Today, October 2, 2013, is celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti in India. Without doubt, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1949), popularly and reverently referred to as Mahatma Gandhi or Bapuji, is the greatest leader India has ever produced. Mahatma Gandhi has few parallels even internationally for several of his unique attributes. He was both a transformational leader and transactional leader, whose knowledge covered a whole range of domains including politics, economics, religion, spirituality and philosophy. What distinguished Gandhi was that he was highly principled and value-based in whatever he preached and executed. As a result, he could inspire the elite as effectively as he could sway the masses. He was a truly original thinker who brought concepts such as non-violence to centre stage nationally as well as internationally.
Without Mahatma Gandhi, Indian independence would have been a distant dream even now. Without his indomitable will and leadership, the mighty British empire would not have been forced to accede to Indian independence in an essentially non-violent way. Without his unique campaigns, including, for example, the famous Salt March to Dandi, the nation would not have been able to demonstrate the power of unity in diversity. There are so many competencies and capabilities of Mahatma Gandhi that it would be difficult for anyone to chronicle them in any order and to do any level of justice. This blog post merely attempts to glean some lessons from Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership that would have relevance to management and leadership in business, and any organized activity or even to any individual endeavor.
Leadership by example
Mahatma Gandhi personified leading by example. His thoughts, deeds and execution were clearly and completely aligned. If he preached simplicity, he exemplified by adopting simple living, including wearing hand-woven half-dress that identified with the poorest of poor. He organized all his non-violent protests, including satyagrahas, by being in the front rather than exhorting from behind. In terms of personal possessions he had the barest of the minimum, forsaking all his wealth for the good of the community. He emphasized effective time and resource management, spinning cloth whether in his ashram or in prison.
Such extraordinary simplicity may not be every leader’s wont in today’s times but certainly the essence of Gandhi’s leading by example can be integrated in terms of avoiding extravagance, and reflecting authenticity, transparency, genuineness and alignment in thoughts, expressions and actions. Walking the talk and leading by example are the pivots of effective leadership dynamics.
Leadership by thematic campaigns
The early 1900s had none of the communication tools that the world has today. Yet Gandhi could galvanize an entire nation of multiple languages and cultures onto one platform. He captured the imagination of several hundred millions of people by enunciating, practicing and leading thematic campaigns such as Khadi (hand-woven cotton dress) as a mark of social and economic self-reliance and Satygraha (fasting) as a symbol of self-sacrifice, self-denial and self-purification. His non-violent movements such as non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience movement, and quit-India movement, finally culminating in the India independence movement reflect a thematic acumen to rally a nation of several million people around.
Whether people belong to small teams or large organizations, thematic campaigns are required to galvanize people of multiple predispositions into one unified thought and execution process. Leaders faced with challenges of turnaround and growth, as well as leaders in pursuit of competitiveness through safety, quality and efficiency need such thematic drivers.
Leadership by persistence
Gandhi was the ultimate epitome of persistence, tenacity, endurance, commitment, conviction. Whether it was facing hostile white mobs in Durban, traveling to the coldest of the places like London bare-chested, conforming to strict vegetarianism even on foreign shores, walking hundreds of miles day and night, fasting for days together, or accepting incarceration with selflessness, Mahatma believed in the causes he expounded and overcame all daunting obstacles resolutely.
In civil life or business life, success is not easy. The above five qualities which fired Gandhi’s dour and doughty spirit are very much a requirement of leadership. Conviction in the causes of core leadership is the fundamental driver of the other four qualities of persistence, tenacity, endurance and commitment.
Leadership by organization
Despite his extraordinary capabilities and qualities, Gandhi never considered the movement for Indian independence as only his one-person initiative. He aligned the Congress party and its machinery as the organizational vehicle. In 1921 when he became a senior congress functionary, he reorganized the party hierarchy and created a structure that is aligned with the objectives. More importantly, he displayed the statesmanship and stewardship to lead a team of exceptional leaders of their own right; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji, Jinnah, Gokhale, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Baba Ambedkar, to name a few.
Successful social or business leadership requires building and development of a world-class organization with a structure that is aligned to strategy and vision, and a highly qualified and experienced leadership team. A leader’s responsibility lies in developing the right balance of alignment and creativity amongst a group of competent and passionate leaders.
Leadership by service
Gandhi exemplified servant leadership long before it became a part of management lexicon. Gandhi saw himself as a servant of the Indian people, even more particularly of the poor and downtrodden. He was an extraordinary leader of people but made every effort to find oneness with ordinary people. Several of his personal qualities such as humaneness, humility, integrity, accountability, honesty, accessibility, equality, morality, spirituality, trusteeship, mentoring and empowerment (and even vulnerability to human failings) made Gandhi into a role model of servant leadership. His espousal of independence on behalf of the people, his campaign for eradication of untouchability and his readiness to serve the plague-diseased and war-injured despite all the risks are enduring evidences of his servant leadership.
Business and organizational leaders are, in a sense, servants of all the stakeholders, including but not limited to the customers, investors, employees and the larger society. Business leadership must see metrics of organizational performance in a perspective of trusteeship for the greater good of the society. In some businesses, such as healthcare industry the linkage could be obvious but even in other industries the service dimension gets discovered by true servant leaders, leading to superior performance.
