Monday, May 5, 2014

On Leadership

When I decided to become an officer, I didn't really know what that role entailed. I chose to be one because I  was disgusted with some officers during BMT and thought I could do a better job. So when the OCS-suitability initiative tests came, I did not hesitate. I also felt confident going in after having been a student leader all my school life (being prefect, class rep, sports captain, etc) . I and Kum Fatt were also quite the leaders for our BMT platoon and well liked. So even if I was somehow not selected, I knew they could not refuse me. I would make a case. But that was not necessary; I got in together with quite a number of my mates from Platoon 17. A few good fellas from my platoon did pointedly refuse to enrol for OCS. They were already frightened by our extra tough BMT course and had no desire to endure more, no thanks to our Mad Dog PC's old-fashioned ways.

Arriving at OCS we were met by a couple of creeds emblazoned over our barrack entrances and elsewhere:  "To Lead Is An Honour", "Who Dares, Succeeds", "Excellence in Everything We Do", etc, - virtues we were all proud to call our own and hold our heads high to. We felt the shine but had yet to be put through the polish. At that moment, we all believed OCS would somehow turn us into leaders, and men, of extraordinary honour. (My mom would put that down to "that new toilet feeling".)

The New Cadet Initiation Ceremony did the same; fortunately there was little ragging. We were assembled and put through the usual regimental paces all the while being shouted at and reminded of OCS creeds. I remember flaming torches lining the sides of an entrance to one cadet barrack. It was suitably tribal and flickered with the gravitas of how life can be gone in a flicker of a moment in combat. "Your men's lives are like that flame that's easily extinguished. Either by your enemies or by your actions. Indecision can kill. Can you make that decision under fire?" was what I imagined the light to be asking of me as I stood there listening to another senior cadet bark his head off about another stirling officer value. 

I am not good with barkers nor unreasonable people. But I could be Teflon and let it slip. Push me somemore and I might just bite back. I wondered then if there were more barkers then reasonable instructors at OCS. Of course, the Tactics Team instructors there would give me plenty to think about later.

As initiation ceremonies go the one I went through in OCS was bearable. Well, at least it wasn't cruel. When I entered university, the initiation ceremonies were terrible. It was boot camp all over again. Worse, the 'drill sergeants' would be less-than-pleasant sophomore girls who knew nits about anything closely resembling an initiation rite. All they knew to do was shout at us as they jogged us round the university campus interspersed with "Give me 20!" drop-'em-down push-ups.

We freshmen boys who had just spent the previous 2 1/2 years in National Service were naturally quite cheesed off. It's no wonder many of us quit after the first day.

A friend was less fortunate and continued to be buggered by these Communist-type robot girls. The reason was that he stayed in one of the campus hostels and was thus obliged to do his bit as part of a fraternity group. But my friend just couldn't be bothered. When the rude sophormore girl came back a second time to harass him, he put on his best Hokkien Peng imitation and kaninabeh'ed her to the wall. I think he also waved a beer bottle threateningly. Haha, what a guy! But the ploy worked. Nobody bothered him again after that, certainly not that girl who turned green and almost peed in her pants.

Naturally, the first person we hoped to learn leadership from was our OCS platoon commander, Capt Ang. But he did not fit most strong leadership types. Granted he was his own man, he was rather chubby and fair. He had a rather kindly but impatient face and he was not given to long inspiring speeches. He just asked us to not let him lose face.

A bit odd, if you had asked me then.

We cadets looked at one another and wondered which part of China he came from, or which dynasty!

Imagine us sending troops into battle the next time with the simple instruction: "Eh, don't make me lose face."

Could it be that simple?

Well, Capt Ang turned out to be quite unlike any of the officers we met in OCS. He was also very different from the other two platoon commanders in our cadet Delta Company. The three of them did not mix well. I may have my complaints about Captain Ang but the one thing I liked about him was he was a guy you could talk to. And I liked his chop-chop no nonsense efficient manner. This man would cut corners. Were all tank commanders like that? I wondered then. (Capt Ang did arrive at OCS from the Armour Division. OCS then was like a halfway house for officers on the up.)

One of the platoon commanders in our Delta Company was very salesman-like. The other was a commando who really did resemble the square-jawed, well-built leader type. But he too spoke like a Chinese helicopter similar to Captain Ang and sounding not too confident in English. I don't know, maybe I had by then been too weaned on too many American war movies to know better.

In any case, Capt Ang did the unusual thing of letting us manage ourselves. His only guiding light was: "Don't make me lose face."

In the end, we had a marvellous (but no less tough) time in OCS. And we succeeded beyond anybody's imagination. The Sword of Honour, the Knowledge Prize and the Fitness Prize all came from our platoon of misfits. We could tell that the other two platoons of mostly government scholars were grudgingly admiring, after all, 'they' were supposed to be the better ones. But what to do, they probably had one too many creeds to live up to; we only had the single DON'T MAKE ME LOSE FACE!

They should have saved all that paint in OCS and just written this one maxim on all its lecture hall walls and elsewhere (the cookhouse, for example). If you consider it seriously, this message does carry itself quite well from self to unit to country. Essentially it just means to "do somebody proud!" And that 'somebody' starts with you!


In hindsight, Capt Ang's approach was very Modern-day management. It forced us to work among ourselves and listen to the natural leaders in our midst. Was that his aim???

At the end of our OCS Junior Term (the first three months), the really hopeless (e.g. fitness not good, too quiet, too weird, etc) were weeded out.

By the end of Senior Term, it was the meek that really went. Even assholes passed. So, if you want to pass OCS, make sure you speak your mind and stand up to be counted. How did the assholes pass when there was a peer-review towards course end? Well, my answer is that this small country needs officers. And educated officers are hard to come by in our wee populace. The army is not going to fail someone just because nobody liked him. They could always post the bugger to Military Police or Logistics! 


