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Why Leaders Have To be Learners - Part I

All ill, all good in the count,
Is gain if looked at aright

Learning has only one aim. To constantly challenge the status quo and change mindsets. Continuous learning is essential for the organization to survive and develop in the continuously changing business environment.

The learning organization principally learns through :
Learning from Past - experiential learning from successes and failures.
Learning from present - continuous scanning and sensitivity to changing environment

Learning from future – Experimental learning (for explanation see my article in The Indian Management, Jul 2002)
Organizational learning is promoted by leaders who lead through their own learning examples.

It is not only in this age, we have determined the importance of learning for organizational survival. Throughout history, we find examples of fall of powerful empires due to ignoring the value of continuous learning.

Moghul empire is a prime example which came into being due to the learning behaviour of its founder Babar and over a period of time, his successors became inward looking and led to the disintegration of the empire.

Babar's father was ruler of a small principality in present Uzbekistan called Ferghana and died when Babar was only 11. In present context, you can well imagine a boy of 11 taking control of an organization surrounded by enemies both within and on borders. Mergers and acquisitions were taking place in those days too, though a little more violently. Babar had to learn fast to survive "like a king on a chessboard". For the moment, Babar's stars were in ascendency and he triumphed over internal and external enemies, primarily under the mentoring of his maternal grandmother.

However, Ferghana was too small a country to satiate Babar's vision and ambition and he longed for something greater. Over a period of many years, he took and lost Samarkand & Kabul twice and had many such failures including loss of Ferghana itself. However, experiential learning was a key element of Babar's strategy and after every battle, won or lost, he would sit with his key commanders and draw out lessons which would guide their next move. Learning from his past mistakes was a conscious practice and allowed him to moved forward and not get defeated by reverses.

When one has pretensions to rule and a desire for conquest, one cannot sit back and just watch if events don’t go right once or twice.” Babarnama

He did not yet know what fate had in store for him and as in today's business environment, the future was grey and uncertain. Therefor, Babur began to organize himself for the battles ahead, whipping his men into a superb fighting force. He also took care to modernise his army, introducing muskets and cannons for the first time in field battle. During 20 years of adversity and warfare Babar trained himself by adopting the military tactics and modes of warfare of his adversaries - Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Afghans and evolved his own integrated system of warfare through experimentation. In today's terminology , this would be called adopting Best Practices from other organizations to increase effectiveness. These innovations would give him crucial edge in India. Thus a learning pattern emerges of a man who was always on the move, largely in adverse conditions

The entire lifelong learning from past, present and future was tested when he faced Ibrahim Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Since 1519, Babar had led five expeditions into India, the first four being in the nature of pilot projects, testing the enemy. Babur’s fifth expedition to India started on 17 November 1526, when crossed the Indus. Ibrahim Lodi was a typical Chief Executive of a successful corporation, complacent to what was happening outside his borders, not experimenting with new styles of warfare and a host of other weaknesses, which come from success.

Most of the conditions were against Babar and by all accounts he should have lost the battle. It was the month of April, hot for Babar & his army who were used to cool climate. The enemy had a numerical superiority of 5:1, i.e. 100,000 soldiers as against his 20,000. Lodi also had a force multiplier in the form of 1000 elephants. Lodi was close to his Headquarters and well supplied while Babar's had a long supply chain.

Till now, most of Babar's battles have been close combats in the hill country, in constricted battlefields where large forces could not be deployed and it was not the size of army which mattered but its spirit, the tactical use of terrain and the element of surprise. In the open plains of Panipat, none of these could be used for decisive victory. In a conventional battle, the large forces of Ibrahim Lodi could encircle Babar's small army & decimate it.

Babar could think of defeating Lodi only through clever tactics. Therefore, Babar waited for a month facing Lodi's forces trying to find the winning tactics.

To defeat Lodi, Babar had to neutralise the numerically superior enemy forces and create a narrow battlefield where his cannons & muskets could be successfully employed. He summoned his veterans to a war council. Together, reaching back to the the lore of their turbulent land and the learnings from his own thirty-two years of incessant wars, they conceived a revolutionary new strategy that dexterously modified the traditional Mughal battle formations to accomodate Ottoman wall-of-fire gunnery tactics and the wheeling cavalary charge of the Uzbeks-to halt the Afghan juggernaut in its tracks and annihilate it. He made full use of what can be described as adopting Best-in-Class practices.

Babur planned for the forthcoming battle, he used Panipat village to rest his right flank, to protect his front he collected 700 carts and tied them together with raw hide in the ‘Ottoman fashion’, the tactic the nomads had used against the Romans. In the protective line of carts Babur sited his guns, he was amongst the first military commanders in Asia to appreciate the value of field artillery. Between every two guns, five or six mantlets (protective screens) were fixed behind which match lock men stood and fired their matchlocks; after every 200 yards a sally gap for 100 to 200 horsemen was left; the left flank was refused and protected by a ditch and a stockade made with branches of trees; on 12 April 1526 Babur was ready. The objective was to lure Ibrahim to attack at the constructed battlefield. But would Ibrahim fall to the bait?

After waiting anxiously for several days, Babar carried out an experiment to test the enemy strength and provoke it. He sent 5000 soldiers at night into enemy camps to create confusion and when discovered, they ran back to own camps. The apparent easy rout of the Mughal night raiders emboldened the Afghans and sensing easy victory, Lodi attacked next morning.

This was a fatal error and the Army walked into a bottleneck trap cunningly laid by Babar. Lodi’s large forces could not maneuver successfully in the man-made narrow battlefield. Babar's musketeers who were hidden on both sides now fired and this created a panic in Lodi's forces. Within four hours, the battle was won by Babar and Lodi was dead. In fact, the major part of Lodi's forces could not take part in the battle.

Babar's success came about because he had the courage to turn failure into success. In his own failure, he discovered which factors could bring him success. When Babar was defeated by his rivals, he did not start complaining about them. He did not compile any lists of the conspiracies by his enemies or the plans they had drawn up for his destruction. Nor did he start making vituperative speeches against his attackers. Instead, Babar began to work out how his rivals had managed to win. What was the cause of his defeat and their victory ? Babar's thinking led him to the conclusion that his opponents' military tactics were superior. Their strategy in warfare was more effective than his. Now Babar began to adopt the tactics of his rivals, and by giving much thought to them and carrying out experiments with them, he even managed to improve upon them. Equipped with better resources and better military strategy, he now set himself to conquering the new and vaster field of the entire subcontinent. With the success of his new approach, he made himself the master of much more than he had ever possessed in his ancestral domain.

The present world is no less a world of competition that it was in the days of Babar. People still come into conflict with each other all over the world. There is sometimes just no avoiding failure and defeat. But the successful man is one who can experience the worst of failures, yet derive sustenance and inspiration from it, and one who can forge ahead, acting upon whatever ray of hope he sees, no matter how small and faint.

Babar's son and successor, Humayun was a courageous and learned person. However, 10 years after Babar laid the foundation of Moghul empire, Humayun was thrown out of it. What was Humayun’s learning style which led to such disastrous consequences ? We will gain some insights in Part II.