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Indian Leadership Culture

Indian culture is a curious conglomeration of beliefs, some which are religious, and some which are demographic in nature. The challenge is to strike a balance between the seemingly conflicting demands of the various groups of people. The composition of the Indian Armed Forces in general and the Indian Navy in particular, reflects India's diversity. Any ship or establishment, irrespective of size would invariably have personnel hailing from diverse religious, linguistic, ethnic and regional backgrounds. The need therefore is to understand this cultural diversity, the factors which bring about unity in this diversity and the appropriate means to harness it in order to enhance effectiveness.

All sailors from Bengal want to celebrate Durga Puja and all sailors from Kerala want to be home for Onam. In between there are the agonistic few who seem to be happy to perpetually remain on board ship. The Divisional Officer is on the first rung of the decision making process. It is his decision of recommending or not recommending a sailor's request that will decide how strong the fabric of camaraderie is woven in the ship. In the strictly hierarchical structure of the Navy, a tremendous authority is vested in the Divisional Officer to take decisions and subsequently demand subordinates to implement them. The Indian culture is one such culture where there is a inherent reluctance to question decisions and authority. The immediate task is to convert this resigned acceptance into tacit approval of authority.

Every individual looks for achievement, recognition, advancement and growth. Basically everyone wants to do a job well in order to satisfy the ever-present inner urge of being accepted by the society in general and the peers in particular. The behaviour of every individual is strongly influenced by what he believes. Optimal results can be achieved by bringing about a confluence of the righteous and the desired. Righteousness in Indian culture is defined and encompasses values, which are invariably cherished by all Indians without being burdened by any constricting strictures.

Some of the more important of these values are as follows: -

  • Honour (Izzat).
  • Patriotism (Desh Bhakti)
  • Honesty and Integrity (Imandari)
  • Loyalty (Wafadari)
  • Competence (Qabliyat)
  • Unity (Ekta)
  • Courage (Himmat)

Compared to the western countries spatial mobility is restricted in India. Languages and regionalism constrain movement to distant places. Family and social obligation create a condition of social gravitation whereby Indians tend to move towards and live at home base. Many have roots in their village. Others may have ageing parents to attend to, children to marry, house to construct and relatives to take care of. Indians feel more comfortable in their small groups and social collectives. Because they live in close proximity for years, often for generations, they tend to interact continuously and at several levels. The interactions leads to social comparisons - comparisons of material resources, relationships, positions, roles, almost everything that socially and personally matters.

Indian culture is also authoritative. Indians manifest a certain amount of rigidity in our social and interpersonal conduct. The social do's and don'ts are sharply defined and conformity to them is demanded in many spheres of life. A strong need also exists for power and status and hierarchy is emphasised. The Indian need for power is also very strong. Thus, in the Indian Navy, a smaller power differential between a Divisional Officer and Divisional Chief creates tension in both. The Officer unwittingly tries to increase the distance by cutting the Chief down to the smallest possible size by interacting directly with the sailors. The Chief on his part resists this by building his own, and separate power base and loses no opportunity to complain about the by passing of laid down channels of authority.

As individuals Indians are very prone to being dependent. That is, Indians tend to seek support, guidance and encouragement even in situations where they are perfectly capable and competent to make decisions and function without being patted on the back. However dependence-prone persons may be induced to work hard, take initiative and risks, and even behave in an independent fashion. The more dependent prone an individual is the more he would be very receptive to the expectations of others, particularly of those who served as the role models. Officers are certainly the most salient role model. Indian culture is also more affective rather than being rationally oriented. So the need was for behavior modification of the young officers so that they could build expectations in their subordinates to work efficiently and sincerely, and if necessary to take initiative and risks. There is also a need for Officers to be charismatic so that he can charge his subordinates emotionally and the latter can develop faith in him and follow his directives implicitly.

Preference for hierarchy is another typical characteristics. Castes are hierarchically arranged, as are states of mind, animate and inanimate objects. Even Indian gods and goddesses have a hierarchy. Psychologically Indians feel more comfortable in a superior-subordinate relationship then in a peer relationship. The status for hierarchy manifests itself in a strong status orientation. Seniors and superiors are respected and obeyed. They are listened to more deferentially. They are expected to make decisions, which their juniors and subordinates are in turn expected to implement.

Preference for hierarchy also fosters dependence proneness. The superiors and seniors create conditions where dependency is unavoidable or appreciated. The dependent ones are rewarded and independent subordinates are suspected and distanced. It is because of this that the subordinates seem to push the leaders further towards paternalism. They expect it, relish it, and feel motivated by a leader who functions as a benevolent figure. The genesis of this relationship probably goes back to the early socialisation process, which makes even the adults in India strive for the father's approval. The father as the head of the family is respected and obeyed since he helps, guides, reprimands and encourages self-sacrificing behavior.

The Officer has to work with human relationships and the modes of such relationship are embedded in the surrounding culture. His behavior has to be prototypical of the broader societal modes of superior-subordinate, senior-junior, elder-younger and the primordial father-son relationships. Because the modes are quite basic to the socialisation process and are acquired quite early in one's life, they are taken for granted and are not explicitly articulated. In the Indian context this leads to a nexus between patronage and loyalty. This often works as a grapevine often disregarding the formal hierarchical authority lines. The grapevine is useful in many ways. It provides subordinates special ladders for advancement and avenues for extracting even undeserved favours. In his turn the leader can collect information-even confidential information-quickly. He can mobilise loyal subordinates and get things done even without organisational support. The superior has obligations too. He must help, protect and guide his subordinates.

However the ever-present danger is the coexistence, with paternalism, of the Mughal syndrome in the Indian psyche. The son respects and obeys his father so long as the father remains head and shoulder above his son, is affectionate to him and is willing to make sacrifices for him. Once the father stoops to partisan politics, the son, like many Mughal princes, is compelled to overthrow his father and usurp authority. The father at the first inkling of the loss of his son's loyalty is also likely to retaliate.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:42:57 ZULU