The genesis of the Kargil War – and indeed at the heart of the warped relationship between India and Pakistan – is the dispute over the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Since the late 1980s, Pakistan has fomented insurgency in the state, pushing thousands of militants to create instability and bloodshedding. As any military expert knows, counter-insurgency is among the most brutal fighting campaigns. It is slow, painstaking and messy.

The great Lawrence of Arabia likened it to eating soup with a fork. The war on militants is complex because it is fought on a borderless battlefield inhabited by civilians. It is an asymmetrical contest where the “weak” play by an entirely different set of rules. The militant is hardly recognisable because he does not wear a uniform, live in a camp, travel in distinctive vehicles, or have to follow laws that prohibit extortion and killings; instead, he moves in small groups and stays in civilian houses. In asymmetrical warfare, the weak will win the match-up unless the ‘stronger player’ can exhibit staying power and adaptability to the new paradigm. That script has unfolded in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and during many other conflicts.

In the business world, it unfolds daily between established entities and the unorganised marketplace, peppered with entrepreneurs working out of garages and other makeshift locations. And on the globalisation scene, asymmetry is what loaded the dice against the West – the less advanced countries follow their own set of “rules” concerning labour and environmental concerns, etc. – thus beating the West’s cost of manufacturing. How has the Army fared under this constant bleeding for decades? How well has it sustained its motivation through a seemingly neverending war? What has enabled the soldier to consistently display resilience and fortitude in the face of human cost and repeated criticism from the uninformed? It will be instructive to put this phenomenon under a lens and see how individuals have regularly acted to meet organizational objectives in Jammu and Kashmir – and other counter-insurgency operations.

What sustains ordinary soldiers? Could it be that monetary rewards or medals lie at the heart of this collective motivation and that the Army’s culture plays only a subsidiary – even minor – role? Spoiler alert: like all other anecdotes in this book, what follows is not a “Param Vir Chakra” story. Rather, it represents how the rank and file respond and how the ordinary do the extraordinary, almost every day, owing to a hardy organisational culture.

Jubin Mathew was a shade over 17 years old when he entered the portals of the National Defence Academy to train for a commission in the Indian Army. The tall, slightly built young man came from Trivandrum. Four years of rigorous training later, he was commissioned into the Bihar Regiment – a regiment of the infantry whose troops primarily hail from the states of Bihar and Jharkhand. As is the custom in the army, unlike the troops, the officers of infantry regiments can be drawn from any state. Five years later, at the age of 26, Jubin was promoted to Acting Major and handed over the command of a 100-soldier company in the Manasbal area of Jammu and Kashmir. Militancy was raging through the state.

On a spring day in 1997, when the Valley is arguably at its most resplendent, Jubin’s battalion got a tip-off about the presence of three militants in a village near Soura. Two of these militants were foreigners, their descriptions typically matching those of Pakistanis or Afghans. Since no one knew their precise location, the unit cordoned off three adjoining villages at night, and the troops waited for dawn to commence the search. Unbeknown to them, the militants were outside the cordon. After the familiar sounds of the azaan wafted through the area and the sun began to rise, they made their move. A soldier spotted them scampering through the fields. Challenged, the militants fired a volley at the troops and, in the heat of the moment, erroneously scooted back into the cordon, disappearing in the village’s narrow streets packed with houses.

Jubin’s company began to search the village, cordoning off streets and cautiously moving towards the suspected area. One of the militants noticed this movement and fired. The bullet hit a soldier – a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) – in the shoulder. Now that the cordon had narrowed down the location of the militants, the troops rapidly surrounded the house from which the shot was fired. Jubin’s men made several offers to the militants for peaceful surrender. So tight was the cordon around the target house that the soldiers making the surrender offer could directly exchange words with the militants. But no surrender transpired. Jubin had taken cover behind a tiny hut where the house owner had stored shali, or husk. The troops decided to end the standoff as the day progressed, lest it drag towards nightfall. The pinpoint location of the militants inside the house was still unclear. Instead of ordering a soldier to scout for more information, Jubin took it upon himself to stick his head out to see if he could locate the enemy’s movement.

At that precise moment, a militant looking in that very direction, shot Jubin in the head. During the operations, troops wear bulletproof jackets and headbands called patkas. These mostly shield the soldiers from being killed by a bullet, but the impact does injure the wearer. The bullets hit Jubin on his patka, instantly smashing his spectacles. Several splinters managed to pierce the armour and lodged themselves into a side of his forehead, penetrating deep enough to reach the bone. But Jubin had survived the battery. After the medicos quickly administered first aid on the spot, they moved to evacuate Jubin. But he refused. He wanted to stay and continue leading his men.

