The following are extracts from a speech made by former Sri Lanka Air Force Commander and Ambassador to Afghanistan RWP, RSP, VSV, USP, Mphil, MSc, ndc, psc Air Chief Marshal (Retd) Gagan Bulathsinghala at the Late Deshamanya Gen. Denis Perera oration recently.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable INTEGRITY.
Without it, no real success is possible.
No matter whether it is on a section, gang, a football field, in an army or in an office!”
Thus was stated by the former US President and Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces in WW 2, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Reflecting on the illustrious career of the late Deshamanya Gen. Denis Perera, one sees an outstanding leader whose lifetime principle was integrity of the highest order personifying exemplary moral courage to do what is needed and what is right, while being an officer and gentleman, par-excellence. Young Master Denis Perera was educated at St. Peter’s College, Colombo and excelled as a multifaceted student both in academics and sport. In 1949, at the age of 19, he answered the call to the profession of arms to join the then young Ceylon Army.
Young Master Denis Perera’s mothers dream was for her son to a join a monastery and become a Priest due to her strong faith in the religion. However, an uncle of Master Perera, who was in the Ceylon Police, saw him more, as soldier material and convinced his parents for him to join the Ceylon Army.
The General received his initial military training at Mons Officer Cadet School, UK and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He was also a graduate of the British Army’s Staff College, Camberley and the National Defence College of India. In 1977, at the age of 46, he was bestowed the twin honours of being the first Sapper officer and also the youngest officer ever to be made the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army.
On retirement, Gen. Perera continued to serve the nation and the corporate sector, first as the High Commissioner to Australia, and later as Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, and as Chairman of Ceylon Tobacco Company, and two other high end Companies. In the year 2000, acknowledging his meritorious service to the nation he was bestowed by the title, ‘Deshamanya’. He was next elevated as a Four Star General in the year 2000.
Gen. Perera was well known to be a shrewd strategist and a sound leader who always lived up to the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, ‘Serve to Lead’. Gen. Perera remains a role model for officering in the armed forces of Sri Lanka.
In 2010 I had an interesting experience when I flew with Gen. Perera and his gracious Lady to attend the golden Jubilee 3 celebrations of the National Defence College, of India. Though he had hung up his uniform some time back, I felt that he remained a hardcore General by the way he expressed his thoughts on military traditions. Every conversation I had with Gen. Perera made me feel proud as a military officer. It was very apparent that he was most upright and proud of the profession of arms.
He professed that a military officer should never lean against any one or be a shadow to any one and must stand up firm for what is right.
I am very confident that this august audience needs no elaboration on Gen. Perera‘s role in establishing the KDU. Gen. Perera pioneered and triggered the conversion of the ‘Kandawala Estate’ into the esteemed Military University it is today. It was indeed fitting that Gen. Perera himself was appointed the first Chancellor after it became a University.
The Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (ARFRO), which has brought us together this evening, was another successful effort of Gen. Dennis Perera. It is a member of the esteemed Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka and is affiliated to the World Consultative Association of Retired Generals, Admirals & Air Marshals. A truly worthy outfit to be in, for military veteran of Flag rank after a retirement.
Gen. Perera, was a passionate leader, a visionary and a professional, whose life is worthy of celebration at the highest level.
Considering the epitome of military officering in Sri Lanka whom this oration is dedicated to, I chose as my discourse the obvious attributes practiced by him.
General Collin Powell, the former US Secretary of State said: “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”
From the very beginning of civilization, when mankind engaged in war fighting, the officer was the nucleus and the pivot around which the rank and file rallied for guidance, direction and leadership.
The contemporary armed forces are ramping up their efforts to groom a capable breed of officers. It is the need of the day that this effort should persist from the moment an officer joins, as it is only knowledge and its continuous application that will make one perfect. In this context I would like to quote Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do; Excellence, therefore is not an act but a habit”. Integrity is defined as, ‘The quality of truthfulness, honesty and maintaining of moral standard’. Integrity then, should not be considered a mere attribute, but a virtue to live by for any officer.
An officer is entrusted with; state secrets relating integrity of a nation and the lives of the public and the men he leads. If an officer is found to be dishonest or disloyal, it means that his character has two sides and one will manifest to suit the circumstance, to meet his personal liking and not the common Goal.
I am very confident that this august audience needs no elaboration on Gen. Perera‘s role in establishing the KDU. Gen. Perera pioneered and triggered the conversion of the ‘Kandawala Estate’ into the esteemed Military University it is today. It was indeed fitting that Gen. Perera himself was appointed the first Chancellor after it became a University
Therefore General Eisenhower’s’ edict that “Integrity is the supreme quality of leadership” is underscored with no doubt. Even though midway, I need to make a disclaimer that I will generalise in relation to gender and refer to military personnel as HE or HIM, only to make life easier for me in this discourse and in no way lessen the immense contribution of the ladies in our profession.
Professionalism is the next attribute of officering that I endeavor to relate to.
