Brown Bag Lunches can make all the difference.
Snapshot
  • Try ideation wherever you are and try Brown Bag Lunches. I have not found a better management practice for effective leadership and creation of a congenial environment for functioning and thinking.

I first came across the term ‘Brown Bag Lunch’ while attending the executive programme of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii in August 2000. It was a three-month programme designed to introduce middle level government officers (not necessarily uniformed) of countries within the US’ strategic circle to various vistas of comprehensive security of the Asia Pacific Region.

This was the pre-9/11 period and I was serving in Kashmir. The Americans did not have much of an idea of Jammu and Kashmir, nor of irregular warfare, had never heard of Improvised Explosive Devices and felt that Islamic fundamentalism (the term radicalism was introduced much later) was but a passing phase. There were four Pakistanis who were attending the programme with me; one each from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Army, an academic and a joint secretary from Pakistan's Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The PAF and Army officers always received preferential treatment from the American servicemen. Whenever I warned the various participants (there were 80 people from 35 countries) about the impending dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, I was never taken seriously by the US establishment; even during one large international seminar on transnational terror. The only man who thought I was talking sense was the president (virtually the Commandant) of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), Lieutenant General (retired) Hank Stackpole, an outstanding Marine Corps General.

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One good day, as good as any in sunny Hawaii, I was called up by the president’s staff officer to convey the General's invitation for Brown Bag Lunch during the lunch hour the next day to discuss Jammu and Kashmir and Islamic fundamentalism. It was to be a one-on-one discussion, but in the excitement of having been invited for the lunch, I forgot to ask the staff officer what was meant by Brown Bag Lunch.

I arrived at the appointed hour carrying my little plastic bag containing the usual paraphernalia of stationery so the staff officer did not ask me any questions. He ushered me into the president's office, where the lean and very intellectual General was already sitting on the sofa, awaiting my arrival. Lunch was open before him; a sandwich and an apple. I wondered what I would be eating. After some small talk the General asked me whether I would like to open my lunch packet before we got down to discussing the subjects he was interested in. I was not sure I heard correctly, but gathering my wits, I said I had carried no lunch with me because I thought he had invited me for lunch.

The General was more than amused. "Didn't they tell you, it was to be Brown Bag Lunch”, he said.

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"They did, but I am not sure I understood what that means, neither do I understand what it means even now", I replied.

The General burst out laughing. "Oh, that is American for having a shared lunch; you bring yours and I bring mine", he blurted between his laughs.

"I am sorry, in my country an invitation for a meal means only the host brings the meal,” was my forthright reply.

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That afternoon both General Stackpole and I went hungry having eaten half a sandwich and half an apple each but the tone and content of the discussion made up for all the loss. I told him that I was writing my dissertation on Islamic fundamentalism and my research told me that the Americans were getting it all wrong by kowtowing to the Pakistan Army, and not ensuring that the fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan were isolated and weeded out.

He was a little surprised hearing this from me, a Muslim, and said so in so many words. I had to explain that I was a soldier and attached nothing to my personal faith; it was only my professional orientation I was bringing to my analysis, but exploiting also my knowledge of the faith. He thanked me and asked me to submit a separate copy of my dissertation to his office, for him to read.

The programme was to end on 15 September 2000 and I was traveling to San Francisco and then the Mid-West on mainland US to be with family. I ensured that a copy of my badly typed dissertation was formatted by a local computer instructor (I was yet a novice at handling computers), refined for presentation and then submitted to General Stackpole's office. The date of submission which can never leave my memory, was a date now etched in the world's memory. It was 9/11, only the year was different. It was 11 September 2000, exactly 365 days before the world changed after the Twin Tower attack.

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But that is not the end. It started with Brown Bag Lunches and must end with that. As the Military Secretary (MS) of the Indian Army in 2012-13, I was on the lookout for new practices for taking my branch to a much higher level of efficiency and functioning. I was one of the world’s largest human resource managers, managing a cadre of 40,000 officers.

Many new ideas were being tried, mostly based on thoughts of middle level officers. To keep the adrenaline flowing and allowing open ended intake of ideas, I introduced the Brown Bag Lunch system. One Colonel, Lt Col or Major of the branch would join me for lunch from 1pm to 1.30pm at my office. He brought his lunch, I brought mine; I benefited from the culinary skills of the MS branch wives, who ensured their husbands always carried some novelties; mine was a simpler lunch.

Meals apart, I have never had richer and more fruitful discussion on professional matters than during these sessions. We discussed affairs of the MS branch and of the Indian Army in general. The last five minutes were spent on generic issues. A notebook and pen was within easy reach for me to take down the wealth of thoughts I received.

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These were my able subordinates, who I would perhaps meet only collectively and never one on one; Brown Bag Lunch had created the opportunity. Five ideas from the discussion were noted and later compiled for our conferences where all could analyse them. Some ideas were taken to conclusion and some others taken up for deeper study.

This is the world of ideation; if you do not practise it in one form or the other you really may be a deficient leader because one brain can never think of the range of ideas which are required for problem solving. The entire Army could do with many more ideas. I have seen ideation dinners being conducted in institutions in London and held a few in my command of formations too.

Try ideation wherever you are and try Brown Bag Lunches. I have not found a better management practice for effective leadership and creation of a congenial environment for functioning and thinking.

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I have to thank General Hank Stackpole and that wonderful American institution, APCSS, for having taught me this. But in hindsight I wish the very fine General had passed on my dissertation to the American President.

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