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Perspectives on Leadership: Lessons from Mahatma Gandhi

“Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this (Gandhi) ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Albert Einstein

Gandhi is generally considered one of the most inspiring and influential world leaders of the last hundred years. From humble beginnings he gained world prominence, helped achieve independence for India and left a lasting legacy for us all.  However, in the age of Facebook and iPad, are his leadership lessons still relevant? I have come to realize that many of Gandhi’s core principles are remarkably relevant. This is especially true of Gandhi’s thoughts and practices in the realm of leadership competencies and self-development, especially the ideas of:

  1. Continuous learning and improvement – Gandhi always told his followers that if two of his sentences contradict each other and if they thought he was sane at that time (!), please ignore the first one and accept the second one. This reflects his learning and growth mindset, as well as anticipation of his followers’ needs. As an added corollary, rigid consistency was not one of his traits!
  2. Looking at each person without labels, just as a human being –  Personal meetings with Gandhi were very short, generally lasting a couple of minutes (in part due to an onerous poster pasted behind Gandhi’s seat that read, “Be quick, be brief, be gone!”). However, in those minutes people felt that Gandhi gave them undivided attention (no multi-tasking for him!) whether the person was a leading industrialist, a political leader or an average person off the street. He made them feel as if they were the only person in the world that Gandhi would have liked to talk at that time.
  3. Being an excellent listener – Gandhi was not a very skilled public speaker; generally he was believed to be quite average. On the other hand, he was an exceptional listener of both the articulated and the unsaid. He seemed to be practicing “seeing with your ears.”
  4. Proactively identifying barriers to make change sustainable – In the 1920s an American journalist asked Gandhi what the biggest problem was that India faced at the time. The journalist expected Gandhi to say that the problems were slavery and British rule or pervasive poverty. But Gandhi said the biggest challenge facing the country was “callousness of intellectuals.” He was not just thinking about getting independence but about building a sustainable society.
  5. Being the conscience keeper – Non-cooperation was one of the key political movements that Gandhi initiated and led. It was a widely successful initiative. In a distant village, some villagers resorted to barbaric violence against the oppressive police force. Gandhi aborted the movement saying a key tenet of the movement, non-violence, was violated, and that in his opinion “we are not ready for self-rule.” Many analysts and political leaders felt that this was not politically smart or expedient. Gandhi followed his conscience and stopped the initiative. A related trait for Gandhi was his belief that the end did not justify the means. He was insistent, nay adamant, about purity of path in order to achieve desired goal.
  6. Heavy emphasis on self-awareness and discipline
  7. Balancing value-driven vision and execution efficiency
  8. Emphasis on path and result
  9. Adopting holistic perspective in every endeavor

Note: This article draws from a series of books and lectures by Gandhi’s long time personal assistant Narayan Desai. These lectures were delivered in Gandhi’s native language, Gujarati, to the Ahmadabad Management Association in India

 

Also posted on MCLP website here.

 

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