On Leadership: A Reflection on Officership

I made a good class monitor when I was nine.

I got a shiny golden badge I used to wear to school with pride every day. My job was to stand in front of the class when the teacher was not around and tell everyone to shut the fuck up or I would write their names on the board, and woe betide you if Mr Foo came to class and saw your name on the board.[1]

Today, “leadership” is marketed so frenziedly that when someone actually asks you what a ‘leader’ does, or when you actually have to be a leader yourself, you realise that you don’t actually know what that actually entails.

I’ve had this feeling all my school life. If you look at my report books, bored teachers have consistently spelled out my alleged leadering abilities. I loved the attention. And I think my smart mouth fooled school administrations not once, but twice, when I rose to the position of head prefect in primary school and secondary school.

Stumbled may be a more appropriate word, though. Because despite all appearances, the day(s) I donned the tie labelled HEAD PREFECT, I realised I had little clue what I was doing. It is only many years later, on hindsight, that I perhaps can guess at what the hell a Head Prefect is supposed to do. If you are an ex-teacher of mine reading this, I apologise for bluffing you all these years.

The lure of glory was/is all too seductive. It makes you clamp your mouth shut and pretend you know what you are doing. So for the most part, I bumbled about from one division of the prefectorial board to another, ‘monitoring’ them and seeing that they did their duties. Or something like that.

They say, fake it till you make it. I’m here today not to announce that I have made it, but to announce that fifteen-ish years after I was first appointed class monitor in my Primary Three class, I think I’m  finally on the way. I think I may have a clearer idea, after my first In-Camp Training, back as an NS man, an ostensibly laojiao (old bird) soldier, about what leadership is supposed to be about.

Reservist

Being back in camp and seeing officer cadets running around with that perpetual whipped-dog expression all officer cadets have, or seeing Young Second Lieutenants who looked like they just completed their ‘O’ Levels astonished me. It made me feel unbearably old. Looking across from my NS man bunks to their officer cadet bunks, which I once used to peer longingly out of, made me realise I had, in many ways crossed to the other side.

I had dreaded going back to camp when I first received the call-up notification. My days as a full-time National Serviceman (NSF) as an officer of the Singapore Armed Forces had not been the smoothest period of my life. As a “soldier”, I detested the regimentation, the early mornings, the sticky feeling of sweat between your legs when you are too long outfield. As a commissioned officer, my last few months in my unit had been spent training a team for an outfield evaluation exercise. In the pursuit of an (ostensibly) Higher Purpose I burnt more than a few bridges with the team I commanded. After the Exercise my team finally decided enough was enough, and spelled out in no uncertain terms how I had failed them as an officer, pointing out specific instances and things I had said, at the wrong place and the wrong time. And while we achieved REDCON ONE status due to the (perhaps absurdly and unnecessarily) high standards I had put them up to, the victory was pyrrhic. My men bonded closely, all right. They had bonded against a common enemy, as a well-meaning sergeant tried to explain to me.

It was a damning indictment of my officership. The fabled day of the pink IC was bittersweet. I left my unit in shame, and the glowing testimonial I had received from my Battery Commander had helped little in easing the sharp sting of what my men and my sergeants, who had trained and watched and listened to me for weeks, had said to me. I left my unit feeling like I had failed at the very things I had been commissioned to do: to lead, to excel and to overcome.

Three years on, and the shame has dissipated somewhat. I’d learned to come to grips with how I had (badly) commanded, and somehow the powers-that-be seemed to have offered me a second chance, when I was put in charge of a new group of men. A somewhat fresh start, perhaps.

These few days in camp, I have been thinking about leadership, about the art of officership, and what wearing those black bars on your chest entails. I have thought very hard about it: in the brief interactions I have had, speaking to fellow commanders, listening to the outside lives of my new charges. I offer these reflections on leadership, at the close of my first ICT. The truth is that nobody knows they are shit leaders until they stumble into it. And then if they are lucky, like I was, someone tells you. And if you are luckier (and foolish), you give it another shot.

