Of lions, deer and military leadership - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 16 April 2012

Of lions, deer and military leadership

A cosy conversation at the inauguration of the Army Commanders' Conference 2012 in New Delhi on Monday, 16th April

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Apr 12

On Sunday the army chief, General V K Singh, raised an intriguing question while talking to schoolchildren in Jaipur. “An army of deer led by a lion is to be feared more than [an] army of lions led by a deer,” said the general.

My first thought as I mulled over this profundity was: can a deer that has served all his life in an army full of deer suddenly transform into a lion at the top? Alternatively, could a lion serving in an army full of deer be promoted somehow to the top slot?

Common sense would rule out both eventualities. An army full of deer would only promote a deer to the top, just as an army of lions would always have a lion in command. But the Indian Army presents a paradoxical third alternative. The numerous lions in this excellent army serve up to a certain rank. Then, around the time they become colonels or brigadiers, something strange happens: the lions start turning into deer!

The General V K Singh affair illuminates the generals in a harsh and unforgiving light. The generals emerge as riven with infighting; they undermine meritocracy by promoting loyalists; and, perhaps most worryingly, they compromise the army’s readiness for war by meekly acquiescing in crippling shortfalls of equipment and ammunition.

Over a drink, ask any junior or mid-ranking officer, and you will find disillusionment with senior commanders and with a working environment that rewards the safe and predictable rather than the bold and unexpected. Recent controversies have exacerbated murmurs that generals only think about themselves. Talk to the generals, on the other hand, and they express disappointment over the “poor quality” of young officers. There is a clear disconnect between the two ends of the rank pyramid, between the lions and the deer.

This observation is fraught with personal danger, since my army batch-mates have just been evaluated, and many of them cleared, for promotion to major general! Knowing these gentlemen as intimately as a course-mate, comrade and friend of many years does, I acknowledge with some satisfaction that the army has homed in on the high achievers. But identifying good lions is of little use if they begin turning into deer.

At a time when many soldiers – serving and retired – bitterly regard themselves as under attack from the defence ministry, the media, and even the judiciary, it is time for India’s finest and most resilient institution to look within rather than without. What are the systemic flaws in the army structure that disempowers its leaders and binds them in mental shackles?

The first is a growing culture of conformity: an intolerance of alternative viewpoints that is the natural attribute of under-confident commanders. This causes the boss’ viewpoint (itself springing from what he thinks his boss’ viewpoint might be) to become the viewpoint of everyone down the chain — effectively killing any prospect of internal reform. The system cannot be challenged from within, since any discussion about alternative leadership models presupposes that the existing model might be less than perfect.

It is nobody’s case that the army should encourage dissent; no military does. But great armies tolerate, and actively encourage, non-conformism. This is essential, not just for operational innovativeness that would keep the enemy guessing in war, but also for throwing up essential bottom-up challenges to the status quo. Totalitarian Conformism, as today’s army leadership style might be termed, reduces the landscape of professional and personal creativity to a dull wasteland where the fabled “dashing young officer” is marked not by flashes of innovative genius but by his quickness in agreeing with the boss.

Young officers allow themselves to be bound by these shackles because of the army’s insularity. Segregated from the world outside, and with little realisation of their actual worth, junior officers are reluctant to buck the system. Given the conviction that promotion is the only measure of success, they toe the line rather than risk professional hara-kiri by setting out to change the system. Their outlook can only change with exposure. Sending out junior officers on secondments and deputations – with academic institutions; successful government enterprises; media organisations; the police forces – will enrich the military’s bloodline with external leadership and decision-making cultures. It will also provide officers with the confidence that is required to challenge the status quo and to create a bottom-up dynamic that forces the generals to respond like lions rather than continue like deer.

Will the generals permit such a change? Most probably not since empowering junior officers and encouraging non-conformism are threatening prospects. Good reasons are ready at hand to shoot down such “unworkable” and “impractical” ideas: a shortage of officers; inter-se seniority issues during secondment; and so on. It would, therefore, be necessary for the government to intervene. We’re waiting for Godot.


The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was used by the Germans to describe the British army during World War I. It encapsulated their impression of incompetent generals letting down the brave and dedicated British soldier.


  1. Shukla Sir,

    I thought the Phrase was "Lions for Lambs" rather than Lions for Donkeys, can you please confirm. I thought a few years ago there was a Meryll Streep starrer movie released with the same name and analogy alluding to the Afghan war.


  2. interesting article sir.. it is indeed an army of lions led by meek deers.. we must remember though that the top leadership is appointed by the govt.

