The Importance of Taking Initiative

We’re always told that soldiers must adhere to a system of following orders, but if it leads to inaction, there’s no point to obedience.

WrittenBy:Lt Gen H S Panag
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In end December 1964, at the age of 16 years, I was leaving home to join the National Defence Academy, when my father Colonel Shamsher Singh handed me a moth-eaten, four-page booklet, in archaic print, titled A Message To Garcia. He said, “I was given this booklet by my Platoon Commander in the Indian Military Academy in 1940. It contains the essence of leadership. Study it, follow it and enforce it when you are in a position to do so.”

While having my breakfast in the dining car of the Frontier Mail (complete with starched, white linen and good china), I read A Message To Garcia for the first time. It took me no more than five minutes. I read it twice more to digest it. By the time I reached Khadakwasla, I had memorised it.  To date, I consider it the most important lesson of leadership I have ever learnt: In the field of human endeavour the key to success is initiative and its bane is inaction.

A Message to Garcia was written by Elbert Hubbard in the March 1899 issue of the magazine Philistine. It is the most published and the most read essay in the world. Hubbard was a writer, publisher, artist, philosopher and a self-confessed philistine. He wrote this essay in one hour after a dinner-time discussion with his family about the Spanish-American War over Cuba in 1898. Hubbard was to recall later, “The thing leaped from my heart, written after a trying day. The immediate suggestion came from a little argument over tea cups, when my boy Bert [17-year-old Elbert Hubbard Junior] suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing: carried the message to Garcia. It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right! The hero is the man who does his work – who carries the Message To Garcia. I got up from the table and wrote A Message to Garcia.”

Inspired by the message of the essay, George Daniels of the New York Central Railroad, sought permission to reprint and distribute 500,000 copies. Prince Hilakoff, Director of Russian Railways, read one of Daniel’s reprints and had it translated into Russian, and distributed it to every one of his employees. During the war between Russia and Japan in 1904, every Russian soldier who went to the front was given a booklet containing A Message To Garcia. The Japanese found the booklet in possession of every Russian prisoner and had it translated into Japanese.  Thereafter, on an order from Mikado (the Japanese emperor), a copy was given to every Japanese soldier and member of the government. Ultimately, 40 million (some say 100 million) copies in 37 languages of A Message To Garcia were published. At one time, more copies of this essay were in print than any other publication except the bible. It was made into two films, the first a silent one, produced by Thomas A Edison and the second a talkie made in 1936.

Hubbard wrote the essay as an inspirational essay on leadership and work culture. It’s based on a fictionalised version of the exploits of Lt Andrew Summers Rowan who, in April 1898, was tasked by President McKinley through Colonel Arthur Wagner, head of Bureau of Military Intelligence, to deliver a message to General Calixto Garcia, head of the Cuban rebels fighting against the Spanish rule. The President was anticipating a war with Spain over Cuba and wanted to open communications with the Cuban rebels.

Here is an excerpt:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion. When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain vastness of Cuba – no one knew where. No mail nor telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his cooperation, and quickly.

What to do!

Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.

The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing – “Carry a message to Garcia!”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias. …

My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly take the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village – in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed, & needed badly – the man who can carry a message to Garcia.”

I learnt the theory of command and leadership at the National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy and subsequently in service through formal instruction at courses, guidance by superiors and practical experience of command. The scope of the subject is vast as no matter what you equip the men with, they have to be inspired, ordered and led into battle. Thus, every commander is seized of the need to improve the development of the human resource. I was no different and spent long hours to master the intellectual aspects and putting them into practice.

To bring about uniformity, discipline and instant obedience to orders, in the initial stages of service, initiative, independent thought and out-of-the-box thinking are discouraged by design or default. All soldiers start waiting for orders for action to be initiated. As Major Jaswant Singh, former minister, lamented in his memoirs, “The rigidity of the National Defence Academy, killed my free spirit.” Sooner than later, all leaders realise that initiative is the one of the core traits required for success in battle.

The method of decision making, mission selection, issue of orders and manner of execution reflects the command ethos of an army.  Over the centuries two distinct styles have emerged – Directive Style of Command and the Restrictive or Detailed Order Style of Command. Directive Style of Command is inspired by the German concept of Auftragstaktik or Mission Type Orders, also known as Mission Command in NATO forces. This style of Command was evolved over 300 years of war fighting by the German Army. Directive Style of Command lays down the higher commander’s over all intent, specific mission/tasks (a slice of the intent) of the subordinate commanders, earmarks the resources, specifies an enemy/situation and leaves the execution largely to the subordinates with maximum freedom of action. The lower chain of command always knows what is to be done in the absence of orders, as the intent of the higher commander is known to all. The Detailed Order Style of Command, as opposed to the ‘intent’, gives a detailed mission to the higher commander, specifies subordinate missions/tasks in detail, and also lays down the detailed method of execution, giving little or no freedom of action to the subordinates. The former are brief and to the point, and the latter are in as much detail as humanly possible.

