Drop dead succession: a defence reality
Of late one of the catch phrases trending online, and becoming the subject of discussion in a variety of forums from animated college colloquies to high brow think tanks is the rather dramatic sounding ‘drop dead succession planning.’ As the name suggests starkly, it is one where an interim successor is ready to step in case of sudden demise or departure of a leader, often more so the former rather than the latter.
A lot has been written and spoken about its necessity, viability, and current state of preparedness and implementation in our corporate community especially in the blue chip business houses whose state of health can cause a lot of undesirable volatility on the bourses. The defence services are one organisation where this phrase is a daily reality. Here, one can literally drop dead; and not just because of accidents, heart-attacks, strokes and suicides which being some of the causes in the corporate world, but because of something as chillingly simple as falling to an enemy or insurgent’s bullet. And this is an actuality, spread across the entire hierarchical spectrum, that exists from the time any personnel joins the forces and till he exits. To put it plainly: one lives with death!
But even though mortality is such an omnipresent professional hazard, it is never referred to explicitly keeping the general morale in mind, but is nevertheless implicitly embedded in the processes, systems and culture. Hence, while there is no formally labeled drop dead succession plan as such, in reality it is very much there in place, and has organically evolved to virtual perfection since its incipient beginnings, aided, of course, by sustained training, empowerment and disciplined execution.
How is it that when say a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army battalion suddenly falls to hostile fire during battle, the battalion doesn’t run around like a headless chicken but continues to fight effectively? It is because there is always a Second-in-Command (2IC) who has automatically and immediately stepped in to take his place and leads the organisational unit. The keyword here is ‘always’, and the point to ponder is how this second-level succession happens so swiftly and so seamlessly; how is it built-in? Taking the example of the Indian Army infantry – the core principle being the same in the other two forces: the Navy and Air Force, with only the designations and training academies different – when a Lieutenant passes out of the IMA (Indian Military Academy) or Officers Training Academy (OTA) he has already been adequately trained about the various facets of military regimen like handling weapons, tactics, command, logistics, etc. at a basic required level and is fit to be a Platoon Commander wherein he’s put in charge of a Platoon which consists of around 36 men.
This is part of his vertical integration, the capacity/capability building to grow up in the chain. When he joins a Regiment he is assigned to, he also gets to know and learn all about the regimental history, values and traditions. Also, a common thread running across all regiments, one that is seeped-in as an indelible ethos right from the time of the officer’s academy days, is the significance of the words: ‘the safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time.
The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command, come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.’ Transiting from the tongue to the soul, these become internalised. This is part of the horizontal integration, assimilating into the organisation culture.
These two streams of integration flow concurrently throughout an officer’s career, in fact reach a confluence, facilitating his overall growth and improvement, and by natural extension of the men he leads. The young Lieutenant in command of his platoon quickly learns the ropes from hands-on experience not only from his superiors but also his juniors in rank like JCOs/NCOs (Junior/Non Commissioned Officers) who invariably have more experience in years. While doing so he is also being groomed for the next position, learning from his Company Commander who is a Major in rank, the Company being the next unit consisting of three platoons. He understands how his Company Commander deals with other Platoon Commanders, JCOs, NCOs and soldiers as also the dynamics of how the resources are managed in both operational and non-operational scenarios. As part of the grooming process the Lieutenant is also made to live, eat and sleep with the men he is commanding so that he knows where the shoe pinches. A deeper bonding and integration also starts happening herein and a spirit of enduring camaraderie is engendered.
Structured training-related courses at planned stages, wherein he moves out from active duty for the course duration, at designated military schools/colleges further equip him with leadership aspects of the current level and the next one. For e.g. the YO (Young Officer’s) course enables the Lieutenant to be able to take decisions with respect to weapons, tactics, resources and men at the next (Company) level, while the Junior Command Course for Captains gives them the essentials at Company level and a perspective about the Battalion level which is the next fighting unit after the Company and consists of six companies.
The Lieutenant gets the hang of taking decisions by being given actual authority to take decisions at the next level and at times put in temporary charge of certain aspects for a week or so by his Company Commander to give him an experiential feel of it. So when he goes on leave then the Lieutenant can step into the role and also be accountable for all decisions taken. This empowering to take decisions is further fortified by the practice of involving stakeholders in the decision making process. For e.g. the 2IC and Company Commanders are also involved in the Battalion-level
decision taken by the CO of the battalion. These decisions could relate to operational requirements or battle readiness, which essentially involve change, and hence all engaged get to learn about the critical characteristics of change management.
Also, there is always a Second-in-Command (2IC), geared up in the pipeline, at every stage who is the next in seniority. For e.g. at the Company level it could be the senior-most Lieutenant or a Captain, one who is fully trained and equipped to step into the Company Commander’s shoes either to officiate in his absence or immediately take over in case of a battle/insurgency casualty scenario. In the case of a Battalion it is a Lieutenant Colonel poised to take instant charge of the Commanding Officer’s (CO) role. There is never any command void left or felt, ever. Also the 2IC stepping into the role may either continue in the role and be promoted to the next rank in due course, or someone else with requisite seniority or rank may come in later. Usually the next CO of a battalion is from the same regiment, but can be from a different one if there is a deficit.
As the ranks get higher the horizon of the structured courses as well as the grooming for the next-level preparedness broadens in scope and depth. For e.g. a Senior Command (SC) course for Majors/Lt. Colonels preparing them to take command of a battalion has dimensions of not just their battalion, say Infantry, but also of others as Armoured, Artillery, Engineers’ Support, etc. This growing vision expanse becomes markedly more pronounced in the senior ranks tapering towards the top brass.
From a Brigadier (who’s the boss of a Brigade comprising of three Battalions) strategy and perspective insights which are multi-functional and multi-disciplinary become an imperative to be imbibed and implemented. Hence Colonels in line for promotion to Brigadiers are invariably posted to varied profiles at Division, Corps, or Army HQ level to adequately equip them to take decisions at this rank. Courses at the National Defence College wherein senior officers from the Civil Services are also participants further enrich and scope out their thought processes.
The Brigadier has a Colonel as his Deputy or his 2IC, and this replicates with appropriate rank augmentations over the next higher echelons of a Division (consisting of three Brigades) commanded by a Major General, a Corps and Command headed by Lieutenant Generals and finally the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who is the lone General at the top of the pyramid.
In case something happens to the Chief, there is a Vice Chief, who is a Lt. General, ready to step in. When Gen. B C Joshi, the then COAS suddenly died in Nov 1994, while still in harness, the Vice Chief, Lt. Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury stepped in and continued as the next Chief. It becomes apparent how the efficacy of Defence preparedness for abrupt succession eventualities is a function of its own inbuilt processes, structure and culture-assimilation starting right from the entry level, and incrementally enhancing in scope and rigor for higher responsibilities till the very summit.
The whole essence of it percolates and permeates the body of the organisation so profoundly that it becomes second nature for all individuals thriving in it. It’s also a practical and successful example of being future ready.
Wonder if there is something the corporate world can glean, adapt and apply from this!