Nuts & Bolts of Leadership – The Paint & Varnish Story

How would you feel if at the age of eighteen you were given a shaving blade and made to strip every iota of paint from hundreds of hinges, doors, windows, glass panes, nuts and bolts?

Add to this the fact that you had left home only a few weeks ago to join the navy; hangover from exalting movies like Top Gun and An Officer & a Gentleman still lingering in your teenage brains. Now here you are, scraping away paint from windows and doors amidst all other rigour that makes bootcamp such an unforgettable experience.

I remember vividly hundreds of small cuts and scratches on our hands that bore mute testimony to the harsh lesson our Commanding Officer (CO) wanted to send down the rank and file of Naval Academy, Goa.

Captain’s Rounds is a formal walkaround where the habitability of office spaces, living quarters, material state of equipment and installations is inspected by the CO. Long before ‘Management by Walking Around’ became a corporate buzzword, such rounds, formal and informal, was rite of passage in the military.

In this case, our first Captain’s Rounds had gone very badly. Navy’s ambitious plans to raise the first course of 10+2 (Executive) Scheme officer cadets within the temporary premises of what was formerly a sailors’ training establishment was in its infancy. Capt Kottuju Mohanrao (KMR) was given the important assignment, along with a team of specially selected officers, gunnery instructors (GI), divisional chiefs and others.

A thoroughbred second-generation military officer, KMR was as ramrod straight as they come. Descriptions such as ‘hard taskmaster’ and ‘disciplinarian par compare’ sat lightly on his square shoulders. The navy couldn’t have placed a better man at the helm of a bunch of eighty, scraggly monkeys who had fled college and turned up at the gates of Naval Academy (Navac) in 1987. You could say Navac was in ‘start-up mode’. Resources were scarce and naysayers outnumbered angel investors. It was up to KMR and his team to take the new concept onward and upward.

‘Ready for Rounds’ – ‘Eklavya’, our accommodation block

With Captain’s Rounds round the corner, one thing quite in abundance was paint. Copious amounts of oil-bound distemper, enamel paint, brushes, rollers and cleaning material were issued to each squadron. Not too long out of high school, we gleefully wielded the brushes & rollers like it was some painting competition. Barrack floors were mansion-polished to a mirror shine. Lavish coats of paint dripped off windows, doors and grills. Like the famous Asian Paints advertisementhar ghar kuch kehta hai‘ (every house speaks a story), our living blocks spoke of a paint and polish extravaganza.

It took KMR only a few minutes to call off his rounds and fly into a silent rage. He had eyes that could drill a hole through steel. His operational mind looked beyond the razzmatazz into what would become of the navy’s ambassadors for the 21st century.

If today these cadets imbibed the wrong lessons, tomorrow ships’ doors and hatches would fail watertight and gastight integrity tests, polished turrets won’t swing to engage targets like they must, and layers of rust will hide under coats of paint, he declared, while the ceremonial rounds team stood at rapt attention.

A simple displeasure would have sealed the matter. But KMR would have nothing of it. He passed his dictat. In a week’s time, there would be re-rounds. Anything that is supposed to move will be stripped clean of all paint to bare metal. Glass panes will not bear a drop of paint on them. Electrical wiring will be restored to factory standards. Lights and fans will be pristine and fit for purpose.

The math was daunting. Each barrack had at least four dozen windows, half a dozen doors, hundreds of window panes and miles of wiring. There were over eighteen such barracks. It mattered little. Our captain had spoken. He never withdrew an order regardless of what misery it brought upon a bunch of budding Michelangelos and their mentors.

The next few days disappeared into a hail of shaving blades, screwdrivers, seaman’s knife, sandpaper, much abrasive language and frayed tempers. Hanging outside a first floor window, I recall mourning good ol’ junior college days with a fellow Bombayite and wondering what the hell we had signed up for.

Next Monday, hinges were bare metal, squeaky clean, clear window panes ushered in the morning rays, doors swung freely and snapped shut, bolts rammed into place like they should when a ship battens down. Mohanrao was no Buddha. He didn’t smile. But the fact that life returned to normalcy meant his lesson had driven home.

Such a cleanship overdrive may even be classified as cruelty today. But there is an abiding lesson here. Ships are not called ‘men of war’ without reason. If we polish the brass and paint over the rust, surely something will give. It won’t even take an enemy’s broadside to send your beautifully painted steel hulk all the way down to Davy Jones locker.

Often, we fall for optics and cosmetic changes that can be ruinous in the long run. And it’s almost always about the long run, be it business, relationships or war. As military leaders and corporate honchos, we would do well to look beyond the glamour, set the right examples and walk the talk. This is particularly true when at the cusp of a new business venture, life event or relationship. Attention to such detail differentiates leaders from managers, and good from great.

In a more nuanced manner, Admiral William H. McRaven, the ninth commander of US Special Operations Command and a former Navy SEAL himself, made a similar point when he gave the University-wide Commencement address at his alma mater The University of Texas (UT), Austin, in May 2017.

Perhaps Capt Mohanrao had taken a leaf out of UT’s slogan ‘What starts here changes the world’ to adapt it to the navy’s cradle of leadership he was vested with. Ironic, but bad habits are far easier to learn and much more difficult to shed. KMR would have none of that.

Washing my calloused hands with turpentine, I hated Capt Mohanrao then but admire him now for sending the right signals down young cadets’ minds, notwithstanding the harsh method used. We spent two out of three years at the Academy with him at the helm. Though we were landlubbers then, he always prepared us for the final battle which would be fought at sea.

Our first whaler sailing expedition went awry due to heavy seas, couple of boats got lost and helicopters had to be called in for search and rescue. After a happy ending, everyone thought it was all over. Not KMR. He sent us all the way back to the Seamanship Hard where we relearnt our knots & crosses, bends & hitches, sailed the seas on the little boats again and, this time, returned victorious to our boat pool without calling helplines.

‘Never give in’ – Arriving at Grandi Island, Goa after conquering the seas!

It’s not paint or varnish that holds a ship or PowerPoint that holds a business together. It is the meticulous attention to operational detail, personal touch and upkeep of hardware and software towards which, paint, polish or Powerpoint is just an accessory not the glue.

People who haven’t learnt this lesson have cooked books and fled to foreign shores, bringing shame and infamy to a whole nation. If you are in it for the long haul, learn the right stuff. Pursue excellence. Everything else will follow.

Pursue Excellence. Everything else will follow


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at Views are personal.

This is the second article in the ‘Nuts & Bolts of Leadership’ series. Read the first one here.

Further Reading:

  1. The Effectiveness of Management-By-WalkingAround: A Randomized Field Study Anita L. Tucker Sara J. Singer (read here)
  2. Management by walking around: 6 tips to make it work: by Anne Fisher (read here)

  3. Script of Adm William McRaven’s speech at The University of Texas, Austin, 2017 (read here)

2 thoughts on “Nuts & Bolts of Leadership – The Paint & Varnish Story

  1. Well said KP…
    “Paint everything that stands and grease everything that moves”
    The mixed feelings about KMR apart, we couldn’t have asked for a better Captain at the helm and (then) Cdr CT Kuruvilla as the Training Commander….they along with our Divisional officers Lt (now Admiral) Harikumar and Lt (now Cmde) B Anand have moulded us into able Seaman officers.
    Attention to detail and keeping your ear to the deck is what defines a good leader at sea or otherwise..

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