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Why Leaders Have To Be Learners? Part II

By three methods we may learn. First, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.
Confucius (B.C. 551-479 )

Babur had many leadership qualities, a principal one being his attitude towards continuous learning, that is learning from past, present and future. This gained him a prize in the shape of laying the foundation of Mughal dynasty in the richest country of the world.

Humayun ascended the throne in 1530. Humayun ,which means “fortunate” would never again know the meaning of this word . “Dreamers, they move through a dream” Babur once said of his hedonistic cousins. He could have said the same of Humayun. He was courageous in battlefield and had shown his mettle many times, including The First Battle of Panipat. He obtained education from the finest minds of his times and in today’s terms, he was an equivalent of IIM graduate. He was a skilled mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. He was a man of ideas and even designed a portable bridge which could be used in times of war. But these talents had little to do with stern business of government. He lacked the tenacity of purpose to forge his airy whimsies into solid achievements. He lacked the grit to match the turbulence of the world he lived in. Predictably, his reign, which began as a dream, darkened into an awful nightmare.

Humayun learnt little from his father. How “shared vision” of a great empire enabled Babur to command respect and loyalty from his men, a collection of warlike martial races from Central Asia . Babur led them through years of deprivation, defeats and failures with none of his commanders leaving him. Humayun did not know what was happening around him. His intelligence was weak. The treachery of his brothers and other nobles always came as a surprise to him while in that time, it should have been anticipated and proactive action taken. His two brothers continuously conspired against him to usurp the throne but each time, Humayun pardoned them, clearing way for another treachery and pardon, repeating his mistakes, never contemplating introspection and review of policies of statecraft. Once his counselors warned him “ Brotherly custom has nothing to do with ruling and reigning. If you wish to act as a brother, abandon the throne. If you wish to be king, put aside brotherly sentiments…. As this is no brother but your Majesty’s foe”.

There are many such instances where he had the upper hand in subduing his vassals, for example, Bahadur Shah, an Afghan chieftain in Gujarat. Humayun defeated him three times but came back to Agra without consolidating his extended empire. The result was each time Bahadur Shah rose and took back his domain. Over a period of time, Humayun took & lost Malwa, Gujarat and Bengal more than once. He never introspected these successes and failures and could not draw lessons for future action. He never analysed the tactics of his opponents and therefore could not counter them. There was no attempt to gain cumulative knowledge from experience. Each battle became a new project with an equal chance of win or lose and after every battle, he relaxed as if the life’s work was done.

Unlike his father, he neglected the training & development of his army with the result, although he commanded a large army, it was led by a motley collection of opportunistic chieftains, the troops became indisciplined and demoralised .The cohesive force of Babur was gone.

His serious flaws in learning is most visible in his encounters with Sher Khan who later took the title of Sher Shah Suri and displaced him as emperor.

Sher Khan was a wily & crafty leader about whom Babur said “ Keep an eye on Sher Khan” Babur cautioned. “He is a clever man and the marks of royalty was visible on his forehead… As soon as I saw this man, it entered my mind to arrest him for I find in him qualities of greatness and marks of mightiness.

Sher Khan was in the employment of the ruler of Bihar and on his death became the de facto ruler of Bihar. He started looking for opportunities to increase his domain in Bengal. As usual, Humayun did not perceive the dangers brewing within his empire. He ignored signals of the rising power of Sher Khan, complacent in the ways of his inherited empire. He was always fighting on two fronts at the same time. When he was in the field subjugating enemies, his brothers were conspiring and vice-versa. The time for decisive & final action against Sher Khan came his way many time but his ambivalent attitude allowed the opportunities to pass till Sher Khan, a true Machiavellian tactician, was ready to directly challenge the emperor.

This lack of energy in responding to shifting strategic situations was the greatest failing of Humayun.

The first major battle between Humayun and Sher Khan took place on the banks of Ganges in Chausa on 25th June 1539 with a night attack by Sher Khan. The numerical superiority was 2:1 in favour of Moghuls but superior tactics and highly disciplined forces of Sher Khan prevailed. Humayun fled to Agra with the help of a water carrier who helped him to cross Ganga. Sher Shah did not pursue Humayun as he wanted to consolidate his gains and knew that an opportunity to challenge Humayun will come again.

On reaching Agra, Humayun did not reflect on the reasons for his defeat and the battle tactics used by Sher Khan. He did not regroup his army and bring some semblance of discipline or train with different tactics. Seven months passed in glorious indecision till Sher Khan who had, by now, crowned himself Sher Shah Suri was ready to challenge him again on the banks of Ganga near Kannauj. Humayun still had formidable firepower with over 700 guns, 21 cannons and 5000 musketeers. Mughal army had over 40,000 soldiers compared to 15000 of Sher Shah.

For over one month, the two armies faced each other and Humayun inspite of his sizable army did not attack. Sher Shah sensed an opportunity and attacked at noon on 17th May 1540 forcing Humayun to flee which he did for the next several years till Sher Shah died giving an opportunity for Humayun to return and reclaim his throne.

So what was the learning from the fate of Babur & Humayun, father & son. Babur’s success was a result of his humble approach to learning. He would reflect on his failures and draw pragmatic conclusions which he applied in future actions. On the other hand, Humayun blamed stars for his misfortune and found solace in their shifting configuration. Over a period, this resulted in deterioration of army’s fighting spirit. Babur was always experimenting, if not with battle tactics, then with gardening & cultivation. His ability to conduct dialog with his subordinates as equals allowed him access to vital information ,insights and view problems and opportunities from different perspectives. Humayun never built trust based relationship with his subordinates and was thus deprived of valuable counsel and teamwork.

Babur’s learning attitude is visible in other actions too. All things fresh and new gladdened him. He had the curiousity of a child and the candor & spontaneity to explore it. He introduced melon and grapes in India. He planted sugar cane in Kabul and was delighted when his experiments bore fruit.

Babur saw technology as a tool for growth and he prepared his army to exploit field artillery to the fullest. Humayun did not keep track of changes taking place in military technology which was changing the face of warfare. Here is a lesson to many organizations which introduce technology like ERP, portals etc. with little regard to undertaking process improvements and thus are unable to deploy effectively.

What a contrast babar makes to Humayun! While Babur took on adversity with cheerful, exuberant energy, Humayun submitted to it with passivity. Humayun’s life was eventful but undramatic. Possibly, his biggest achievement was birth of his son, Akbar. Today, Babur would be a match to Jack Welch or Bill Gates while I would not trust Humayun to manage the corner store.

The world is no different today as it was in the days of the Moghuls. Our security today, is based on only three things: our ability to learn, our ability to change, and our ability to accept or live happily amid uncertainty. The paradox is that what we fear most as adults is learning, changing, and uncertainty. Fine education and rich experience are not enough to survive and grow today. Dialogue and reflection are qualities which leaders would have to add to their arsenal. Change management is increasingly becoming a packaged industry and few organizations are institutionalizing processes which allow adults to learn and grow. Transfer of knowledge and attitude towards continuous learning is especially important in owner managed organizations where transfer of reins to next generation of offsprings is taking place.

Babur saw it very well and he got what he envisioned. However, due to his preoccupations with empire building and later consolidating, he could not transfer knowledge of statecraft to his son resulting in Humayun losing his inheritance.

(Source of Mughal history – “Emperors of the Peacock Throne” by Abraham Eraly; Penguin Books)