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Corporate wisdom from Kargil

Corporate wisdom from Kargil
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First Published: Thu, Mar 24 2011. 09 52 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Mar 24 2011. 09 52 PM IST
In 2009, Air Cmdre (retd) M. Kaiser Tufail of the Pakistan air force wrote a clinical and non-jingoistic account of the Kargil war that was published in the Defence and Security of India magazine by Sonia Shukla.
The 1999 misadventure hauntingly mimics business disasters scripted by seemingly invincible bosses. From Barings Bank to Lehman Brothers to Enron to AIG, there are numerous examples, and many more that will follow.
Treating Tufail’s account as a parable for businesses provokes us to pause and reflect. What follows are extracts from the article, and observations of possible equivalents in corporations.
“It has emerged that the principal protagonists of the Kargil adventure were General Pervez Musharraf: Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Mehmud Ahmed: Commander 10 Corps, Maj Gen Javed Hasan: Commander Force Command Northern Areas…
“The plans were not acceptable to the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to whom the options had been put up for review more than once. She was well-versed in international affairs and, all too intelligent to be taken in by the chicanery. It fell to the wisdom of her successor, Mr Nawaz Sharif, to approve the Army trio’s self-serving presentation.
“‘General sahib, Bismillah Karen…’ is how he is supposed to have given the go ahead, not withstanding the denials he keeps issuing every solar eclipse.”
For starters, in professionally managed organizations where ownership is divorced from management control, managerial entrepreneurship and initiative are rightly construed as virtues. The nuance is that this is not a licence for creating and committing to a plan (as Musharraf did) that mangers are not mandated to follow.
Entrepreneurs take risks with their resources, but professional managers clearly need to operate within their charter and seek approvals from the representatives of the shareholders.
Often, aggressive professional leadership teams (led by the likes of Musharraf) are known to hard sell plans. If these are not approved with alacrity, they arm twist by hurling accusations of lacking guts, being risk averse, stingy on resources and imagination. Insecure directors (like Nawaz Sharif) with little knowledge, low operational competence, incapability of having a holistic view and a desire to be popular with the management create weak boards; they then get coerced into endorsing plans doomed to fail.
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“In an effort to keep the plan, the Army trio took no one into confidence, neither its operational commanders, nor the heads of the other services. This, regrettably, resulted in a closed-loop thought process, which engendered a string of oversights and failures:
• Failure to grasp the wider military and diplomatic ramifications of a limited tactical operation that had the potential of creating strategic effects.
• Failure to correctly visualize the response of a powerful enemy to what was, in effect, a major blow in a disputed sector.
• Failure to spell out the specific aim to field commanders, who acted on their own to needlessly ‘capture’ territory and expand the scope of the operation to unmanageable levels…”
Senior leaders carry the inherent risk of being blinded by their own success, mostly by wins in the middle management stints. Put in a lack of the right mix of cross-disciplinary experience and balance between staff and line functions. Add to this the possibility of being driven by personal ambitions of chasing glory and gold. A potent cocktail is ready.
These corporate bullies then hijack organizational agenda displaying misplaced heroism, and execute the plan through a narrow team of cronies whose added qualification is lack of spine, courage and intellect to challenge their masters. These cronies are compensated through pecuniary dividends or spoils of office.
The ones excluded trigger the scourge of execution—turf wars. Poor team play, internal dissension or indeed silent sabotage join the party.
Instead, a wider debate among multi-function specialists at the planning stage throws up the weakness in the plan at a holistic level and mitigates risk. Though this is time consuming, it is perhaps a better option in the long run.
I know of gold plated manufacturing facility that was set up in a low margin business. Its inability to deliver cost benefits or product superiority was visible to all, yet it continued to be invested in, leading to the business being asphyxiated and sold. Industry is littered with serial offenders.
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“In hierarchical organisations, there is precious little room for dissent, but in autocratic ones like the military, it takes more than a spine to disagree, for there are very few commanders who are large enough to allow such liberties. It is out of fear of annoying the superior— which also carries with it manifold penalties and loss of promotion and perks—that the majority decides to go along with the wind. Kargil, I suspect, like the ‘65 and ‘71 Wars, was a case of not having enough dissenters (‘devil’s advocates’, if you will) during planning, because everyone wanted to agree with the boss. That single reason, I think, was the root cause of most of the failures that were apparent right from the beginning… Such an organisational milieu, based on honest appraisal and fearless appeal, would be conducive to sound and sensible planning. It would also go a long way in precluding Kargil-like disasters.”
An insidious ailment, infecting many embarking upon a career, causes instant weakening of the back, and results in a painless flexible spine—a prerequisite for attaining senior command.
True and undesirable.
Subroto Chattopadhyay incubates new businesses as chairman of The Peninsula Foundation, and also advises companies and development agencies.
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Mar 24 2011. 09 52 PM IST