(From the book “Indian Air Force: The Maintenance Paradigm” by Air Mshl PV Athawale
Commitment and Leadership
Any discourse on leadership by air warriors must begin with a salute to one of the greatest leaders of all time, Marshal of The Air Force Arjan Singh. He is a source of inspiration for all personnel, past or present. His towering personality infuses a special pride in belonging to this wonderful Air Force. Air Cmde Jasjit Singh’s book ‘The Icon’ has so aptly reintroduced to the countrymen their Air Force through its icon. The Chairman of Centre of Air Power Studies, Air Chief Marshal OP Mehra (retd) was the Chief of the Air Staff when I was commissioned in the Air Force. Even today my day is made with a glimpse of him when he drops by. Leaders like these have indeed been made of special mettle. The Indian Air Force has been blessed with exemplary leadership providing an exceptional blend of professionalism and altruism.
During the International Seminar on Aerospace Leadership in 2010, Air Cmde Jasjit Singh talked about “A Matter of Trust”. He highlighted that a very small proportion of active manpower of the Air Force gets actually involved in combat. This in essence is the difference between Air Force and the other two services. Naturally then, the spotlight justifiably remains on operations while the maintenance man diligently keeps the inventory in shape. Pilots go to war and fly in peace relying on maintenance men with the utmost trust. The pilot-engineer bond of trust is the most visible reflection of the height of morale in the Air Force.
Most defence studies on leadership argue that military leadership is unique and distinctly more demanding than the civil. The singular reason for this distinction is the demand for self sacrifice to the extent of death. This puts the military leader on a pedestal untouched by his civilian counterpart. A somewhat similar distinction is also made between combat and non combat men when viewed from within. Should it mean that we, the support personnel need not endeavour to be leaders and be satisfied with being the proverbial managers? Some people have gone to the incredible extent of suggesting that the Air Officer Commanding a Depot should be renamed the General Manager. A few experiences recalled hereafter are intended to remind the maintenance man that “you may not go to war but you are a soldier first and you must aspire to lead like only a soldier can”.
An incident in the early 1980s on a Tropo Communication (hill) station flashes across my mind. At that time, the Air Force was not as well equipped with Motor Transport as it is today. Except for the CO, all officers along with airmen travelled to the unit up the hill together through unfriendly terrain by the ‘Shaktiman’ 3-tonner. On return to the base late one evening, the brakes of the vehicle failed landing us into a small ditch miraculously short of a bend beyond which we would have been thrown down 1000 feet. The repair team arrived in a Jeep along with a recovery vehicle. Our vehicle was winched back to level ground, brakes repaired and tested in about an hour and the whole team minus one climbed back into the truck. The senior most, having quietly informed the other officers, that he wouldn’t be a fool to risk a ride back in the truck, had left with the repair Jeep. He had let go of an opportunity to be a leader! The example may indicate unintended support to the argument that only life threatening situations bring up leadership. Leadership is much more than just the readiness to risk life. Each one of us has our moments of opportunity whether we face war or support operations or, for that matter whether we are within the military or deputed to a civil agency like DRDO or HAL. Leaders just do it!
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other
– John F. Kennedy
As my course mates and I stepped into the Air Force, AFTC groomed us. Our Commandant, Gp Capt SS Sahgal was exemplary in every way. The Commandant moved in a staff car while at work; drove his shining Fiat in the evenings and a two coloured Vespa scooter, especially to the tennis court. Trainee officers enjoyed his company in sports like Lawn Tennis and Cricket, each one also getting an opportunity to have a cup of tea at home with Mrs. Sahgal at least once. The Commandant knew every trainee officer by name whether he was a month or a year old in College. No one could enjoy the excuse of anonymity hoping to slip away from the watchful eyes of the Commandant. In the true sense of being a Guru, he seemed determined in his efforts to enable his pupils to go beyond the high benchmarks set for himself. Added to this Mrs. Sahgal’s affectionate and special charm had such an effect that new entrants could never imagine a better service could exist. Memorable moments of this wonderful beginning have stayed on with me forever.
- The first Air Marshal I came across was to leave a lasting impression on me. Early in AFTC I was selected to represent Training Command in Inter Command Cricket Championship – the first match was with Air HQ. Air Vice Marshal IH Latif, positioned to field at mid wicket briskly moved with all attention to the commands of the skipper in slips Sqn Ldr VM Muddaiah (a former India player). The art of permitting oneself to be led in certain situations and assisting the nominated leader despite one’s own towering presence is leadership. I had learnt my first lesson in leadership in that short half hour stay at the crease when unknowingly I attempted to play a lot of balls towards midwicket.
- As we practised the passing out parade for the senior course, our instructor decided to increase the pause between movements to bring in elegance. As an example, the usual timing for the right turn was enhanced from ‘one-left-right-two’ to ‘one-check-left-right-two’. For the next two days there was chaos on the parade ground as the timing went haywire. The typical Ground Training Instructors (GTIs) added to the confusion by shouting out louder than before and ordering the parade to do it together. On the third morning, amidst this confusion an elderly and friendly instructor Flt Lt Pramanik came up to the dais and took charge. He said “we will not practice any drill; we will only sing today. Come on, all of you sing with me: One-check-left-right-two-check. . . “. We sang with him for half an hour gleefully having forgotten about ragging at the hands of GTIs when he asked “Guys, can we have just one practice before we pack up”. And, to our amazement we were synchronized bang on time. Two lessons learnt: one, sing and work – be happy and the outcome will be synergetic; and two, look at the process tracing back to the cause rather than a symptomatic correction.
- Sqn Ldr Chatterjee was one of the most loved instructors especially by our course. He was fond of spending some quality time sharing his experiences with the trainee officers. As we approached our graduation, some of my course mates asked him for tips on leadership. His answer was simple “As you go out, you will see exemplary leaders and also unworthy examples. Follow good examples and avoid the bad ones. Be ‘Ekalavyas’; learn from examples – no one can teach you leadership”.
- One disappointment I have carried all through my career is that the rest of the Air Force called AFA their alma mater but we, the engineers couldn’t. I felt the pinch of it first when I visited AFA from AFTC for Training Command Inter Area Cricket Championship. This has been set right a few years ago and the AFTC boy can now proudly identify with all others in recounting his initial training days at AFA. During my visit as AOC-in-C MC, the Commandant AFA Air Mshl PR Sharma, a thorough professional and a gentleman took me around. It was a delight to see AE officers immensely benefitting from the joint training environment while contributing handsomely to the environment.
© Copyright Air Mshl Pramod Athawale (Retd). All rights reserved. Reproduction or distribution of this article in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited