Leadership is not a Revolving Door

Decreasing the tenures of Army leaders from 24 months to 18 months is counter-productive.

In the third week of December 2017, the Army Headquarters issued fresh guidelines for promotion boards to be held for the rank of Major Generals and Lieutenant Generals. Institutionally, the most significant change was the revision of the eligibility rules for consideration for the post of General Officer Commanding-in- Chief (GOC-in-C), wherein the minimum residual service was reduced from twenty-four to eighteen months. The GOC-in-C are the theatre commanders and form the highest decision-making body under the Army Chief.

The basic argument in favour of the change was that a larger pool of officers would be available for appointment as GOsC-in-C. The ‘larger pool’ argument is a self-serving one; in the current system, it is not a ‘pool’ from which selection is done on merit, as there is no selection board. Instead date of birth and seniority are the criteria for selection. Consideration of inter se merit is absent in this important promotion. In practice, on file, a panel of three senior-most eligible officers are considered. However, seniority inevitably prevails.

Date-of-birth (DoB) exigencies and vagaries form part of organizational existence and have to be accepted as such. A late entrant even of a Napoleanic disposition with allied attributes/traits cannot become a general. To overcome allied problems and make available a larger pool, the stability-of-tenure principle should not be sacrificed at the altar of the availability of a ‘larger pool’. Rather one should look at the DoB as an organizational safety valve. Short circuiting it would tantamount to looking away from the fundamentals of the structure of the Indian Army, which necessarily has to be pyramidal considering the progressively decreasing vacancies as one progresses up the ladder. One should actually welcome the shrinking pools being the ‘cream of the crop’, as we get to the higher ranks, rather than trying to make them larger.

Seniority, which is the other criteria, is decided at the time of commission, and is shaped by factors that would have prevailed three or four decades ago, and thereby has exhausted its useful shelf life as a means of deciding merit. Seniority however remains useful from the individual’s point of view as it emerges as one of the two major determinants for promotion to the post of Army Commander. Therefore, though it has value for the individual, it is organizationally unhelpful to indicate relative merit.

This change has increased the chances of having shorter tenures for GOsC-in-C, in an indeterminable number of Theatre Commands, which is certainly against organizational interests. Ideally, from an organizational point of view, it is preferable to lengthen the tenure of theatre commanders as much as practically feasible. In fact, short tenures in Command and Staff have been the bane of the Army’s functioning for several decades and though many remedial measures have been attempted, the problem has only progressively got worse at some levels. The main reason for this has been affording primacy to the individual over organizational interests. If maximizing tenures is the organizational interest, these guidelines pull in the opposite direction by the questionable claim of ‘larger pool’ availability.  Stability of Tenure of Personnel is one of the cardinal principles of administration.

What constitutes the ideal length of tenure in terms of time is a matter of opinion. In general, it should not be so short that it prevents learning the ropes in a job, implementing established policies/practices and making modifications where required based on experiential learning. Similarly, it should not be so long that it impedes changes where and when required. Twenty-four months is better than eighteen months.

The twenty-four month residual service policy was implemented by Gen Sundarji in 1986, which was then considered the minimum tenure that would be required to facilitate familiarization and maximize leadership contribution at the theatre level. Hence, what has changed so drastically to mitigate those considerations?

As things stand, since 1986, our Theatre Commands have become much more complex with a quantum jump in the instruments of war that necessitate orchestration apart from intimate coordination with the other two Services. Such a situation requires deepened familiarity and from an organizational point of view, the longer the tenure, the more advantageous it would be, thus rendering any reduction in tenures an incorrect course of action  from a policy perspective. It must also be noted that it is not uncommon for Army Commanders to be shifted midway during their tenures, based on subjective judgements of suitability and also adjustments necessitated by retirement of the Chief and Vice Chief. Therefore, in practice, nearly one third of the Army Commanders are subject to truncated tenures.

The extant two-year policy was only serving critical organizational interests and now that interest is being sacrificed in the garb of a larger pool; a pool that does not serve any purpose for selection by merit, but it instead will benefit some individuals based on the accident of birth and seniority. Hence, it is difficult to buy the argument that the tweaked system will enable a more meritorious selection.

The major reform in the selection of theatre commanders should have been the introduction of a selection board for Army Commanders. The truth is that in the existing system, the elevation to the post of a GOC-in-C, though not entailing an elevation in rank, involves a significant jump in responsibility and also an elevation in status. The selection can be inhouse, within the Services and approved at the Ministry level. But this is an issue that must be considered at the Inter-Services level, which must also address the differing eligibility criteria between them. Presently, with the implementation of the new criteria, it is eighteen months for the Army and the Navy, and twelve months for the Air Force. These and several other issues about selection of senior leadership have been addressed earlier by me in an earlier article.

‘Service before Self’ is the motto of the Indian Army that is inculcated into us from our early days in uniform, and the implementation of this change which places the individual before the service turns the motto on its head. Decreased tenures at any level cannot be in the organizational interest, unless the tenures are considered to be too long in terms of meeting organizational interests. This is definitely not the case with a GOC-in-C’s tenure. The best way to redeem this misstep is to introduce a promotion board for selection to Theatre Commanders across the three services. Senior military leadership does certainly not require welfare measures to enhance their careers especially at a cost to organizational interests. Instead the Service requires better leaders who are selected on merit and serve for relatively longer tenures.

About the author

Lt Gen Prakash Menon

Lt. Gen. (Retd) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution. He was the Major General General Staff of the army’s Northern Command responsible for operations in J&K and the Commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi. After his retirement in 2011, he continued in government as the Military Advisor and Secretary to Government of India and from 2015 as Officer on Special Duty in the National Security Council Secretariat.He has a PhD from Madras University for his thesis “Limited War and Nuclear Deterrence in the Indo-Pak context”. He was appointed by the Union Cabinet as a member of an expert group for the creation of the Indian National Defence University.