“To Lead, to Excel, to Overcome”

The sword. The maroon singlet. The hideous sweater that doesn’t make sense in the Singaporean humidity. The commissioning parade. The overseas exercises. The peacocking and strutting around, because all your instructor-officers all look so damn sexy and you want to be as sexy as them when you grow up one day. Most of all, most illogically, that one. Black. Bar. It’s something like that. Oooooo I’m gonna do me some officering and lead my men and be all pals and camaraderie when I commission. It’s a bit like the little girls who always dream of getting married when they grow up and conveniently forget that there has to be a HUSBAND somewhere in that fantasy.[2]

Contrary to misguided expectations, OCS, for the most part, does not teach you how to be a good commander. Despite putting you through nine months of tedious hell, mud and ceremony, you only come out of OCS, for the most part, with a thin, black bar. The more important people skills don’t actually come when you toss that peaked cap into the air. The realisation you need these people skills only comes later, when reality, DOO duties, and extras, come to slap you rudely and unceremoniously in the face.

What is Officer?

I have had three years since I ORD-ed to munch on this question. I had this brief ICT to think about it too. This year with my appointment, on a scale of a few days and weeks, I had the privilege to help plan, organise, delegate and coordinate an event which involved quite a large number of people, both rank superiors and subordinates. This entailed getting them to do things as I envisioned them, listening to their views and modifying initial plans. This entailed coordinating with my direct superior and hoping he wouldn’t come down too hard on me for my mess or blurness (I’m still mildly amused and astonished Wei Sheng felt I had “excellent organising abilities”, with no hint of irony). This entailed delivering briefings, instructions and conclusions to a whole crowd of expectant men who were always watching their officer: how he carried himself, would he look after us, can I depend on him.

Oh, sure you can say all this is going on in my head, I overthink. And indeed I do. But there are also crucial moments where you can feel the weight of nearly a hundred men listening and waiting for your next instruction, the consequences of which could cause a lot of hassle and inconvenience, if not injury. You can almost hear their puzzled thoughts in the wake of whatever command you give, rushing excitedly into the air as they turn to execute whatever you decided – whether it’s to clean their arms, or consume their rations, or to finally action-front and deploy their systems.

As an NSF officer, much of this had escaped me. I’m not too sure what’s changed. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve had a lot of practice recently in talking and reacting to people. Maybe it’s the fact that being a historian-in-training has made me realise that everyone has a story worth telling, a struggle they are facing. Maybe it’s the shame of having failed my men once, and being ever conscious of my past insensitivity.

To be sure, much still remains unpolished, untested. How does one speak to inspire confidence? How does one manage, without micromanaging? How does one be so secure in his own role that he can stand and watch calmly and give his specs the space and time to do their job? How does one make a decision when asked, and not freeze, and not be so afraid of his men judging him for the decision?

What is leadership?

It takes nine months to train and commission a good officer cadet, a meticulous soldier with the ability to survive long weekends, fast marches, and incredibly stupid instructions by their fellow OCTs.  But training a good officer will take up the remainder of his NSF days, and perhaps the rest of his NS cycle, as he interacts, recalibrates, readjusts his style(s) of management, command and control, and people skills.

What is officering? My sword sits at home in a glass case gathering dust. My rank tab costs a few cents more or less than any other rank tab. It rained on my parade, and I never got to toss my peaked cap. You stink just as badly in a No.1, even if the photos make you look good. What is leadership? I don’t think anybody gave a fuck anymore that I wrote their names on the blackboard. My Senior Josephian testimonial reads more like a hagiography of a fictional character than the chipped and salty Ruizhi I am more familiar with. Too often we get lured by the trophy, the tie, the citation, the sword.

I think fundamentally, leadership is about people: how you relate to them, how you listen to them, how you work and manage them. It is the time you take to get to know your men. The difficult decisions you have to make on the spot for the people who depend on you. The plans you have to cancel or change, knowing that whatever you choose someone is going to be unhappy.

I am not a good officer. I am not a good leader. And so, I am still learning, and still tweaking. This ICT, I begin to see that the Officer’s Creed/Motto is perhaps not about helping yourself be the best, so that your men cannot complain you are a slackerdog officer. Maybe it isn’t about whether the officer leads, excels and overcomes.

Maybe it’s about how the officer inspires his men to lead, to excel, and to overcome.

 

 

 

[1] Of course I didn’t say ‘fuck’ in those days. When you are in primary school, ‘Fuck’ could only be used if you included the caveat that it was EXAMPLE ONLY EXAMPLE ONLY

[2] Like the latter fantasy, you are unexpectedly fucked over sometimes too…

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