THE “PHOOK” THEORY

The literal meaning of the Punjabi word, ‘phook’ is air pressure. Metaphorically, it is used to describe an ego-state. Thus, if someone is hogging a lot of ‘phook’, he is ‘gassed’ or brash.  

The year, 1988. Location: No 3 Base Repair Depot (BRD), IAF, Chandigarh

The little man who sat on the hot seat in the office of Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of the BRD was my brother. Our father found him bone lazy, incapable of doing any strenuous work. But I suspect he was clever. The Air Force chose to overlook his sloth and let him rise. Now, having completed his course at the National Defense College, it was amply clear that he was going places. I had gone there to learn the rudiments of command. 

As I entered, the two officers who were sitting in the office took leave of him. He sat there, completely relaxed. There was no paper in the two trays marked “IN” and: OUT” The customary “Pending” bin was conspicuous by its absence. The walls of the large office were bare. No bar charts, no performance curves. On the table, there was a small hand written paper, which my brother permitted me to see. It said, 

“I hate paper work. Even if someone else does it”. 

 It was clear as crystal that my dear brother had not changed. I asked him how he managed such a large outfit. And he said, “Come, I will show you” And we set off for a ‘darshan’ of the unit. Wherever we went, people rushed to greet him. He had a word or two to say to every one. In most cases, he let his officers speak. He would then say just a sentence or two, and then move on. But I noticed that his tone was different each time. At one workstation, we saw a tall officer, who had a lot of charts and diagrams, and he gave us a detailed account of his achievements. The curve showed that the output of his shop had tripled since he took over. He was keen to give a lecture to the other officers of the BRD on the management techniques he had employed to achieve those results. My brother gave a cold look to him and said, “Yes. You can do that. But first you must improve the quality of your stuff. That gyro-stabilizer which failed in the flight test last month was overhauled here. Right?  If the pilot was not alert, you would have his blood on your hands!”  

Jesus! That six foot tall engineer suddenly looked like a pygmy, and his rose colored cheeks turned yellow, drained of blood, in less than a second! 

We next went to another shop. The officer in-charge received us. But while he was speaking, my brother’s eyes were elsewhere. He noticed that a junior officer had hidden himself behind a chopper. As soon as the briefing was over, he went that way, and called that man out. He gave the meek man a light hug and asked about his ailing wife. The poor soul, who was obviously commissioned from the ranks, mumbled something about the shortfall in his production, but the AOC was not interested in those details… The boss said, “I am sure you will soon make up. Your section has never let us down and this little dip is understandable” Then he ended by saying, “I saw your son playing basket ball yesterday. I think he has a lot of potential” When we left, he clicked his heels and produced one of the smartest salutes I have ever seen. 

 All through the visit, I observed that my brother was less interested in ‘output’ and more concerned about the officers and technicians he met. He knew an amazing number of names, and seemed to know all about their specific hopes and aspirations. One of the officers told me that he never wrote a confidential letter to any one: no warnings, no ‘show cause’ notices.  His communications to his boss were also short and crisp, and most often through telephone calls. 

When we returned, I asked him what his job, as the Commander was.  He thought for a while and then he shared his “Phook Theory” with me. It was like Socrates talking to Plato and I find it more appropriate to recount the dialog verbatim. He taught by asking questions, and I sat like a little child answering as best as I could. 

*

                

“When you are driving a vehicle, what happens if the tire pressure is low?”

The acceleration drops, steering becomes hard and the fuel consumption goes up”

“Right. You must inflate the wheels. Now what happens if the pressure is too high?”

“The ride becomes bumpy, steering wobbles and an odd tire may burst”

Correct. You must immediately pull up to a service station and do the needful”

 

After a sip of the juice which had arrived, he said, “This unit is like a vehicle. I am on the driver’s seat. These officers are the ‘wheels’ of the vehicle. I have only two jobs, one to steer in the correct direction and two, to ensure that the ‘phook’ level of all my officers is correct, always and every time. So when I see some one down and out, I boost his spirit and if I find some one bumpy, I …” And to show what he did, he filled air in his cheeks and made a hissing sound, ‘Phusshh…’  

Through my mind’s eye, I saw that meek officer hiding behind a chopper get a hug and a tall management ‘guru’ cut to size. Like a little child, I asked him, “But, pray, how do you find whom to pump and whom to deflate?” 

“Ah, well! That is what management is all about!” There was another pause, but after that, he became serious. He gave me the most profound lesson of that morning, “That is not difficult. One learns it through experience. The tough part is to keep my own ‘phook’ at the right level. I must not lose my equanimity, no matter what happens.  And that is not always easy. I have to make a conscious effort to remain unaffected by the unreasonable letters which I receive from my bosses and the greasy words from sycophants around me.”     

Just when I thought the lesson was over, he asked, “what is more important, technology or people?”

I looked askance, and said, “You tell?”  

His answer was unusual. He said, “Technology is for the middle level officers. At my level, it is my colleagues.” 

His parting words to me were the most profound. He said, 

“Management is all about people. If you do not like people, do not manage. Engineering has many branches, mechanical, electronics, chemical, aerospace and so on, but the one which is needed for my job is different. It is called, Human Engineering”    

 

                *                                               *                                  

       

Armed with the ‘phook theory’ I assumed command of the famous ‘Five-O-Nine’ Army Base Workshop in Agra, in 1989. And immediately, I discovered the problem associated with maintaining my own phook in check. The star plate on the car; the traffic coming to a halt to let my car go; a reception at the Agra Club followed by a function organized at Hotel Clark Shiraz by a citizen’s forum to welcome me had a way of making me to believe that I had ‘arrived’. A sycophant went on to say that no other commandant had been received that way; and that my posting was an event to remember for the land of the Taj Mahal. I made a mental note of his name and decided to avoid him, because such dialogs distracted me. I confess that it needed a great deal of deliberate effort to keep my feet on the ground, but the ‘phook’ theory helped. I jotted it down and kept it on my table, as a guide. I also applied its tenets to my command, and believe you me, it worked!

Encouraged by the results, I shared this management philosophy with my friends The feedback which I received was positive, and so I began to believe that between me and my brother, we had discovered a new management ‘mantra’

 And then one day, the sky burst and the earth began to rumble… A very dear friend, who had taken these dictums as gospel truth, rang up to say that the theory had failed completely. He said he was in sh**. My enquiries revealed that there was a near mutiny in his unit. I requested a colleague to tell me as many details as he could get and then I sent the case study to the author of the theory for advice. The reply came by the return post.  In a tersely worded note he wrote, 

“Tell your friend to check his pressure gauge. He seems to be deflating people who have nothing left in their lungs and pumping those who were already on the verge of bursting!”

(This story was first published in a newspaper in 1995)

 

Leave a Comment