Leadership by customers
Long before customer-centricity became a buzzword in marketing and management, Gandhi made a highly profound statement on customers as the core of any business. Gandhi stated, “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.” Considering customers in the perspective that Gandhi has enunciated could be seen as a logical extension of his service leadership.
Business leaders must consider whether concepts of market leadership and customer loyalty are the right concepts to feel comfortable about, in the context of the above perspective. Rather, leaders must measure themselves and the performance of their organizations on a holistic paradigm of customer service. This paradigm should be more than fulfillment of customer orders; it could be in terms of lifelong customer satisfaction.
Leadership by self-reliance
Although the word Swaraj means self-rule, Gandhi gave it the content of an integral revolution that encompasses all spheres of life. He stated, “At the individual level Swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification and growing self-reliance”. Politically, swaraj is self-government and it means a continuous effort to be independent of government control, whether it is foreign government or whether it is national. In other words, it is sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority. Economically, Swaraj means full economic freedom for the toiling millions. His Khadi movement, with the Charak (the spinning wheel) emerging as the symbol of economic power in the hands of individuals and the passionate espousal of small and micro enterprises and rural employment are sterling examples of his belief in economic self-reliance.
Indian business may consider, somewhat erroneously, that in today’s globalized world self-reliance is an obsolete concept. On the other hand, the business must note that but for the emphasis of Gandhi-Nehru combine on self-reliance and the passionate response of private and public sectors, India would have missed even this level of industrialization. While, India did win its independence, economic independence is still elusive. Gandhian economics in a contemporary format is certainly called for.
Leadership by people
Gandhiji believed that the real power directly resides in the hands of people. Gandhi said, “Power resides in the people, they can use it at any time.” This philosophy rests inside an individual who has to learn to be master of his or her own self and spreads upwards to the level of his or her community which must be dependent only on itself. Gandhi said, “In such a state, everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour”. While Gandhi was a great leader he articulated that his leadership was based on factors that even ordinary men and women could implement. He stated that by putting in the same effort and attention as he has put in, any person could achieve all that he could achieve. While it reflects his humility, it also reflects his belief in the capability and power of the people.
Leaders have to retain the connectivity with the people. The more power is concentrated in a leader the less successful will be his or her organization. That said, it does not mean laissez faire for all people of an organization. The key emphasis must not only be on decentralization and empowerment but also on accountability to dedicate the same effort, and accord the same attention, as the leader would put in. That would be the true embodiment of grassroots leadership.
Leadership by universality
Gandhi studied and lived abroad. He travelled abroad in the face of misplaced strife against him and defying the power of a world empire too. In doing so, he discovered his ethical traits, developed his tools of leadership and honed his personality. He preached and followed Hinduism as a devout Hindu but equally understood and respected other religions, Christianity and Islam. He firmly believed in the universality and co-existence of multiple cultures and religions. His viewpoints, no doubt, established the foundations of a secular, independent India.
In today’s globalized world, characterized by multinational corporations of diverse host national origins, it is tempting for leaders or team members, and headquarters or regions to make fallacious assumptions on competencies and attributes through the prisms of individual cultures. The moment leaders and individuals start appreciating the universality of competence, true global leadership emerges. And, leadership is a continuous discovery of what is, and what can be, good for the organizations.
Leadership by engagement
Gandhi could galvanize the people by engagement. Even in those days of manual and physical communication, Gandhi never tired of engaging with the people. His personal meetings with people who called on him were short and concise but pointed and effective. He provided all the attention, he listened well and made all his visitors feel really important and cared for in the brief personal meetings. When he addressed public gatherings, he always had the pulse of the people. With his sublime personal traits personified by his ethical and honest conduct on one hand and the inspiring thematic connectors such as Satya (truth), Swaraj (self-rule), Satyagraha (peaceful protest) and Ahimsa (non-violence), Gandhi always engaged with the millions of Indians, rich or poor, effectively.
Leadership’s greatest trap and fallibility is the distance that develops between leaders and the larger population. Some leaders mistakenly distance themselves, some leaders are separated by interlocutors and intermediaries and some others are kept at a distance by people themselves out of fear or reverence. It is important for leaders to stay in touch and make the people feel connected genuinely.
Mahatma Gandhi leadership model
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has truly been an exceptionally great leader. While his achievements have been spectacular in the political and national arena, his having been the Father of the Indian Independence, the principles of humanism and leadership he embodied transcend all domains, and are applicable to organizational leadership, whether business or administrative, and whether for-profit or not-for-profit. The ten facets of Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership model brought out in this blog post, namely leadership by example, leadership by thematic campaigns, leadership by persistence, leadership by organization, leadership by service, leadership by customers, leadership by self-reliance, leadership by people, leadership by universality, and leadership by engagement together constitute a holistic model of humanistic leadership.
While several decades have passed, Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership model remains as relevant today as it was in his lifetime. It would continue to be applicable at all times in future, and in all cultures and nations in a fundamental manner. As with any model, Gandhi’s humanistic leadership model has to be absorbed and implemented contextually, and with wholehearted conviction. It is a model not merely for leaders, current and prospective, but also for all people at large. It would be useful to recall once again Gandhi’s statement that even ordinary persons would achieve the same results and impact if they exert the same effort and attention as Gandhi himself has dedicated for human welfare and development. That brings us to one of the most profound quotations of Mahatma Gandhi: ”Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 2, 2013 on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti.