Column: 26/11 Mumbai Attack: Leadership Lessons from the gloom

Monday, August 01 2016, 06:05 AM
What happened in Mumbai last weekend was a sorrowful incident. Entire management community and is shocked and condemns the attack.

Writing for, Mumbai based management writer Sandeep Singh argues that perhaps there are some management and leadership lessons from this gruesome incident.

26/11 Mumbai Attack: Leadership Lessons from the gloom

"Ottawa Citizen's first page headline screamed "It was sheer chaos" referring to Mumbai 26/11 Terror attack. Yes on first glance it looks like chaos. But if one looks beneath the surface then one will see lot of Wisdom for Managerial and Leadership lessons.  


The first leadership skill on display was at CST station, the first place of attack.

  • V D Zende an announcer at CST "When I first heard a loud sound, I thought it was a bomb blast. I kept telling people to exit from the back.

- 30th November'08, The Indian Express, Mumbai

The announcement by Mr. Zende saved thousands of Mumbaikars. It was not sheer presence of mind, call of duty but also leadership. He knew he will come under terrorist fire and terrorist did fire at him. He was lucky he survived.

  • Karambir Singh Kang, the General Manager of Taj Hotel lost his wife and two children while he was busy saving guests. A hotel General Manager has to lead from the front.

-29th November'08, Bombay Times, Rajiv Kaul, Mumbai

Am sure this kind of leadership only can create a great organization. And I give below two of the numerous examples of leadership displayed by the staff of Taj Hotels.

  • Dr. Mangeshikar: "The man in front of my wife shielded us. He was a maintenance section staff. He took the bullets." The man was Mr. Rajan.

                        -29th November'08, The Indian Express, Mumbai

  • Taj Hotel staff served food for first few hours of terrorist attack.

-29th November'08, The Indian Express, Mumbai

The staff of Taj lived up to the thousands of years, old Indian promise of "Athithi Devo Bhavo" i.e "Guest is God". This kind of zeal of service I am sure will help Indian hospitality industry never suffer a set back. These leadership qualities in the form of legendry stories will travel across the world along with the foreign guests that were in the hotel.  

  • "Some foreign women were crying loudly and trying to jump out of the window of their rooms. But we stopped them by flashing a light in their direction and pointing to our rescue teams" said fireman Prakash Raut.

Fireman's doused the fire without bullet proof jacket, not bothering about the terrorist's bullet, from outside as well as inside of the hotel.

-30th November'08, DNA, Mumbai

  • Railway Police Inspector Shashank Shinde was getting ready to leave; the sound of bullet was heard in stations. Shinde who always carried a revolver, rushed towards the spot from where the shots were being fired. He fired two shots from his revolver knowing very well his revolver is no match for two man armed with AK47. He perished became a martyr.

-          29th November'08, Mumbai News Line, Mumbai

Inspector Shinde set the precedent for the events to follow; he made the ultimate leadership statement that however equipped terrorist might be our forces will not deter in fighting.  

There were two instances of hand grenade being thrown on the fireman but both the time hand grenade didn't explode. Terrorist had either forgotten to pull the pin or missed the target. Most probably Terrorists were terrified with Fireman's commitment. A trained fully equipped terrorist can be shaken by fearless leadership.  

Similarly BEST drivers provided coverage without bullet proof jackets many a time to the commandos entering the TAJ hotel.

No amount of write up can describe the velour and gallantry displayed by our commandos. Here I will like to share one example from the life of Martyr Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan.  

When Sandeep Unnikrishnan was with the 79 Mountain Brigade he was posted along the border in Kupwara for sometime. He was on an evening stroll with one of his juniors when firing started from the other side.  

He somehow reached his post but he was upset to hear that his teammate hadn't returned. Unmindful of the biting snow and windy condition he rushed to the firing site. He searched the whole night and spotted the injured officer early morning. He carried him for more than five KM and saved his life.

Manoj Puri, Ex Defence Officer, 30th November'08, The Hindustan Times, Mumbai   

I will like to sum the leadership learning's in following two lines:

  1. No job/ designation is small or big to display leadership.
  2. A leader does not display leadership in the skill he is at best at or from which he makes a living but in all walks of life.  

Managerial & Guerrilla Marketing Lessons:

  • NSG Chief J K Dutta "Commandos had to be air dropped, and we had to dominate the area and secure floor by floor"

-29th November'08, The Indian Express, Mumbai

  • Terrorists familiar with Taj layout, commandos weren't.

-29thNovember'08, Aditya Anand, Midday  

  • Marcos made blind entry into Taj Hotel. They went in without any idea of the hotel's layout but probably laid the foundation for NSG's success.

-29th November'08Mumbai Mirror

  • Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS), Aizwal's Head of Faculty of Studies Colonel Gurinder Singh says "Besides physical combat trainees are taught to think like terrorist. Mind games are equally important and a student is told to keep thinking how someone can surprise him even when nothing apparently is happening"  
  • We are trained to stay without food and sleep for a week and that helped us ever since we entered the hotel on Thursday morning.

-27 Year Old Commando from Haryana, 30th November'08, Indian Express

  • Operation at Trident :

When Commandos reached 18th floor of trident, there were two terrorist holed up in a room. After terrorist was shot in the legs, the man crawled behind something the commandos could not see very clearly in the dark. But he wasn't shooting back anymore.  