If I may quote General Charles De Gaulle (Galle), the decorated French Soldier and President describes the men of our profession as: “Men who adopt the profession of arms submit to their own free will to a law of perpetual constraint of their own accord.
If they drop in their tracks, if their ashes are scattered in the four winds that is all part and parcel of their job.”
The contemporary military culture is far distanced from the traditional forms of war fighting, as cyber space, smart equipment and proactive tactics have encroached at a rapid pace.
However technology cannot and will not replace the concept of professional officering. Thus the military needs a corps of highly skilled technology savvy officers to command them in tomorrow’s uncertain environment.
The men, the officer of today, is called upon to command, are technology savvy, well educated, socialised and have grown up in a free thinking environment.
The opponents of peace, the officer of today will be called upon to confront, are shrewd exponents of asymmetric warfare and are capable of well strategised operations. They have learned and trained to exploit technology and the human mind, with much precision and process to achieve their ideological objectives. Their standard modus operandi is to attack the social fabric at the same time from many directions.
In this context it is imperative for the officer who leads from the front to develop knowledge and all round capacity that includes ‘outside ones lane’ knowledge. At the end of the day, the most important and cardinal characteristic a professional needs to have is the knowledge and competence in one’s own field.
The legendary Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, of the Indian army once said: “..... you cannot be born with professional knowledge and professional competence even if you are a child of a Prime Minister, or the son of an industrialist or the progeny of a Field Marshal. Professional knowledge and professional competence have to be acquired by hard work and constant study.”
Due to the uncertainty, the high stress levels, and the continuously evolving threats to the society he serves, an officer’s professional competence must be at the highest level at all times.
For this it is necessary, that the appropriate candidates only be selected to hold the commission, and the aspects of their selection, training, assigning and evaluation, given the highest precedence of priority by the authorities concerned.
Incompetent and unprofessional officers who are unsuitable to lead men and incapable of rational decision making should not be tolerated in any military institution.
The popular edict goes on to say that “there are no bad soldiers, but only bad officers”
Professionalism for an officer is not only knowing the job, but it also relates to the discipline and decorum that he and his men maintain while engaged on the task whatever the circumstances may be.
This goes beyond an officer inspecting haircuts, and turn out and bearing, but reaching out to greater depth of intervening into unprofessional conduct such as human rights abuses or even fraternization. Both these occur due to the lack of self-control and the moral fibre to control ones emotions and is a failure that should be purged from the professional officer corps at the first hint of existence.
As per the Sri Lanka Air Force Ethos, Core Values and Standards adopted from the Royal Air Force, it applies the following test to determine the code of social conduct. ‘Have the actions or behaviour of an individual adversely impacted, or are they likely to impact, on the efficiency or operational effectiveness of the Sri Lanka Air Force?’
This test applies to all individuals of the SLAF on or off duty in order to undermine unprofessional behaviour without hesitation.
I strongly believe that this ‘self-query’ can be applied to any service institution. In the Sri Lankan post conflict environment, where we experience numerous cynical and false expressions, relating to our past and present conduct it is the leadership that must emerge with professionalism.
From professionalism I now delve into empathy, the softer and lesser discussed attribute in an officer’s repertoire. General Omar Bradley in one of his papers on Leadership states; “A leader should possess human understanding and consideration for others. Men are not robots and should not be treated as though they were machines. I do not by any means suggest coddling. But men are highly intelligent, complicated beings who will respond favourably to human understanding and consideration. By this means, their leader will get maximum effort from each of them.”
The saying goes, ‘a man’s name is to him the most important word in his language’. Our subordinates endure great pains emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially during war and during peace.
Human and social issues faced by our subordinates cannot be resolved by the mere application of military law or generous distribution of welfare items to families of subordinates.
The genuine caring nature and the ability to feel subordinates pain and see their point of view even though not necessarily accepted are the qualities of an empathetic leader.
An officer must be the last man to take shelter from fire, and the first to move forward. Throughout my discourse I have elaborated on three core attributes that are the Ethos of Officering, Integrity,Professionalism, and Empathy. The thresholds of these three attributes converge in most instances supporting one and other.
Our younger generations have grown up in a “free thinking environment” and tend to refer to the words realism and pragmatism instead of values. It is in this sense that we need to create awareness of the importance of “means as well as the successful achievement of the end”. It is here that the Ethos of officering comes into bearing.
In the SLAF we have recently introduced the booklet “ETHOS & CORE VALUES” and in this we have translated our values into a broad statement. Through this statement our intention is to give the officer an identity based on value and say ‘this is who I am’.
Ladies and gentlemen, the art of officering has evolved in many ways to suit the trends of change, but there are many unwritten laws, traditions, and customs, of officering handed down by our forefathers of this profession. Men and technology will come and Retire, but these customs and traditions cannot be changed, nor should review be attempted, as they are based on valuable lessons learned from engagement in painful conflict.
May the Late Deshamanya Gen. Denis Perera be remembered by the future generation for his excellence in soldiering!
Thank you very much and have a