decisions.  The time may just be ripe for the Army!


[i] Rakesh Sharma, The Art of Generalship, The Science of Selecting Generals -1, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, 25 Nov 2019, accessed at

[ii] Paul Yingling Lt Col, A Failure of Generalship, The Armed Forces Journal, USA, 01 May 2007, accessed at

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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.