When we finally graduated from OCS with that single gold bar, it was with pride of achievement and also a sense of trepidation. I know some of the guys were more confident and wore their 2nd Leutenant bars like seasoned officers. As a person, I felt no different. Instead, I wondered how my relationship with the enciks (senior NCOs) would be like. I knew that they were better commanders of men then I ever hoped to be at that point in time. They should be wearing bars on their epaulettes instead of being subordinate to new officer me. At times, I think I could sense their disappointment of being stuck in their rank and role... which was why later the army made the change to let senior Enciks attain the rank of Captain - if they so desired. Some refused for economic reasons: they could lose their contract gratuity and also NCO rank benefits which was (in total) much better than the executive pay of a captain's. 


So, at the end of the OCS course, did I learn anything about leadership on the battlefield? 

I know I learnt field craft; I know I learnt tactics. But as to leadership, I think the practical aspects were very limited. It was all about values and being an example to your men. 

I subsequently learnt more when I was retained to be an instructor in OCS soon after graduation. I opted to be a Demolition Team instructor and hence had more free time than those who became Mentors (our instructor batch became the first Mentors in OCS's history). Mentors were assigned to the cadet platoons and company and followed them throughout the 9-month training. We from the Demo Team was on a per training lesson basis. After a training lesson, we would head back to our office and "own time, own target." 

With the free time I had I sometimes headed down to the Infantry HQ library which was in the first building you'll encounter entering SAFTI Pasir Laba Camp. The books there were of a wide range and very interesting. Being starved of leadership examples, I began to read more the personal accounts of officers who went through battle. Most were very touching and even heartwrenching.

In the early 90s, when books on the Vietnam War started appearing, the accounts were even more illuminative. Those battles in the dense jungles of Vietnam better mirrored our own lansdscape and so I absorbed the stories like an eager sponge.

I was particularly drawn to officers who fought battles based on commonsense and instinct. The Americans lost the Vietname War not because of the mass media back home, but because they fought it using WWII tactics of open plains and attrition. Some of the higher echelons officers were also vain. Not having fought in the Korean War, some were eager to gain recognition by engaging in the Vietnam War. In any battle, if you don't fight smart, you would most likely end up on the losing side.

The Vietcon, less equipped and outgunned, fought smart and won.

Remember, they beat the French first at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 before they engaged the Americans.


So, what have I learned about leadership from all those first-person account stories from both commanders and reporters covering the wars?

1. Find out the background of the men who will be under your charge. If they are babies fresh from some farm in Minnesota then you have your work cut out for you.

2. Tactics. Are you using outdated tactics from a bygone era? Can higher command teach you new tricks?

3. Lay of land. So, you have men, you have weapons. How best can you use them in the terrain against the enemy? 

4. Acclimitisation. Are you and your men well adjusted enuf to perform in the area of ops? In the Vietnam War, the US troops were not familiar with the weather, vegetation and even the insects of the jungle; not to mention the inscrutable Vietnamese villagers.

5. Enemy. How smart is your enemy? Never underestimate them. There is always a smartaleck, chest beating patriot amongst them who will give you and your men intense challenges.

6. Are your men trained to react to immediate fire? Rehearse and rehearse again. Give your men rest, but do not become complacent. Even a revision on simple first aid (like arterial compression) is desired.

7. Be flexible. Instead of operating as a platoon, would it be better to operate as a three-men squad on a more regular basis?

8. Don't hate your enemy. Know him well enuf to beat him so he will not get up to screw you again. He is the combatant, not a voodoo from hell. Move on. Pick up a souvenir or two for a job well done.

9. Intel. Intel on enemy area mines is very important - during war and post-war when they have to be removed. Same applies for booby traps. Share captured intel quickly.

10. Be moral. Make sure your men are always on their best behavour. Do not tolerate beastly behaviour. Your men are soliders and combatants first and foremost. The Vietnam War has several cases of villager abuse and massacre, same as in the Iraq War. I know this is a very difficult area to manage, but less misunderstanding is always desired. Sometimes I feel the army PR machine can do more in this aspect.

11. Training. Train your men to work as a unit. Train them to function well under you. Remember, Basic Training is never good enuf from boot camp. 

12. TubeTime. This is my concept devised from Project Management. Basically time is imagined as a tube. You enter the engagement one end, you exit the other. Most time, men in battle lose sense of time and purpose. TubeTime informs them how long they are giving their life to a project/war so activities are planned and chopped up to make sure everything runs smoothly. TubeTime in combat can help to fight fatigue, keep focus, maintain a sense of normality. Note: Your men typically have short attention spans. Keep them 'heads-up' just enough to maintain focus. With your NCOs you can 'vision' more.


I have a Master in Technology In Management and know a thing or two about Corporate Leadership. While some tenets are the same, Military Leadership is a whole new ball game. There's peace time leadership and there's also war time leadership. Prepare yourself well.

(Afternote: After some further thought, this analogy came to me: Battlefield leadership training is a bit like Martial Arts training. When you ask folks why they learn, for example, Karate, they will say: "So as to defend myself better." Well, that is the general purpose, but martial arts training is about repetition and muscle memory. It is about reacting instinctively to any attack and producing the appropriate response. A punch from an aggressor will elicit a block and counter attack. - Why Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do is so deadly. His reactionary moves are so blindingly fast and always striking painful areas. So I think battlefield leadership is about being well trained to react to what the enemy might throw at you. And why training and rehearsals are important, even out in the field.) Add-on: There's a Chinese saying: 兵无常势,水无常形 - 'Military has no fixed situations, water has no fixed shape' - in other words, be adaptable. ;-) 

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