  3. If India fails against China, who should be assigned blame (civilian leadership 'MoD, PMO, RAW or Military leadership 'the Generals')? Whose head should roll? We better figure this out right-now and start identifying and separating the lions from the deers. It is convenient for the politicians to hide behind secret inquiry reports such as the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report. If Indians don't take this seriously, we better start preparing for an alternative to democracy. Either way, Indians are slowly but surely loosing confidence in our 'so-called' leaders. I again suggest, political leaders should be selected from among those who have served in Indian armed forces. Anyone without this compulsory background should be automatically disqualified from seeking Top political office. Those aspiring for Political role should enroll first in Armed forces and do a tour of duty before they announce their good intentions of governing the civilians. A trust-deficit is forming between citizens and our so-called leaders, from citizens perspective, and this is shameful. If this warrants a coup, and a re-writing of the constitution, so-be-it. I will support such a well-intentioned coup. Indians need freedom from the grip of hereditary dynastic leaderships. I hope the Ghandis and others are reading, and especially those that shamefully cater to such dynasties. We are no different under the dynastic rule than we were under the Mughals and the British. Constitution needs change to reflect on such harmful tendencies of dynastic politics.

  4. Hello Ajai,
    The comment was expressed by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in June 1942 after capturing Tobruk in the Western Desert. Lt. Gen. Neil Ritchie and Gen. Claude Auchinleck
    through a series of command failures led to a poor defence of Tobruk. The Desert Fox Rommel exploited these weaknesses and captured Tobruk.

    However 2/5 Maratha Light Infantry held on their own and was completely wiped out to a man after multiple assaults by German panzers. Impressed by their bravery, Rommel commented to a group of captured British Officers, "Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys."

    A fitting tribute to the brave men and forgotten sacrifice made by 2/5 MLI.

  5. I have not found any Indian military records of that battle, but here are British and South African accounts


    The Axis Forces attacked the now isolated Tobruk garrison at about 06.00 hours on 20th June 1942. The main attack fell on the sector occupied by the 2nd/5th Mahrattas. By 0700 hours, the battalion had been overwhelmed but elements still fought on. The Axis forces then attacked the rear of the 2nd/7th Gurkhas but they held their ground. The garrison officially surrendered on the morning of 21st June, but elements of the Camerons and Gurkhas fought on. The Gurkhas finally gave up resistance at about 1330 hours.

    At dawn on that fateful morning of 19 June 1942, 2nd Battery forward observation posts close to the Mahratta line spotted enemy infantry alighting from carrier vehicles and, in response, ordered the battery to open fire. These were the first shots fired in this battle for Tobruk. Within seconds, Rommel's forces replied and the Mahratta front exploded under a massive enemy artillery barrage, soon joined by showers of bombs from their air force, based only a few kilometres away at El Adem. With our own airfields out of range, we were deprived of air support.

  6. @ Kartik

    The metaphor used was definitely Lions led by Donkeys...

  7. Dear Ajai
    you have elucidated thoughts that some of us have had for a long time now. I am not sure whether your observations on military leadership will be accepted in the right spirit.
    Hope this triggers changes which are long overdue - changes in thinking.
    Keep blogging!!
    Sharat Kalapa

  8. Lions start turning into deers...yes it happens not only with Army but has already been happening in some other uniformed services.The IPS lot are not better.See the number of Governors from this segment..All were deers much more before their retirement.The Army Generals too have been following their Khakhi brothers since a couple of years

  9. Colonel Shukla,
    As an ex-Army officer you are right on the spot about army matters. If donkeys lead the lions, the outcome would be outright annihilation if the lions chose to follow the donkey. On the other hand if the lions take up another option - a mutiny - to put the donkey in his place, would the brave soldiers be rewarded by their peers or would the dhoti shivering indolent babus accept such a situation which might in itself expose their vulnerability.

    Under prevalent circumstances, brave soldiers who think out of the box has no place in a rigid setup where they are duty bound to obey their seniors even if the seniors are donkeys! Being non-conformist per se is not the answer but the top hierarchy in the Armed Forces should be more flexible, approachable and not moribund in its decision making.

    As you pointed out in one of your articles the way the Armed Forces are run should be left to professional soldiers without interference from civilians and politicians. Political decisions should not be to curtail the fighting efficiency of the Forces but should be within the confines to providing them with the necessary equipment and environment to fight well in order to secure the sovereignty of the nation.

    Sabotaging the efficiency of the Armed Forces through scuttling much needed equipment, delaying or refusing to pay ex-servicemen their emoluments is not only childish show of authority by babus in MOD but such display of civilian power over the Armed Forces personnel only demoralizes them. Such acts demeans the soldiers who have sacrificed the quality time with their kith and kin for the service of the nation.

    Servicemen should not be made to suffer and be at the mercy of the babus and politicians. It is the duty of the commanding generals of the Armed Forces to ensure their soldiers are treated with honour and dignity. Donkeys at the helm would not be able to do that.

    In a democracy where the civilian politician has the last say in a war, they should be civil enough to consult the Armed Forces and act on their advice. Unilateral decisions by the civilian government is not the answer if they want an amicable and comfortable relationship with the Armed Forces.

    Coup d'etat take place when the civilian authority and the Armed Forces fail to see eye to eye.

  10. Ajay, in a hierarchical system, in all spheres of leadership army or civil, more ladders you climb, more flexible you ‘need’ to be to strategically manage the System. This makes the ‘Leader’ appear weak which may really not be so.

    Yes, bending to gain higher ranks and recognitions with utter disregard to self-esteem and image of the Orgn is to be abhorred.
    ‘People do rise’ despite being straight talkers but professionalism practiced by them is of unmatched quality; there are many cases.