Terrorist was trying instead to rile the commandos into making a mistake. Abusing them in Hindi, the terrorist shouted   "Dam hai to saamne aakar marro (if you have the guts come out and kill me)".  

A commando shouted back: "Coward, you have been hiding like a rat all this while. Why don't you show some courage and step out."

Neither took the bait.

The commandos decided to wait until the first sight. But they kept sending short bursts of gunfire in that direction. To make sure the terrorist stayed down if alive.

When day broke, the commandos were able to see the structure behind which the terrorist had taken cover. They opened up on it. And kept shooting till they were sure none could survive that kind of assault.

The commandos found him

They were following one simple rule there could be a terrorist in every room. It was Russian roulette of shorts" said a commando who took part in the operation.

Breaking into rooms followed simple procedure: the locks were opened with a master key adequate warnings were given and then the storming," the intention was to minimise collateral damage."

They managed zero collateral damage. The end of the 30 hour operation.  

-           30th November'08 Hindustan Times, Mumbai  

The operation at Trident clearly explains how well the "Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS)," understands the terrorist mind and how the training was perfect. It knows how to:

  •  Dominate the area
  •  Venture into unknown area
  •  Patience
  •  Not to give into enemy's provocation
  •  Success can be any rule, if not looked properly it causes failure
  •  Not to disclose everything
  •  Taking enemy by surprise
  •  Taking hard decisions

The following statement sums up in the best way:

  • They were thorough professionals in that they never attacked first, which meant that they didn't ever disclose their location. The two terrorist were not on the same floor. When the light began fading out on Friday, our commanding officer (CO) decided to blow up the entire third floor, which finally led to their death.

-25 Year Old Commando from Haryana, 30th November'08, Indian Express  

Indians have a tradition of learning from enemy, when Ravana was on his death bed, Lord Ram went to him for learning. Lord Ram had recognized the brilliance of Ravana. Continuing the tradition, the commandos did praise the strength of terrorist.  

  • The attackers have acted as a cohesive unit…and targeted high profile objective. Out numbered, and presumably outgunned, for over 48 hours, they fought a defensive battle through the labyrinth of the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels.
  • NSG Commando: "Initially we could not comprehend whether we were up against a bunch of motivated terrorist or trained commandos of another army"

-29th November'08, DNA, Mumbai

Learning's are always of two kind; success and failure. We have seen the success now let us look at the failure.

Terrorist's managerial skill where also worth admiring.

  • But they said based on their calculations accounting for the length of the fight, the ammunition and the logistics, it seemed that around 25 militants had been staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi Trident for the last one month on what the police called a "rotation" basis. Officials said it was this unique mechanism that allowed the militants to stockpile large amounts of explosives and ammunition at the two hotels without attracting any attention.

-29th November'08, The Asian Age, Mumbai

There was leadership and managerial failure from Indian side.

  • ATS Chief Hemant Karkaare , encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte lost their lives. They all were in one vehicle.

-30th November'08 Swatee Kher, The Sunday Express

The death of these officers is big blow to the police force. The gallant officers made one mistake of taking an impulsive decision of all three getting into one vehicle while leading from the front; like a leader should.

  • Akhil Maharashtra Machchimar Kriti Samiti had warned the Government four months ago about two boats carrying RDX and Weapons will enter the city after Aughts 20.

-          1December, Mumbai Mirror, Sudhir Suryawanshi, Mumbai

  • On September 24, IB told National Security Council that the Taj hotel will be attacked.
  • On Nov 18th Cost Guard knew an Let vessel had set sail from Karachi

-          30 November'08,DNA, Josy Joseph, Mumbai 

  • NSG took 10hours to reach Mumbai. There were no planes for them.

-          30 November Sunday Times of India, Mumbai

  • Fisher folk first to see terrorist. "I wash suspicious as they did not look like fisher folk and were not from our area." says Bharat Tomare  

-          29th November'08, The Hindustan Times, Mumbai

 Look at all the above mistakes, except one, that fisher folk did not inform the police immediately about the after seeing the terrorist all the mistakes have been made by the top management and leaders of the country.  

As they say the bottle neck is always at the top. If top managers and leaders fail, then a huge price needs to be paid for salvaging the situation.

Information however small or big is a mere data, it becomes knowledge when it reaches in the right hand and if used properly it becomes wisdom.  

Wisdom transforms mangers into leaders.  

It is not possible to give all the examples of supreme sacrifice made by our forces, hotel staff and lot of individuals. The idea here is to learn and apply in our different walks of life, hopefully not in a similar situation. This can be one way of paying tribute to departed souls.

This weekly column 'Indian School of Management - in Practice' is authored by management thinker Sandeep Singh. The column aims to explores the 'elements' of business as practiced by Indian entrepreneurs spread across industry in India and put them in points, grids, matrix, charts etc. so that they can be taught at management institutes and be of practical use in day to day working life of practicing managers.   

Sandeep Singh is the author of bestseller "Business of Freedom – an Initiative for School of Indian Management". He also runs Swadeshi School for Training in Indian Knowledge (SWASTIK). Readers can reach him at [email protected]