“It was just a graze,” he told me later, his tone light and playful. “All I was concerned about was the black eye I had got – as if I had lost a boxing bout.” He was underplaying the trauma and injury from being shot at such close proximity. The operation went on until the troops had killed all three militants. Mission achieved, the unit doctor insisted that Jubin be evacuated to the Base Hospital at Srinagar for a thorough examination. They travelled in a Gypsy that Jubin drove. 22 years later, some of the shrapnel is still embedded in a bone in his head. As a consequence, his hearing has also been impaired. But then, after his surgery, Jubin refused to accept the official order to go home on sick leave for recuperation and instead returned to the battalion.

Several years later, when I asked him why he had violated that order and put his well-being at such risk, he quietly replied that he was concerned about the shortage of officers in his battalion. “No one had asked me to rejoin and, of course, no one could ever have. But there is always a deficiency of officers in the unit and, being an officer, I thought it was my responsibility to bolster the troops’ strength.”

The story has several lessons for practitioners of “leadership” – leading from the front and, by example, complete devotion to the organisational goals and more. What moves ordinary individuals to act in this way? What binds them to an organisation’s core values so that their lives are subservient to the big idea – the strategy? While these are fascinating quandaries to explore, the answer to winning organizations is crystal clear. It is culture. A force so silently compelling that individuals like Jubin willingly let duty supersede their self-interest. And victories are assured only when that culture works in tandem with the organisation’s strategies and plans.

But we are not done with Jubin Mathew yet. Four months after he had refused the order to proceed on sick leave and returned to be a part of the ongoing battles, Jubin’s battalion received another piece of actionable intelligence. A source informed them that at least a couple of militants, armed to the teeth, were present in a village near the townships of Manasbal and Ganderbal. Jubin’s troops surrounded the area inside the village where the militants had been spotted. The Acting Major took cover behind an adjoining house. Close to this location, was a small hut that shared a wall with the cattle outhouse. Jubin’s deputy, a young lieutenant, entered that hut with a small team. Unknown to the young lieutenant, one militant was hiding in the cowshed. Only a thin mud wall separated the officer and the militant. Both officers explored the possibility of lobbing a grenade into the target house. The lieutenant decided to smash a hole in the cowshed wall for a better view. The moment he cracked the wall, the militant fired from barely a metre away, killing the young officer. A soldier from his team stepped up to retrieve the officer and took the next burst of bullets. He, too, died on the spot.

Hearing the gunfire, Jubin cautiously stepped into that house, hoping to save the entrapped team. Instead, he caught two bullets – one in his shoulder and one on the forehead, smack in the middle of both eyes. The kinetic force of the bullets threw him backwards, but once again, his life was barely saved by the bulletproof patka. (The injuries would result in other medical complications, though.)

As most commanding officers do, Colonel (later Brigadier) Pradeep Rathee was also a part of the operations. He moved forward with another small team that included a soldier who, in Army parlance, was the CO’s “buddy”. The buddy was the next to go – shot dead. It was then that Jubin noticed that he, too, was bleeding. Nevertheless, he decided to try dragging away the soldier’s body under threat of fire. There were two other fatal casualties in this firefight. In the end, after the militants were killed, Jubin was evacuated to the Base Hospital in Srinagar. His hearing had suffered permanent damage – the bullet hitting against the patka had affected nerve fibres in one of his ears.

He did not receive any medals for these two operations, a point I make only to reinforce that a robust organisational culture generates its own momentum, not always hostage to the quid pro quo of awards and rewards. What explains such focus on achieving organisational goals that individuals are willing to die rather than abandon the mission’s pursuit? It isn’t that fuzzy thing called patriotism because having served for nearly four decades, I can say without ambiguity that I have never heard that word being bandied about by anyone in the Army.

So is it intense training? Training does play a role in the efficacy of any setup. And it indeed shores up the strength of a culture. But it is equally evident that no amount of training can prepare any group to lay down lives so readily. The presence of a culture wherein most individuals are implicitly aligned to the overall strategy is what takes an organization to the finish line. Such a culture provides a momentum that transcends other motivations, including pecuniary gains. Few in the business world recognize this powerful phenomenon. The corporate has collectively made up its mind that people work for money and money alone. It is a lazy approach that seeks to absolve responsibility to motivate teams. After all, what can the rider do if money alone makes the mare go? To be sure, money does play a role. But it is never the sole contributor. Look around, and you will see many “well-meaning” organisations struggling with enervating inner dynamics, continually seeking answers for better performance, even though their monetary compensation to the employees compares favourably with that of other companies.

A culture that only relies on money as the prime motivator surrenders the locus of control to the chequebook. But if you recognise that human beings work for many reasons beyond a pay cheque, you will fashion your organisation’s culture accordingly. Soldiers in the Army get a salary – but their extraordinary motivation is despite the absence of year-end appraisals and bonuses. They – and all of us in the world – work for many other reasons. To create an identity. For acknowledgement. To fulfil a desire for power and growth. To seek love and appreciation when our lives may be too barren. And possibly an amalgam of so many other inner needs. Creating a culture that takes all of this into account – and not just money – is really where our focus needs to be.

Excerpted with permission from The Winning Culture: Lessons from the Indian Army to Transform Your Business, Neeraj Bali, Macmillan.