    Any System does recognize merit widely.

    And finally, let us breed 'lions' and not 'cage' them in peace time otherwise when the time comes, they would have lost their traits. Encourage Boldness in Thought & Action! Fauj & MOD needs a special care!!

    It is NOT a Ministry of Railways as someone commented the other day on the NDTV.

  11. Dear Ajay Sir ,
    Looking fwd to more such articles....w/o cricism...more useful....lets construct....the Indian Army...and the NAtion

  12. Colonel,

    Where it is a matter of life and death or realities of ground, conservatism become a means of caution. When it comes to execution of operational tasks on sand models, one is more of a tiger and less of a donkey. However, donkeys play a far graeter roles when lives, honour, fear, uncertaianities like in real time operations are quite common and rule the roost.

    Pushover cane weilding generals and on the move court martialling Colonels types of leaderships have always failled. It was quite eveident in Sri Lanka and Kargil during initial days of this pushover approach.

    One must understand that risk is calculated. There is not much to calculate on a sand model except what the boss wants to hear. One confronting the enemy has to make room for conservatism.

  13. Let us hear some of our retired 'star rank' officer give their point of view!

  14. Dear Ajay
    Amazing. u hit the nail. I showed it to a senior admiral and he called me and discussed it at great length. in his words, two things are not needed in the services, oneupmanship and yesmanship. How true.
    Also, the sentiments u so well have described are prevalent in the navy too, but not many say it so.
    Keep up the good work
    Lets make the nation and our services stronger

  15. Sir,
    Absolutely spot on.We need to open our eyes and think aloud

  16. Lt Col Prasad SN19 April 2012 at 03:39

    Hello Ajai,
    You have left some things which are important.
    1. The role of senior officers' wives in making or braking juniors into Lions or Deers.
    2.The issue of personal relationship with superiors vs professionalism is a continuing conflict at Unit level.
    3. It is the leaders in the org who make it great or gross not the other way.
    4. Corruption in kind- misuse of vehicles,sahayaks,cooks,unit property must come under purview.

  17. @ Lt Col Prasad SN

    Well said !
    Nail on its Damn Head !!

  18. Major (retd) dhiman bose20 April 2012 at 04:40

    Dear bloggers,
    The article above is point driven and creative. one has to see all aspects of the society we live in. the surroundings and environment make the society. all of us belong to it. we have different facades in a day to day going on's. a son to a father ,a worker to a boss and so on. all organisations are ruled top down. so also armies, political heirarchy et all. so the directions rub off from- guru to shishya. in nature Lion does not lead his pack or for that matter of any other animals led by the Lion. The lion hunts his own prey, he uses his strength and prowness to kill when hungry but he kills a weaker animal, or,when he is challenged, in this situation he fights to victory. unfortunately in human kind only the weak ,clever and a shrewd emerges at the top.as he is manipulative,he engage the skills of others, and creates rift amongest his order to stay on top and lead. now as for our selves as Indians- we too are not isolated, our system, also follows this law. reference to the above article, our officers have been trained for leadership in peace and war in various countries ,many have served in countries round the globe, both in peace and war, but what have they passed on to the army that sent him on such deputation.Now , this is what ails our army.so as Indians whether we join the army or become political masters, we continue to be a selfish self centered lot. can you not see ,we all eat , drink, get benefit from our motherland but we are the ones who soil, dirty and mess up right outside our own houses/flats. this is a trait that we have grown up with..( keep your self and your house clean,throw the rubbish out side or towards the person nextdoor) and so in daily life too we use this accustomed trait.
    i, like the views of Ajai, and feel that hard facts that he has brought out may change the coming generation." poor man's smokey cabins are not always the portico's of moral learnings"-Major(retd) dhiman bose

  19. We need to also find out how come many of the 3-Stars & a few Chiefs make it to the top rungs when most of the Service is aware of the "Skeletons in their cupboards". One theory (Conspiracy ??)doing the rounds is, when you have such people at the top level it is easy to squeeze anything out of them and make them nod in agreement !! Here, the "Babus" hold all the cards, ready to flash it, if someone steps out-of-line. Why else do we only have "Deer" at the top, who never open their mouth while in service;when they can make a difference. Less talked about "scams/loot" happens routinely in places like Housing.....MAP project, Ordnance and ASC chain of contract/ procurement and the CSD depots. The stink goes all the way to the top levels. Just one look at the hapless, day-to-day plight of the soldiers in all 3-services and even junior officers would tell the truth vividly. Cleansing of our system is essential to the sustenance of the services and very urgently needed. IF the right steps are taken NOW, the system will be better in five years .... thats the minimum lead=time required to purge the rot. Yours I, OG

  20. ajay sir'
    u write so well and so true, . it seems what v in the organisation want to say but r not able to say due to lack of words though v talking to each other, but u have chosen the words and the thoughts which r so apt and so true. v expect more such articles on the subject to make these deers hear so that sooner or later they start remembering that they r tigers or lions.


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