Military leadership in the time of social media explosion

Banning social media is not the answer. The armed forces need to accept it as a given and work with it, not against it. We need to exploit the vast ocean of opportunities it offers, including consensus building, picking the minds of a huge brain-cloud of its user-base, team-building and developing a sense of trust.

The first thing we all do today, as soon as we get up, is check our mobile phones and various “social media” sites. Every event in our lives, from what we’re wearing or feeling like, are happy or sad about, agree or disagree with, from moustaches to eye-shadow, we must post on social media. Frankly, it rules our lives. This holds true for all of us, whether we are vegetable-vendors, rickshaw-pullers, filmstars, corporate big-guns, heads of states and even soldiers.

The earlier we accept this fact, that much easier would it be to figure out how to function effectively in the overhang of this massive communication tool. Leadership has been defined and redefined a million times over, but it differs in the military context to others, because in the military, it’s never about ‘self’; it’s about ‘Naam, Namak, Nishan’, about the Section/Platoon/Squadron, achieving a Section/Platoon/Squadron Objective and ultimately the higher Commanders’ intent.

Additionally, there are huge issues at stake on even a normal day in the service: grave bodily harm, even loss of life, harm to the nation, its sovereignty, independence and its people. Military leaders thus have a different set of goalposts to operate within and protect, wherein they need to think beyond themselves, for a greater task, for the greater good. So, what’s changed? The ‘goalposts’ of the military leadership, for one.

Today’s soldier, of any rank and service, is seldom from a “Traditionally Military Family”, or from rural and solid-stock, who has voluntarily enlisted to serve King & Country with very little personal aspirations, even ambition. Leaders were blindly followed into battle, whatever be the plan and its workability, or even its outcome. The leader knew best, protecting the realm, the country from invaders; this was a sacrosanct oath every soldier had taken on joining and accepting the leader and decisions he made, even at personal risk, was religion.

Today’s enrolment, while still showing glimpses of rural intake, is seeing a huge urban content, of an entirely different upbringing and mindset, than ever before, which is not to do with education alone; it’s to do with “awareness”, and hence the overarching effect on us, as humans and soldiers, of mobile telephones and the Internet. Purely psychologically speaking, in today’s capitalist, fastmoving, lonely world, the only constant friend and support which remains with a person 24×7, like the very air he breathes in, is his mobile phone.

Next is the issue of visibility; today’s officers and men, in units and formations, are operating with much more inter-visibility than ever before. Being from similar initial stock and backgrounds, speaking the same language, following the same customs and traditions, in fact being products of the same capitalist existence, aspects of daily life in different ranks and positions are more transparent and visible to all. And thus, there are some individuals, who assume the mantle of “social watchdogs”, keeping a sharp eye on their systems, its leaders and even their colleagues!

Everything we want to know is in the palm of our hands, a mere click away. Medical diagnoses, automobile and aeroplane construction, self-professed true version of events, procedures and methodology of doing things as diverse as administering villages to corporate institutions and even the military, have become so quantified and reduced to “must-do” bullets, that the impression emerging is that a machine, if it ensured achievement of the laid-down bulleted requirements, would achieve the objective.

There is hence a presumption that decisionmaking would and could best be done by a computer program operating on a super-machine, working on a precedence and data-based historical logic, forced to fit present-day circumstances and environments, of which the maximum conceivable parameters have been prefed into said super-machine! With malice to no profession, I am willing to accept that such a model could possibly work elsewhere, but where it will most certainly not, is in the art and science of the leadership in the military.

Given the circumstances of what the military is expected to do and how, purely quantified and mathematically selected options are not likely to survive the first-shot! We, of the military, accept that to be true, even of the most “ideal” plans we make. Strategy itself, in my opinion, cannot be created by a machine, because it works simply on the principle of predictive decision making, involving more traditional, common and thinking skills, problem-solving and decisionmaking, the ability to recognise assumptions, evaluate arguments and draw conclusions.

Whereas this may have worked effectively up till now, when predictability, linear “environmentthreats-effects” and linear solutions were adequate, this concept has certainly outlived its “use-by” date. Military leadership simply cannot operate on these principles, anymore. For a military leader is different; in addition to hard facts and data, precedence and backgrounder information, technical parameters of weaponry and dynamic battlefield conditions, he uses his knowledge, awareness, training and experiences of various situations and most importantly of the enemy and their Commanders, both during war and in peace-time, to develop possible courses of action.

This forms a picture in his mind, based on which he takes a decision and formulates a plan, which he believes would be the best course of action for success, for his men, his unit, his country. What could go wrong while executing the plan, the maximum number of contingencies and criticalities that may thus emerge and how these must be dealt with, he always includes in his plans.

Now this selected course of action may not have the approval or be to the liking of each soldier or subordinate commander, who may well put forth his views and discuss it at the appropriate existing available platforms the service provides. But after laborious discussion, once the leader has taken the final call, the plan is executed to the best ability of the men and equipment employed in the task. Naturally, detailed execution issues are worked out at successive levels, to ensure that the higher commanders’ intent must be achieved.