The Detailed Order Style of Command is a legacy of the British colonial system wherein the soldiers of the colonised armies were considered illiterate and incapable, and whose actions had to be controlled with detailed orders. This system suited the British and prevented the subordinates from thinking and exercising initiative. An Army without initiative was most suitable to fight primitive wars without posing a threat to the colonial masters.

Directive Style of Command is an intrinsic essential of the Manoeuvre Warfare culture while the Detailed Order Style of Command generally prevails in the Attrition Warfare culture. The former thrives on mutual trust, carefully cultivated over the years, and acceptance of genuine mistakes. The latter prevails in an environment where mistakes are unacceptable and there is lack of faith and trust between the leaders and the led. Directive Style of Command facilitates decentralisation and permits maximum initiative. The lower rung always knows what is to be done in absence of orders. In the Detailed Orders Style of Command initiative can only be exercised in violation rather than in adherence to orders.  Lower rung commanders thrive on inaction and keep waiting.

The basic ingredients of Directive Command are:

  • Common military thought running across the entire chain of command and high standards of intellectual education and training.
  • Mutual faith and trust between the Commander / leaders and the led at all levels. The former has trust that his intent will be carried out and the latter believes that he has the freedom to execute his mission and any mistakes in execution will be acceptable. Trust, in operations translates into truthful reporting from lower to higher levels. In addition, trust also implies that good faith actions will be supported whereas bad faith actions will not be condoned.
  • Exercise of maximum initiative by all ranks and especially Junior Leaders to generate appropriate action under the umbrella of the next Higher Commander’s overall intent and more focused action based on the specific mission assigned. In the absence of an assigned mission the subordinate sets the mission for himself drawing inspiration from ‘intent’ of the Higher Commander and generates appropriate action. Seizing fleeting opportunities in battle is entirely dependent upon initiative.
  • Setting of terminal and enabling objectives by commanders and subordinates for all operational, training adm and personal tasks / activities. These are classified as short term, mid-term and long term or daily/weekly, monthly and trimonthly.
  • Cultivation and maintenance of Regimental Spirit and upholding of basic military values.

All modern armies of the world strive to adopt the Directive Style of Command and our army has also been in the process of adopting and institutionalising the same for the last two decades. Ethos and culture take a long time to reform and it is a continuous process. In Counter Insurgency/Terrorist Operations, the Directive Style of Command has been successfully applied to a large extent and most of the operations are conducted by Small Teams operating independently within the ambit of the overall intent of the higher commander.

As highlighted earlier, seizure of initiative to generate action is the most important ingredient of the Directive Style of Command.  Initiative, in war or any other field of human activity, is essentially a psychological advantage. Couched in terms like “momentum” or “ascendance”, it really always comes down to who is doing what to whom, and a sudden change in that equation will have a stronger effect than that of a gradual building to the same set of circumstances. The expected, when replaced by the unexpected, has a lingering effect. As for the doers, they can get on to other tasks towards achievement of their aim.

Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart used to say that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind was to get the old one out. As we were struggling to switch over to Directive Style of  Command, I realised that A Message To Garcia was its ultimate manifestation. Exactly 93 years after it was written, in early 1996, I personally translated it into Hindi/Roman Hindi and enforced that every soldier under my command will always carry a copy of the abridged version of A Message To Garcia in his pocket. The simplicity of the essay appealed to the soldiers. Carrying it in their pockets ensured a psychological commitment for initiative towards positive action, particularly in absence of orders.

In the last 12 years of my service as a Brigade/Division/Corps/Army Commander (of two Commands), I have commanded nearly 675,000 troops. A Message To Garcia became a buzzword in my formations. The nickname ‘Rohan’ (the troops’ version of ‘Rowan’) became very popular in sub units. The ‘Rohan of the week’ became a trend and part of the units’ culture. I awarded 3,000 Army Commander’s Commendation Cards to the outstanding Rowans.

“Inaction is the most serious crime against the spirit of an army,” said the renowned military thinker, Major General JFC Fuller. The moth-eaten A Message To Garcia, which was given to me in 1964, went a long way in ensuring that no such crime was ever committed by my troops.


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