Prof. Dheeraj Sharma.
Prof. Dheeraj Sharma.

Why we need heroes

The Army can teach executives how to develop the next line of leaders and communicate work culture

Prof. Dheeraj Sharma of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), worked on a project with the Army Management Studies Board—a platform for joint research by the Army and the IIMs—to review the officer selection process in the Army in 2013-14. During this time, he noticed many areas of overlap between the Army and industry. In New Delhi recently for the “Vision 2024: Imperatives For Public Policy" conference organized by IIM-A, Prof. Sharma spoke to us about his book Leadership Lessons From The Military. Edited excerpts:

What inspired you to write this book?

I have worked closely with people from the Army, and felt that some of their practices—around organization, communicating the work culture, building and retaining ethos and values, following the chain of command and taking control of things—can be emulated with success in the corporate set-up.

Could you give some examples?

Leadership Lessons From The Military: By Dheeraj Sharma; 185 pages Rs395
Leadership Lessons From The Military: By Dheeraj Sharma; 185 pages Rs395

The military has a buddy system—if I am going to commit a transgression, my buddy could act as a guide to talk me out of any wrongdoing or, in the worst-case scenario, act as a whistle-blower.

The Army also teaches you how to take control of things. Young officers are sometimes given charge of important missions; they form the strategy and lead the operation. By doing this, the military is constantly helping individuals grow—these officers are groomed from the get-go for roles of greater responsibility. The military is placing its trust in them when it assigns them these critical missions. It’s also showing that the higher-ups are confident in the training given to these officers throughout their career in the organization. How many times do you see a young professional leading the charge on an important project in a business organization?

How do they handle failure?

That’s another thing executives could pick up from the military. When a senior officer entrusts a job to a young officer in the military, he often gives the credit for a job well done to the latter but takes the blame for mistakes upon himself. The failure of a young officer is often (seen as a) failure of mentorship and training by the senior officer. This is witnessed in the Parachute Regiment’s probation system, where a senior officer helps the volunteer probationer to clear the mandatory probation period. This kind of support helps the young officer feel less anxious as he works his way through the problem, picking up leadership qualities along the path.

Aren’t military and business organizations essentially different? Can a junior officer question something his senior says?

When the strategy is being developed and communicated to the team, military men and women can pitch in with their observations and ideas irrespective of rank. Sometimes someone junior in the force can have better experience of the terrain, or of that type of operation, and their inputs are valued by the mission leader. However, once the plan is agreed upon by everyone, they don’t compromise the plan. Some adjustments can be made, depending on how things go on the ground. Officers have been known to handle tactical issues themselves, like taking a call on capturing a post because they see the opportunity. They are able to do this because they are empowered by their seniors.

A similar strategy could work quite well in the business world. Often, you find that the experience and on-the-ground observations of lower-ranked staff are ignored in favour of implementing what the senior managers and CEO think is right. While there is merit in having a clear chain of command, this kind of steam-rolling cannot work. You need to heed the people who are finally selling your product or your service to customers, just as you need to get their buy-in on what the organization stands for. Overall, the disconnect between top management and front-line employees is quite evident in most business corporations.