“It is only when you are unprepared,” says Captain Shashank Shandilya (retd.), without mincing his words, “that you blame your problems on uncertainty and volatility.” 

These are difficult times for startups in India. There has been a drop in funding amid fears of a recession and job cuts all around. It cannot be easy for founders to lead their teams in this climate of uncertainty. 

As we wondered how we could help founders navigate this landscape, we realized that there was no one better equipped to understand leadership in uncertainty than a veteran of the Indian Army with a personal insight into the startup world. 

So this Republic Day, we hear from Capt. Shashank, who led counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the Kashmir valley, before being deputed with Military Intelligence. In his post-Army career, Capt. Shashank has founded two startups and worked in financial services. 

Here are a few key lessons for startup founders from his experiences of leading teams on the frontlines. 

Fight their battle so they fight your war 

When startups are small, teams are close-knit. People know their colleagues’ families, the names of their favourite filmstars, and what they like for dessert. But over time, teams grow large and impersonal. A distance develops. The founders do not interact with anyone outside a tiny leadership group, and leaders have little interest in understanding their teammates as people. 

But people can go to war for us only when we fight their battles, believes Capt. Shashank. “I led companies of 100-200 men; I knew each and every one of them,” he says.

I knew their name, what village they came from, how their parents were doing and what domestic problems they were facing. Some of the men were dealing with property disputes back home. I would speak to the SP from that region to ensure the issue was resolved. That is the granular level you have to go to. Because if you don’t solve his problem, how will he be able to do his duty properly?”

To understand the motivations of employees, it is essential that leaders invest greater time in knowing their team. If their problems can be solved, they will be ready to punch above their weight. 

“We talk about knowing your customer. Knowing your team is just as important,” he says. “What are they passionate about? What are their incentives to do this job for us? If you don’t know that, you won’t know how to motivate them.” 

Dig a trench before you order one dug

In wartime, when it comes to tasks like digging trenches, officers pass the order and jawans carry it out. But in training, everyone learns to dig a trench. “If you don’t know how much effort goes into digging a trench or how long it takes, you will end up passing absurd orders,” says Capt. Shashank. 

The lesson is simple: know the jobs. In the startup world, founders need to be aware of how much time and effort each function entails and what resources are necessary. As teams grow, leaders can often lose touch with ground realities and set unrealistic expectations. In a time of uncertainty, this can lead to tensions. 

“You need to know how much time it takes to get the desired results. Yes, push your team, motivate them, but don’t expect them to do something that is not humanly possible. They are not jaadugars who can perform magic.” 

Prepare as if the battle is today 

Often, people are paralyzed by uncertainty when they should actually be taking decisive action. But in a time of uncertainty, the best course of action is to prepare and be ready for a battle every day. Think of what can go wrong, list out every possible eventuality, and plan a response for each one. In the startup world, a bad week can very quickly turn into a bad month and a bad quarter. The key to fighting that is preparedness. 

Capt. Shashank recalls an incident from his time in Kashmir, when he had slipped into a comfort zone after spending a long time inside a garrison. “You’re doing office work, physical training, playing games, going to the mess… you forget that you are in Kashmir. And this one time, I got into that comfort zone,” he says.  

Leadership in uncertain times

“But suddenly, I had to move out for an operation. As we were driving out of the garrison gates, I saw a quote there: “सावधान! आज मुकाबला होगा“. Instantly, something changed. Just those four words. I checked my weapon multiple times, I ensured everyone in my unit was holding their weapon properly, and that all of them had bulletproof jackets.”

Instantly, he was on high alert, more aware of himself and his surroundings. “If that simple line can have such a profound effect, you realize it’s been put there with some foresight. It’s a reminder: always be prepared. The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war. There will be chaos but you can still be ready,” he smiles. 

There is no excuse, Capt. Shashank insists, for being unprepared. 

At least in the army, you can say that terrorists can attack anytime. But in the business world, nothing happens overnight, barring the odd regulatory change from the government. And even then you could argue that it is your job to keep your eyes and ears open. Only if you are unprepared will you blame your problems on uncertainty and volatility.”

Remember why you serve 

Startups are founded with a great sense of purpose. Everyone buys into the mission, and the team, down from the founder, has that purpose in focus all the time. But as the organization grows, that sense of purpose is often diluted. This leads to people losing perspective. A job that began as an opportunity to solve interesting problems starts to look mundane and devoid of meaning. 

Leadership in uncertain times

A disillusioned team is a huge handicap, more so during a challenging phase for the business. 

The key to handling this is for startups to remind themselves of their purpose. Capt. Shashank recalls how this manifested during his time in the army. He admits that sometimes there were tasks that were not very pleasant to carry out. 

“There are times you have to organize a party, or a reception when a senior officer comes visiting. I used to think, ‘I joined the army to serve the country but I’m standing and organizing some shaadi here,’” he recollects. 

But his purpose was never in doubt.

At the end of the day, I would still convince myself that, ‘Chal yaar, desh ke liye theek hain. Ye bhi kar sakta hoon.’”

He would then ensure the same message was passed down to his unit. “I’d say: ‘Being inspected by a senior officer is a matter of pride. Do we want him to take the message that this unit is ill-prepared and can’t even organize a chai for a guest properly?’”

On the battlefield or in the boardroom, this sense of purpose is key. “You need to be convinced that whatever you are doing is for the betterment of the organization,” says Capt. Shashank. 

Sometimes in your journey, in the case of startups, you forget why you started. If you don’t know your purpose or why you started, anything that follows will be superficial. You will just be telling people, ‘Do this and you will be promoted.’ Not everybody is motivated by that.”

As startups battle their way through a difficult winter, these lessons from the trenches could prove invaluable. 

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    Author Chidananda

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