A senior who mentored me in my early years in the Intelligence Bureau told me more than once that one should have the ability “to distinguish essentials from non-essentials” to be successful in the intelligence profession. He was an early recipient of Padma Shri for his work in the Northeast and always spoke on the strength of his experience, rather than bookish knowledge. I realised this when years later during an interactive spell at Delhi IIT’s School of Management—where I was sent as a government nominee—a professor referred to the 19th century Italian social theorist and economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who had become famous for his simple postulation that “there are a significant few amongst the insignificant many”—known as the Pareto Law. My senior would have certainly mentioned this if he had known about Pareto and clearly what he said—in an equally effective short phrase—was therefore his own wisdom distilled out of his handling of intelligence over the years.
Intelligence is information, which gives an idea of “what lies ahead”—this could come from accessing a right source confidentially or from a competent analysis of whatever had become known even from open channels. Security is protection against the doings of the “invisible” enemy and this would be achieved only on the basis of intelligence, which used its secret instruments of tradecraft to unravel information about them. National level intelligence agencies have a constant inflow of information—raw or collated—that had to be scanned in an ongoing manner for its reliability and relevance. Picking up the grain from the chaff is the challenge in intelligence and reading the picture on the basis of a minimal number of pieces as in a jigsaw puzzle, a test of the analytical mind. No agency ever gets the complete picture of a threat in operation and its success lies in taking note of the “essentials” that the available information contained and establishing their connectivity. At a finer level of assessment-making, Einstein’s thesis that “imagination is more important than knowledge” comes into play. Jigsaw puzzles test even a child’s imagination. In intelligence analysis, capacity to foresee what lies even beyond the facts and data that had come to the analyst, is indeed vital.
In this age, where the pace of generation and dissemination of information is phenomenal, the key to success is the briskness with which the user of information would scan it for picking up reliable facts about the adversary or the competitor that would guide the course of “action”. Intelligence by definition is “information for action”. The profession of intelligence needs information-savvy people. Some essential traits of such people are that they do not shun reading and they are good in making a differentiation between what is relevant to the mission at hand and what is not, what is necessary in the short term as against what would be useful in the long run, and what is at best a minor hiccup different from what indeed had the potential of creating a major problem. It is this differentiation that in fact is the prescription for successful prioritisation in any situation. Time is now regarded as a resource at par with manpower and money, and being “smart” means being able to produce more with the same amount of resource, including time. This will happen if, among other things, the ability to prioritise is brought into play.
In today’s whirling existence, effectiveness of differentiation is also the basic guide on how to strike a “work-life balance”. At the thought level, differentiation gives a person the ability to see things from a higher perspective.
The capacity to make an effective differentiation is, therefore, the sine qua non for success in any field today. It is particularly pivotal for leadership—whether the individual is on top of an enterprise or is positioned as the head of a team. This helps the leader to avert “information overload”, handle a contingency with equanimity and make a correct performance appraisal of a subordinate by noting, for instance, the distinction between “brilliance” and “application”, while evaluating performance. In Intelligence Bureau, lateral entry at a very senior level is generally not encouraged, since a certain length of grooming in the Bureau is considered essential for the new member to perform well. I recall how in the 1970s, a top officer from a major state joined in one of the top positions in the organisation. Not accustomed to going through many papers at a time, he found himself wading through an unending stream of documents reaching him every day. In intelligence, there is no substitute to reading because you cannot reject a report without glancing through it. The senior gentleman could not stay beyond a few months. On the other hand, I remember how one of the chiefs was so quick in returning a paper after meaningfully scanning it that we all thought he had done a rapid reading course. The point is that without ensuring a running scrutiny that would “filter” information as it came by, it would not be possible to pick a needle from the haystack—a challenge facing all intelligence organisations.
People with effectiveness of differentiation know the importance of being updated with relevant information that made a difference between a decision and a guess. They have a sense of relativity of things and intuitively understand when to stop accumulating information and get down to deciding the course of action on whatever had become available. They know that the end product of useful information is “action”. In intelligence, course correction is often necessitated by new information on the adversary’s moves and “action”, therefore, is a roll on exercise not to be confused with “failure” of outcome.
In today’s whirling existence, effectiveness of differentiation is also the basic guide on how to strike a “work-life balance”. At the thought level, differentiation gives a person the ability to see things from a higher perspective—human beings are attuned to short term trends and small number runs. When this viewing from above happens, a new kind of awareness is achieved. You see the relativity of importance of things in a given situation. You realise that you can only change things that are under your control. You also can see that no failure is absolute so long as it could genuinely be described as an honest effort that did not succeed. As Madame Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” If awareness is complete, acceptance becomes easy. It is the effectiveness of differentiation that provides you with a great stress buster, because you combine awareness with acceptance in a healthy way. In intelligence, this acceptance is not “resignation” in any sense of the term, but the beginning of a new effort with a new sight. Those in this profession work with undiminished motivation in all circumstances and this is one thing that is worthy of emulation by people elsewhere.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau