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Lessons I Learnt from an Amphibious Exercise…..

Leadership is a much abused term today. While reams of paper get written on the subject everyday, my experience shows that stories are the one of the most powerful mediums to share essentials of the craft. This is a story on bad leadership....


This a throwback to the year 1999. The Indian Navy planned to hold its biggest Amphibious Exercise ever in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. While the planning for it was initiated by the Naval Headquarters and had begun an year in advance, the overall responsibility for its conduct was vested with The Fortress Commander, A&N (FORTRAN) as it was known then. The Navy couldn’t have chosen a better person to handle such a complex task. The Fortress Commander, a Vice Admiral, was known to be an expert on Amphibious Warfare having written the most authoritative work, on the subject, for the Navy.

For a brief introduction to Amphibious Warfare to the uninitiated, it has been dubbed as the most complicated of all manoeuvres requiring coordination between the Army, Air Force and the Navy. Some of the famous Amphibious Operations undertaken are the landings at Normandy and Incheon during the Second World War and Korean War respectively.

Under the overall guidance and leadership of FORTRAN, the first of a series of training sorties was undertaken by ships of the 10th Landing Squadron under grey skies and unusually rough seas sometime in end August 1999. Four ships sailed to a practice site for Beaching, the art of hitting the shore with a flat bottomed ship equipped with a bow and ramp door, which open to spew out Amphibious Assault Vehicles, Tanks and BMPs followed by troops who wade through neck deep water to either capture or recapture a defended or undefended island or territory.

Prior to undertaking such an operation, a survey of the waters close to the beach is conducted by the Navigating officer and his team to ascertain suitability of the gradient for the operation. This is a critical task and requires about 3–4 h. As FORTRAN was embarked onboard, we were being assessed for our efficiency and accuracy.

I had finished the survey and was now headed back to the ship to create the Beaching Plan. As I entered the values obtained from my survey, a graph plotted them to show the gradient or slope of land under water on the ship’s intended approach. It wasn’t looking good. There was an unusual hump at 20 metres from the beach which would not allow us to beach. I checked and rechecked my calculations but the hump remained.

Since I was the Operations officer, the matter was duly reported by me to the Commanding Officer who looked at the calculations with dismay. I was asked to convey this news to the FORTRAN, which I did immediately. I was a young Lieutenant with barely 6 years of service but the oddity of me doing the explaining to a Vice Admiral and not the Commanding Officer did not escape my attention. FORTRAN looked unconvinced. Nevertheless, he asked for a repeat survey to be undertaken and a readiness report to beach by 0600 h the next day.

It was past 2200 h and me and the survey team had already spent close to 5 h in water and then another hour or so in preparing the Beaching Plan. We were tired, hungry and low on morale. All we needed was some support and a positive stroke. Neither was forthcoming.

I spoke to my team and got them in the frame of mind for another dip. As we headed towards the beach for a repeat survey, our rubber dinghy hit high surf and overturned spilling survey equipment all over the waters and injuring one sailor as the whirring propeller blade hit him on his head opening up a deep gash with blood gushing out. I had to make some hard choices at that juncture. On one hand was the task and on the other, a casualty and unfavourable conditions. With winds picking up and a receding tide setting in, things were looking grim. All attempts to raise the lookout on the ship went in vain and I quickly realised that we were on our own, in 15 metres of cold water with an overturned boat, equipment strewn everywhere, a medical casualty and no communications. The ship, which usually is a comforting sight to any sailor who sees it from a distance, stared at us in silent ignorance as it bobbed up and down, riding its anchor as if it had disowned us.

This was starting to look like one of the worst days of my life in the navy. A gamut of emotions erupted inside me. Feelings of anger and abandonment floated uppermost as I made the decision to go ahead with the survey. We managed to complete it and returned to the ship at 0430 h leaving exactly 90 mins to prepare and report readiness or otherwise for Beaching.

Miraculously, the hump obtained from the earlier survey was much smaller this time indicating that we had probably obtained erroneous values earlier. I reported this to the Commanding Officer as he shook himself off his warm bed. Ready to beach at 0800 h sir! He looked at me, rubbing sleep from his eyes and wearing an expression of disdain on his face. He barked some orders at me to be conveyed to the Executive Officer and dismissed me. Having spent an eventful and sleepless night in the waters of the Andaman Sea, this wasn’t a particularly enthusing interaction. Anyway, there were a lot of preparations to be done and so I set out drafting orders and briefing my team in right earnest.

FORTRAN embarked the ship at 0700 h by helicopter and we commenced our approach to the beach immediately. We had been set a time of 0745 h to hit the beach. This had to be precise. We hit the beach at 0752 h, a full 07 mins late. Clearly, the FORTRAN wasn’t happy. I looked around for some support but to my dismay, all I could see on my Commanding Officer’s face, was contempt. It seemed to me as if I had let, not only him but the entire ship, down. I felt awful, alone and orphaned.

