Commitment and Leadership – III

Continuing with extracts from Air Msh Pramod Athawale’s book on leadership. He briefly mentions a few more instances that inspired and impressed him over the years – from ASTE to the Squadron Chiefy.

  • On the pathway of Air Force life, Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) has played a vital role in character building for many. One exceptional aspect of the ASTE experience that one gathers is the professional respect across branches. There have been great ASTE Commandants through history who have defined this special character worthy of emulation by the rest of the Air Force. Software Development Institute (SDI), the baby of ASTE was also fortunate to inherit a great measure of this ASTE character. A unique experience came my way when after raising the unit and commanding it for nearly four years, I became the 2 I/C at SDI. That being the 2 I/C was even more satisfying than the command was solely due to the leadership of Air Cmde RK Batha. All officers, airmen and civilians of SDI were immensely motivated by the fatherly figure for his professional integrity and compassion for all. “Own your organisation and give as much as you can without bothering about returns” was the simple leadership style which had all personnel backing up the Commandant with total trust.
  • Some of my greatest learning moments arrived when I commanded SDI under the direct (although distant) command & control of ACAS (Plans). For about a year the previous ACAS had communicated with me only through the ASTE Commandant. Within three days of his taking over, there was a direct call to me asking “What’s happening” – From there on,   SDI never looked back under his leadership! He seemed to know everything on earth better than all of us. On closer association, I realised that such high professional acumen hadn’t been built by chance – intense hard work and commitment were the reasons for that exceptional ‘personal mastery’. Despite the fact that he genuinely liked to bring up ‘Ustads’, he had time for everyone who worked sincerely.
  • As regards approachability of a leader, my AOC (Air Officer Commanding) at Tezpur readily comes to mind. Sitting atop the bar counter in the mess lawns, he often regaled youngsters with anecdotes. His staff had no hesitation in chasing him to get official papers signed even on the bonnet of his Gypsy. And, his office darban was also generous in flinging the door open as we approached, without giving us an opportunity to knock. Everyone can’t be as naturally gifted as Babs. But, one can endeavour to connect with people in one’s own way.
  • It is surprising that maintenance men have generally been fearful of AOMs more than anyone else. When I first entered the office of the AOM I was an Air Cmde posted to Air HQ as PDGL. This AOM was something special. Air Mshl VA Patkar had the unique charm of affability and simplicity combined with excellence. Any matter related to engineering or logistics, finance or administration, and especially the link to operations, were at his fingertips. He was never short of time for his subordinates who did not have to seek appointments through staff officers. The AOM not only listened to the staff, but also participated in discussions finally making arduous attempts to explain the reasoning for his decisions. A leader is one who passes knowledge and values to bring up leaders – AOM’s weekly meetings were a genuine source of learning for all.
  • Two separate scenarios with one leader are especially telling. The first is the Air Force Day ceremonial parade. The daredevil Air Chief skydives over the parade ground, reviews the smart parade and at the end marches along the 150 yards of the front row to salute and greet each and every retired senior officer. Every air warrior is filled with pride for the demonstrated regard for elders. The second scenario is the IT Think Tank meeting, a new initiative to invite eminent academicians and industry champions to discuss and advise the Air Force on the way ahead. For a cup of tea before the meeting, Air Chief enters the hall and meets distinguished guests with great cordiality expressing indebtedness for their participation. Without losing a moment thereafter, he steps back to affectionately shake hands with junior Air Force officers who have come from outstation. A small step goes a long way to demonstrate that the leader cares!

Naturally, many leadership examples that come to mind are about those placed organizationally above me. But, many of those placed below me have been equally inspiring. I wish to recall two of them:-

  • Wg Cdr PS Samuel has been one of the tallest professionals I have been blessed with as associates. He joined us at the start of SDI. Professionally most upright, knowledgeable and contributive, he constantly shared his vision with me as well as the juniors as he trained them on the job. So plainly aligned to the organisational goals was he that subordinates and superiors alike accepted him with equal ease. The coming of age of SDI is owed in great measure to the foundation laid by him. We lost an exemplary leader when after significant avionics software contribution in SU-30 Project, Gp Capt Samuel left the Air Force prematurely. The reasons for his decision included unfamiliarity with aircraft maintenance. Alas! I couldn’t convince him enough to stay on and that made me realise the strong need for a separate ICT stream.
  • Some things happen naturally – like the assumption of leadership by the Flight Sergeants (Flt Sgt fondly called Chiefy). This was especially true if the man happened to be a Fit-I, which was a great combination of Airframe and Engine Fitter trades so useful at the supervisory level. In my first squadron posting I had the privilege to see the extraordinary leadership qualities of Flt Sgt Govindrajlu. Diligence, hard work, professional vigour  and above all, the courage to assume responsibility without fear of failure were some of his outstanding traits. He truly inspired not only airmen, but all officers as well. Pilots were hugely assured of quality if the Chiefy had attended to their aircraft. On discharge, Honorary Flying Officer Govindrajlu opened an auto workshop on HAL Airport Road Bangalore and ran it with aplomb as only the Chiefy could.

AVM Harjinder Singh has been the most legendary maintenance man in the history of the Air Force. He rose through the ranks being an airman for an appreciable period of his service before commissioning and envisioning the maintenance philosophy for the Indian Air Force. Warrant Officer Harjinder Singh’s taking charge of the train, carrying No. 1 Sqn detachment in Burma when the driver and firemen ran away because of Japanese strafing, and driving it for 50 miles is a legendary story and remains an unmatched example of leadership. His extraordinary vision and commitment besides professional excellence made the IAF the only Air Force in the world to undertake manufacture of aircraft.

The above paragraphs are intended to respectfully remember exemplary leadership known to me. When I shared experiences of leadership among friends I found innumerable motivating examples. The likes of Air Mshl TR Janakiraman, Air Mshl DC Nigam and Air Mshl PK Desai have come into the lives of many of us. The important thing is to learn from these examples and then extend our learning naturally through emulation to be an example to others.


Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing
– Albert Schweit


© 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


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