If the incident I am about to recount sounds like the obverse of Indian taxation system, please pardon me. The underlying lessons though are the same.
In the autumn of 1987, a bunch of scrawny 18-year olds were out on their first guided shore leave from the Naval Academy to the town of Panaji, Goa.
It was a few months into bootcamp for Ocean’s Best. The rigour of military training transforms young boys into men. The transition, like war, is not always easy or fair.
The agenda for that day was simple: go to Panaji, buy canvas shoes from Bata, return to academy. Period.
Somewhere, the outing veered off script a little. A benevolent dictator called ‘Divisional Officer’ (DO) decided to give the cadets a 15-min breather in the centre of town after shoe-shopping was done.
Enough time to check your WhatsApp, put out a small tweet or update status on FB? But these were the 80s. Like jailbirds on parole, all we could do was stop and gaze at the quaint old town, Goan ‘bar n restaurants’ & heritage buildings.
Those days, pocket money was a princely ₹100 a month (< 1.5 USD in 2018 money) – split four-way between 2-minute noodles, samosa or pastry from Joshi’s (the academy cafe & hunger helpline), personal expenses, STD calls home, and easy riders who drove you to nude beaches in North Goa without asking questions. It wasn’t much; but with enterprise you could go far.
A few of us swooped down on a local ‘Kwality’ icecream vendor’s pushcart and emptied our pockets for some ‘stick-icecream’. It was a hot Goa afternoon (ºcelsius twice our age) and we were out on ‘liberty’ (shore leave in naval lexicon).
I recall Robin Williams’ line from the opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire – “afternoon snacks have very few civil liberties”.
In minutes, we were bundled back into the bus and returned to academy. Nothing seemed amiss. It felt blissful being out on ‘liberty’ for a couple hours, breathing ‘civilian air’ vicariously from homes we sorely missed.
Late evening, there was a general call to ‘clear lower decks’. Cadets’ blocks were emptied by three shrill calls on the Academy Cadet Captain’s pipe. The atmosphere was unusually quiet and ominous. Two bikes, helmets dangling from handlebars, stood canted against their side-stands outside our accommodation block. That meant two DOs were present in the cadets’ block. Not a good omen at that hour.
Soon enough, eighty of us were marched to the ‘second eleven’ field in complete darkness with those two DOs, their faces set in stone. A 3-hour ragda-session followed (ragda = extended physical training in academy lexicon). Three decades later, we still recall that night as ‘star wars’.
Push-ups, patti-parade (timed outfit changes that can tame a ‘Singh’, a lion), star-jumps (repeatedly leaping into the air with arms and legs flailing in different directions, but not for selfies), front-rolling (rolling on hard ground like a millipede under attack), stomach crunches (a ‘crash’ program for six-packs), fireman’s lift (carrying your buddy like an Amazon guy’s oversized backpack) and wheelbarrows (hold-my-legs-up-while-I-crawl) continued late into the night. By the time our DOs were satisfied, the white sports rig was streaked with mud, knuckles bloodied, arms swollen from countless ‘plank-type’ pushups, and, well, our minds not really screaming “yeh dil mange more” (gimme more).
We were angry but clueless. What had we done to deserve this punishment?
A 30-min, post-operative oral anaesthesia (‘debrief’ in military lingo) by the benevolent dictator followed. Apparently, few of us had sullied the image of academy – and the military at large – by sucking ice lollies in a civilian marketplace. Officer cadets don’t behave like that. It is poor OLQ (Officer-like Qualities). You brought shame to the uniform, we were told.
For ‘misconduct’ of a few, the entire course of eighty paid in ‘sweat equity‘. Shashi Tharoor’s usage of this phrase hadn’t made it to our taxonomy of equities then, but the message from our trainers was simple: Shape up or ship out.
No way you can take shelter under a collective identity or ‘brand’ and get away with an “it wasn’t me” excuse when the chips are down. If we let it slip, tomorrow you may well blame your buddy for a misfired round or a bad air combat sortie
My colleagues from other militaries will have similar ‘all for one, one for all’ stories. Collectively, they can fill books nobody seems much interested to read these days.
That incident set the stage for three years of military training that followed. We learnt to march in step, always keeping an eye out for ‘marker’, the visual metronome who by personal example, click of heels, and swing of arms made sure others marched in sync. Slowly, TEAM meant more to us than T-shirts and slogans.
“Together Everyone Achieves More” (source unknown but a timeless description).
In due course, some of us took to the skies, some captured ‘territory’, some sailed the high seas, some dived beneath. The same bonding – call it coursemate, shipmate, wingman, buddy, squadron-type, unit-type, whatever – kept us earthed, afloat and aloft.
A team is bigger than the sum of its parts. Be mindful of the legacy you are leaving behind with small innocuous actions, words or decisions that aggregate into a ‘brand’ over time – a word that doesn’t have the letter ‘I’.
Long after you are gone, the spirit and ethos of what you have created should endure and fan passion in others to take it to the next level.
If it doesn’t, you are just another ice-lolly sucking Joe, not a leader.
Petty squabbles, ego-tripping, copying others, colluding with vested interests, running to courts for petty grievances, subverting a teammate’s effort to break now ground, ACR or annual appraisal one-upmanship – all these are ice-lollies other disciplined soldiers are fighting ‘star wars’ against.
Today, technology has put us and our benevolent dictators under constant scrutiny. Green-soled canvas shoes from Bata have been replaced by Adidas and Nike. A much watered-down, politically correct, scientifically-validated training system obtains on ground even in military academies. Officers can’t even shout ‘bloody’ today without falling foul of the law, let alone send cadets on a 40-km route march like our Commanding Officer did ’till the blighters bleed’. It’s not clear where human rights end and rigour begins, even in the military. Earlier, corporal was a rank, now it’s a punishment.
This was one among countless episodes where the whole course paid for the folly of one. We cursed then but thank now, our trainers who fostered lifelong kinship with this tool. Even under the harshest punishment, threat to life or reputation, we didn’t wilt. We never snitched on coursemates, never asked why ‘I’ must pay for a teammate’s folly. All because of many ‘ice-lolly’ incidents that followed.
Hope this ‘spirit’ always prevails over scotch whiskey, parochial mindsets, Armed Forces Tribunal and the lure of promotions.
It’s a life lesson worth learning for those who haven’t served. For those who have ‘been there, done that’, perhaps it’s something worth re-learning. Even as vertical specialisation creates dictators for whom horizontal synchronisation of minds, hands and feet matter little, never underestimate the power of teams who will stand by each other, come hell or high water.
If I am a true leader, I will never ask ‘why me?’.
Corporate boardrooms are battlegrounds too. These lessons apply unempathetically. In a team, you never climb over someone else’s shoulder.
Enjoy your ice-lollies if you must. But be there to crunch those knuckles when the team falls. If not, take the nearest exit. You don’t belong.
Even as such lessons continue to motivate and guide most of us who work with our hands, some ‘leaders’ may have lost the plot. That to me is a big loss.
The good part is, we all know who they are.
To them, happy sucking 🙂
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: The article in no way purports to defend or encourage corporal punishment which is a punishable offence in many countries, including India. Rather, this series of stories is meant to flesh out leadership lessons that can guide us in everyday life – at homes, in the military and corporates. Views are personal.