The Exercise was dubbed as a complete disaster with the FORTRAN and his staff unleashing their wrath on us. We were ordered to consider ourselves at sea as a punishment which meant that men and Officers could not go ashore. I had been in tougher situations before, but as I stood on the bridge after we had come alongside our allotted berth at Port Blair, the world looked unjust, cruel and heartless to me like never before.

Why did I feel that way? After all, I was the one responsible for the errors in the first survey which led to the repeat survey. I also was the team lead and this carried the responsibility of ensuring the safety of all members of my team and the equipment. Finally, I was responsible to ensure that the ship hit the beach precisely at the appointed hour as I was the navigating officer.

Zen and the Art of saying No…..

The first survey had errors that, when fed into the calculations, gave erroneous results. Survey of this kind needs a team which is well trained. It also requires adequate practice in locations for which Beaching data is already available from past surveys so as to enable comparison. Lastly, the team needs to be motivated and supported by the Commanding officer and the rest of the crew. My team, on that fateful day, had not been trained in surveying at all. These were a bunch of sailors cobbled together in a hurry with no background knowledge at all. When I had protested against the date set for this beaching, citing inadequate time for preparations, I was told to get my act together rather than demand ideal conditions which would never present themselves. The need for adequate training was almost dismissed and examples of how things in the past had been achieved in shorter timeframes were cited. The Commanding officer had committed to his superior boss and now we had to deliver on his promise. It was clear to everyone that the ship was not ready.

As leaders, it’s critical to know your team well and then commit. It’s state of training and morale are directly linked to the success or failure of the task being undertaken. The Commanding Officer had never taken the time to meet the team and had no knowledge of their training and morale. When briefed about their inadequacies, he lamented on the lack of leadership qualities in me and asked of me a level of delivery which he would not have, had he involved himself with the team. He did not have the courage to tell his Boss that his ship needed more time. He had committed and now found it impossible to withdraw. He was ready to put the ship and his team in jeopardy but wouldn’t risk a No.

When the survey results showed an obstacle, instead of being curious and supportive, he wore his displeasure on his face as a seal of disapproval dis-incentivising the team further. This was the reason I felt abandoned. I was a young officer who needed to be led. Who failed that day? I made a mistake. That’s not failure. My leader, my Commanding Officer, failed me that day.

Delegation is misunderstood…..

As a leader, there will be tasks given to your team that may not require your direct involvement. The survey I undertook did not require the Commanding Officer’s direct intervention. However, it did require of him to set up enabling support for the task to be accomplished. When the survey boat hit high surf during the repeat survey, everyone onboard the ship had gone to sleep and no one cared about us. No one did anything to support the survey team that had already come under pressure. So much so that neither any help nor communication was forthcoming from the ship when the boat overturned and a sailor was injured. While this is unusual for a warship and an odd exception, similar instances happen in every workplace. Delegation does not mean leaving the team on its own. It is important for a leader to keep an eye and ear for the team. Delegate and then lie like a dog…..silent with cocked ears…..alert to every sound that is abnormal. That’s good leadership.

Often, one is asked to send teams off location to a client’s site etc. At other times, people are required to work under extraordinary circumstances to deliver extraordinary results. Providing them with support is a critical role the leader needs to play. Planning and catering for contingencies, unforeseen situations and providing support, both material and moral, at such critical junctures is what great leaders do. It’s the job of a leader to create conditions for his team to not only survive but thrive. Not doing so is poor leadership.

Ride with the Team…..

You know what irks me the most as I write this twenty years later? It’s not my CO’s lack of knowledge about the survey team or the lack of support or courage on that day. It’s his getting up from a warm bed after a good night’s sleep, as I spent a whole night in cold waters, sleepless, tired and hungry. That memory rankles me the most. How could he sleep while his team braved the elements, injury and fatigue?

I am sure you’ve felt this way too. This is what alienates teams from their leaders and breaks the bond between them. It’s not enough to say nice and supportive things when making speeches or during briefings. Those words will turn hollow if not followed up with actions. As a leader, one usually operates from a position of privilege (Pay,Perks, etc). Therefore, it’s imperative that such privilege does not come in the way of your team’s trust in you. Stay with your men. Mingling with them, eating with them occasionally and staying awake with them in exceptional circumstances will go a long way in building that crucial trust. This comes naturally when the leader genuinely values the contribution of his team to the overall success of the Organisation.

Automation, networks and computers and extended Organisational geographies put enormous pressure on the leader today. In all of this, the human being is often forgotten. I read many articles today which bring out the importance of keeping that connect alive but I really wonder how many of us implement it in our workplaces.

While positions of leadership bestow enormous authority, power and responsibility towards the businesses they manage, they pale in front of the responsibility the leader has to shoulder in respect of the teams he leads. When all networks and systems have failed and everything comes crashing down, it’s your team of humans which rises to the occasion to rebuild what has been destroyed. Lead them well and they will not let you down.

Originally published at medium.com

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