All well and good so far, but a few aspects need factoring in; the Internet provides, in the palm of our hand, countless counterarguments for every statement, plan, course of action, irrespective of its context, authenticity, value, factual correctness or possibility of actually achieving success, if employed. And social media ensures that a germ of an idea, in the blink of an eye, goes viral and becomes a popular opinion, whatever be its actual veracity.

Reasons could vary from lack of trust of a leader’s capability, personal dislike, honest disagreement, attempts to undermine a leader or dispensation, in fact relying on the concept of “rumours, repeatedly & forcefully propagated, soon become the new truth”. Mis-information campaigns are not new to the world and social media campaigns are also now being regularly used by certain elements, to undermine the power of a leader over his command and sow the seed of disharmony and discontent among the team/troops.

Tsun Tzu, in The Art of War, has suggested this as one of the surest ways to achieve victory, even over a superior enemy, without having to fire even a single shot. Let’s face it; both are here to stay, the military as well as social media. And they need to co-exist. It is not possible to muzzle or ban one to “protect” the other, as seems to be the thought process in some circles currently. History has proved, time and again, the failure of “prohibition” to enforce a decision and in our present, aware and highly “gadget-based” times, it’s a sure-shot “NO-NO”!

Any corrections or corrective initiatives must be balanced and sensible and must certainly start from the top. And thus, the first and foremost step must be taken by today’s military leadership at all levels; to alter its mindset, develop self-confidence and emotional strength, be transparent in all its dealings (except for purely operational issues, which must remain at suitable “need to know levels”) while simultaneously developing broad shoulders to handle aggressive criticism, even caustic disapproval, nurture in themselves a sharp, agile mind to identify the main issues of discontent and if they display any worthwhile merit, carry out suitable mid-course correction, for the betterment of the team/organisation rather than nurse a hurt-ego.

For feedback, especially from the lower levels of execution, who actually make the particular plan or decision work or fail, is essential for any action to be successful. Remember, at no stage am I suggesting that the military commander submit feebly to public dissonance and cancel a plan or option, because that would instead show him up as weak and he would forever be consigned to being a hostage of the very men he commands, which is not acceptable in the military.

In addition, I believe that an idea or plan could also well be tested through social media, to solicit an opinion feedback regarding its overall acceptability and viability. It is thus quite possible that positive strokes and inputs could well emerge over social media, which could further round off and benefit a decision/plan. Another major plus-point about social media, is its ability to bridge gaps, real and imaginary, and humanise people.

I believe leaders on social media platforms actually become more visible to their commands, their men & subordinates, who are thus able to put a face to the name, rank and appointment of their leaders. This permits the inquisitive minds of today’s soldiers to understand where their leaders are coming from, what they stand for, their way of thinking, etc, cutting through all the stiff barriers of military hierarchy. And that, I believe, is a huge plus!

Bombardment of the leaders with huge loads of posts, messages and emails, can be dealt with by having official handles and addresses of leaders and commanders being made public, rather than personal ones. But for this, there simply has to be a change of mindset in the military. On the flip side, I believe that the heaviest users of social media, military-personnel and their families, also have a huge role to play, if this is to work. It must be clear to them that it is their military, their means of existence, their family.

And like they seldom tweet or forward mindlessly about their individual families at the drop of a hat just because they don’t want to defame or hurt them, they don’t need to defame and hurt their own military on social media either. Most of them do not even realise the huge amount of power they have at their fingertips, the huge outreach. But with great power comes great responsibility. Most issues that go viral on social media are invariably about systemic or organisational ills, or the vilification of senior officers/ commanders.

Frankly, very few people outside the immediate decision-making circle would know details of the issues and intricacies involved in any plan, move or action contemplated. However, a large number of people, nowhere near that planning or decision-making circle, take refuge of the cloak of anonymity provided by social media, to immediately generate a point of view based on their perceived understanding and misgivings of the issue, however detrimental or disruptive to the organisation it may be, vilifying the military, or commander or the entire system, which would quickly go viral.

Hence, a certain degree of understanding, balance and maturity needs to be inculcated in all our soldiers and families, by education about the huge benefits and larger pitfalls of social media, especially with respect to the military, which is the reason de etre’ of their very existence and being. The services banning social media and banning defence personnel from being part it by, is not the answer. I believe we need to accept it as a given and work with it, not against it.

We need to exploit the vast ocean of opportunities it offers, including consensus building, picking the minds of a huge brain-cloud of its user-base, team-building and developing a sense of trust — all of which are so essential to an organisation like the services. It’s also meant for fun, interacting across age and seniority levels, with humour, compassion and bonhomie, even developing the ability to laugh at oneself, not only at others!

I think we need this, to be healthy as individuals and as an organisation, at peace with ourselves and each other, bonded by a deep sense of commitment, faith and understanding of the organisation, each other and ourselves.

Lt Gen D.R. Soni (retd), PVSM, VSM, was the Indian Army Commander—ARTRAC (Army Training Command), and retired as the Indian Army Commander, Southern Command.