Humor in Uniform – The “Yes-Man” Leader

Academic and Creative Writing Journal Vikram Karve: Humor in Uniform – “YES-MAN” LEADERSHIP – Paradox of Military Promotion System.

Link to my original post in my Academic and Creative Writing Journal:…

“YES-MAN” LEADERSHIP – Paradox of Military Promotion System

A recent discussion with young and mid-level officers who seemed quite disappointed with the “top brass” reminded me of an article I had written 3 years ago – so here it is – once more – for you to read and ponder over…

Ramblings of a Retired Mind



If you wonder why – at times – the military leadership seems clueless on taking decisions well within their purview – and seeks “guidance” from politicians and bureaucrats – maybe the answer lies in the promotion policies of the Military Human Resource (HR) Management System.

The promotion policy of the Defence Services is based on the premise:

“Good Followers make Good Leaders”

Yes – promotion in the military is based on absurd logic – a contradiction in terms – on the non sequitur:

“You have to learn how to follow in order to lead”

Is this statement not an incongruity in itself?

How can the ability to lead depend on the ability to follow ?

It is just like saying that – the ability to swim depends on the ability to sink

Good Followers carry out decisions made by others. 

Followers are required to blindly obey orders without questioning.

Good Followers are not expected to use their own ingenuity.

They must simply “do what they are told”.

Good Followers must never act on their own initiative or “make waves” or “rock the boat”.

To put it in a nutshell – Good followers are “yes-men”.

Ironically – the basic hypothesis of the military promotion system is: “good followers make good leaders”

Hence – in the military – it is mostly “yes-men” who rise up the promotion ladder – and hence – it is mostly “yes-men” who get catapulted to leadership positions in the military.

Ideally – in theory – “officer-like-qualities” – like professional competence, integrity, patriotism, honesty, straightforwardness, single-mindedness-of-purpose, brashness, and the ability to call a spade a spade, by bluntly speaking out your mind – are desirable in combat officers.

However – in practice – especially in peacetime cantonment soldiering – these very same idealistic “officer-like-qualities” may adversely affect the career prospects of an officer – in comparison to his more “tactful” morally-pliable peers – who “ego-massage” their superiors – practice “yes sir yes sir three bags full sir” yesmanship – and grovel with sycophancy in front of their seniors.

Well – I have seen this happen in the military services – but when I see so many “yes-men” masquerading as leaders in the civilian world too – especially in politics and bureaucracy – it seems that this absurd non sequitur paradox“Good Followers make Good Leaders” is universal in nature.



In his book  “On The Psychology of Military Incompetence”  Norman Dixon quotes Liddell Hart:

“A lifetime of having to curb the expression of original thought culminates so often in there being nothing left to express”.

In his book Himalayan Blunder – a fascinating war memoir of the 1962 Conflict between India and China in which India suffered a humiliating defeat – Brigadier JP Dalvi mentions that a Corps Commander was sacked because “he refused to be as a dog in obedience and a lion in action” and was replaced by a more pliable General.

An apt metaphor:

How can the same person be expected to be an “obedient dog” and “ferocious lion”…?

How can you have a split personality like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…?

You can either be an “obedient dog” – or a “ferocious lion” – isn’t it?

In the military – after grovelling and bootlicking for 30 years to “earn” his promotion to high rank – how can you suddenly expect an officer to instantaneously metamorphose from a “dog in obedience” to a “lion in action”…?

With continuous dedicated practice of good “followership” – meek obedience becomes your trait – and subservient yes-man-ship becomes ingrained in your nature – which you cannot change overnight.

Once “yesmanship” becomes your natural trait  you will continue to be a good follower  irrespective of whatever rank or level of authority you attain.

There is truth in the saying:

Once a “yes-man” always a “yes-man”.

Good followers are competent at carrying out orders – while good leaders are competent at making decisions and giving orders.

Yes – a leader is required to take decisions.

And – “Yesmanship” stifles decision making ability.

Sadly – thanks to the military promotion system – in their quest for promotion at any cost – ambitious officers fall victim to the “ACR Syndrome” – since promotion is solely dependent on the all important ACR (Annual Confidential Report) – and this “ACR Syndrome” promotes “yesmanship” in the services.  

In the long term – continuous practice of “yesmanship” kills leadership qualities.

With the proliferation of “yesmanship” – it is no surprise that – instead of becoming more and more mentally forceful as they become senior – some highly ambitious officers start becoming spineless – due to their servility to the powers-that-be – as they crave for career-success – and even yearn for post-retirement sops.

Thus – by the time they reach high rank – long years of submissiveness severely compromises their mental robustness – and this may affect their command capability – especially in a crisis.

You cannot expect an officer to be a “dog in obedience” and a “lion in action” at the same time.

Similarly – once a junior officer who is a “lion in action” gets slowly converted into a “dog in obedience” as he gets senior – it is difficult to instantly re-convert the “dog in obedience” back into a “lion in action”.

Thus – when a yes-man is promoted to a leadership position – he cannot take decisions himself – and hence – he keeps running to his superiors for even the smallest of issues – though these decisions may well be within his purview.

Is this not visible in the senior military leadership of today – who keep running to their political and bureaucratic masters – seeking advice for decisions – which may well be within their scope or may be purely tactical or military in nature?

The “One Rank One Pension” (OROP) imbroglio is an example of this.

Do you see this lack of good decision making capability in the political and civilian leadership as well?


Many of the greatest military leaders throughout history – who achieved success on the battlefield and victories in war – were notoriously poor followers – especially in peacetime soldiering. 

In fact – in many cases – had it not been for war – many of them may not even have been promoted. 

One such example in India is Field Marshal Manekshaw – who may have retired as a Major General – had it not been for the 1962 war.

Let me end with a quote:

Thousands of moralists have solemnly repeated the old saying that only he can command who has learnt to obey.
It would be nearer the truth to say that only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey.
~ William McDougall, Character and the Conduct of Life (1927)

Dear Reader: What are your views on “YESMANSHIP” versus LEADERSHIP?

Do you feel that “yes-men” can make good leaders – especially in the military?

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
1. If you share this post, please give due credit to the author Vikram Karve
2. Please DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. Please DO NOT Cut/Copy/Paste this post
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright Notice:
No part of this Blog may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Blog Author Vikram Karve who holds the copyright.
Copyright © Vikram Karve (All Rights Reserved)

© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

This article is an updated version of my article first posted online by me Vikram Karve on 28 April 2013 at 4/28/2013 02:35:00 PM in my Academic and Creative Writing Journal blog at url:… and also revised version at url:…  with an extract from my article on MILITARY LEADERSHIP posted online at url:…

Now Re-Posted by Vikram Karve at 7/29/2015 01:44:00 PM

Please comment. I appreciate your feedback.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: