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

A recent discussion with young and mid-level defence officers revealed that most officers seem quite disappointed with the military “top brass” – especially with the way they seem to toe the line of politicians and bureaucrats even to the detriment of their men and veterans like in the “One Rank One Pension” (OROP) issue and other cases.

This reminded me of an article I had written 3 years ago on the root cause of “YES-MAN” LEADERSHIP in the military.

Here is the article – once more – for you to read and ponder over…


A Spoof





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: 


Hence – in the Defence Services – 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 Defence Services.

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 – especially – 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 he 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 “yesmanship” 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 Defence Services?



Copyright © Vikram Karve 

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