Once, the commanding officer (CO) of a unit read in the papers of a complete solar eclipse the next day. Since it was a rare phenomenon, he summoned his adjutant and instructed him, “Tomorrow is a complete solar eclipse at 9am. This doesn't happen often and I think the troops should witness it.”
The adjutant summoned the subedar adjutant (SA) to issue daily orders: “Tomorrow at precisely 09.00 hours the sun is going to disappear. This doesn't happen often. The CO has ordered that all ranks witness it. Assemble the troops in the drill square at 08.45.”
Next, the SA called the company sergeant majors (CHMs): “Tomorrow morning at sharp 00.90 hours the sun will disappear. This is CO's orders. This doesn't happen often, so all ranks will assemble in the Drill Square in number one ceremonial dress at 08.30 hours.”
The CHMs relay orders to their platoon havildars: “On CO's orders, tomorrow morning at sharp 09.00 the sun will disappear. This doesn't happen often. All jawans will assemble at the Drill Square at 08.15 hours in full ceremonial inspection order to witness it.”
Finally, the platoon havildars relay the orders to their respective platoons: “Tomorrow morning at sharp 09.00 hours, the CO will disappear. All jawans will assemble at the drill square at 08.00 hours in full inspection ceremonial dress to witness this. It is a pity this doesn't happen more often.”
Apart from a good guffaw, this joke, like all army jokes, packs profound management and leadership wisdom, highlighting fault lines in organisational culture whose impact is anything but funny.
The strategy of an organization flows from the top. Directions are communicated to the rest through myriad official and unofficial channels. In most organizations, official instructions are not always trusted, as they are perceived to be controlled by the management for its own agenda. And there is often good reason for this mistrust, given multiple instances of doublespeak from the top leadership, broken promises or violations of traditional covenants. Hence, an organization's rank and file tend to go by a blend of communication received from various channels, which could include media reports, hearsay by partners and vendors, the voice of internal doubters, grapevines and also what they construe on the basis of their own experiences and psychological dispositions.
Gaps at every stage of communication often corrupt the original true intent, allowing unintended consequences to creep in. If strategic decision-makers are far removed from the play-out of their decisions, these are more likely to be ignorant, insensitive and even brutal and counterproductive in some cases.
Ordering law enforcement agencies to tackle a situation with 'a strong hand', for example, can translate to injuries, deaths and bereaved families. A corporate call to optimize its workforce can result in lost livelihood for thousands of workers, causing a cascade of distress down the pyramid. This is not the fault of these leaders per se, it's just that they don't experience the consequences of their decisions at an empathetic level.
Strategic leaders must therefore focus on the fidelity of their communication channels to ensure its efficacy. This is especially true in today's era of remote collaboration that is short of intangible inputs such as body language, command presence, team vibe and morale signals.
Spending physical time at the front lines also enables leaders to oversee the translation of their strategic intent into tactical operations first hand, spot opportunities and make corrections in strategy and policy communication.
There is a story of a supermart which required its senior leaders to spend one day every year as a front-line workers. Legend has it that during her stint, the CFO noticed she had to twirl every item a couple of times to align its barcode to the reader. She immediately instructed that the barcode be printed on all sides of product packaging, thus saving seconds and effort in every transaction. The combined knowledge of even the most experienced checkout agents and reams of management information systems would have never spotted this opportunity of making a big difference to annual efficiency. It needed a strategic leader spending time on the ground.
Another structural method to ensure better communication is for leaders to be 'as forward as possible'. In military terms, this means that higher headquarters should be close to the battle-lines so that communication loops and timelines are the shortest. In companies, this implies minimum layers of bureaucracy, easy accessibility of senior leaders (both in the physical and psychological senses), and a safe environment that is open to dissent and disruptive ideas.
However, the nature of some organizations, especially large ones, is that misalignment and insecurity among leaders dissipates energy while reducing mind-share and trust between hierarchical layers and ironically even within the same bracket. Most organizations seem paranoid about information leaking out to the competition. It is true that information security is important and a loss of secrecy can cause serious damage. However, organizations lose far more value because their own information does not reach their front lines.
And it is indeed a pity that like the army anecdote, this is what happens much too often.
Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of 'Everyman's War'.