The Art of Leadership and Lessons from the Past – Gandhi.

Mohandas Gandhi gave rise to a whole new gener...
Mohandas Gandhi gave rise to a whole new generation of nationalists, and a whole new form of revolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”
  Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi had been on the political stage for more than fifty years before three pistol shots put an end to his life at the early beginning of 1948. Two generations of Indian patriots were inspired by him apart from millions of others. He shook the British empire and was at the frontline of a peaceful revolution which he initiated by his vision to change the face of India, but Africa and Asia took his example. To the people of his own, millions,  he was the Mahatma the great soul. Despite being ridiculed by many and considered to be suspicious, by the end of 1947 he raised the frontier of revolt against racial imperial domination and racial suppression. His ideas began to resonate in some of the finest minds in the world. “Generations to come, it may be”, Einstein had said of Gandhi in July 1944, “will scarcely believe that such  one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon earth.”His life had been ongoing at the centre of drama which did not seem to stop but Gandhi himself was the least dramatic of men. Well balanced in many ways. He had neither the “popular” reputation of a heroic person nor the trappings of political eminence where efforts keeping up a public image not rarely hides a complex private image. He did not try to create an image as he was as he was. A man with steel-rimmed glasses, rough sandals, a toothless smile, a voice which rarely rose above a whisper and dressed in his loin cloth. He had an impressive humility. Gandhi’s, deepest strivings were spiritual. Not in the usual way of retiring in a cave for salvation in his country, but salvation to be achieved both within the context of meditation and expressing himself amidst the challenges of his time. He had not a complicated childhood. Thereafter molding experiences amidst the political struggles of South Africa and the struggle for freedom in India. The last lifting him at the world stage of triumph and tragedy.Gandhi’s leadership was effective in a particular set of circumstances and he moulded the requirements of his leadership to get both independence from England and a future for India. Besides the principle of non-violence never being compromised, a person like Gandhi most likely would have shown different aspects of leadership in different circumstances – dependent on the priorities and actions being required.

Embrace change

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Gandhi’s  life  story  was  about  action  and  positive  change.   Whilst  he  was  succesful  in  some  areas  he  failed  in  others,  however  he never  gave  up his  efforts  for  improvement.   We  are  all  allowed   to  make  errors  as  long  as  we  learn  from  them.   This  is  what  he  said  on  various occasions.  This  is  part  of  life.   This  is  part  of  leadership  as  well.   Mistakes  or  errors  from  the  past  are  lessons  for  the  present  in  order  to  be  successful in  the  future,  as  long  as  we approach  them  with  honesty  and  humility.  Life,  politics  and  business  are  full  of  dynamic  changes  and  we  have  to embrace  those  changes  as  long  as   the   principles  of  approaching change  are  right  at  the  centre  of  our  thoughts   and actions,  who  (if well-selected)  find  the  future  of  the  many  who  are  involved.

“Action expresses priorities.” 
Mohandas Gandhi

We may hear at various times that actions speak louder than words; and Gandhi proved an example of this. More often action is far stronger than words though the power of words and language can be equal strong to create the action being required, the action of non – violence wich in the specific way Gandhi dealt with matters made the British empire decide to give up their aspirations on India. Action is an expression of our desires or intentions and the priorities of our actions is determined by our desires for the future, – in the role of leadership by the strong desire of what we want to achieve as part of our long-term plan’s and/or goals. The biggest challenge facing India was “callousness of intellectuals” as far as Gandhi concerned. He was far more concerned about building a sustainable society and not having independence only. Gandhi was proactive in his actions as well

 “Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”
Mohandas Gandhi

There is neither pride nor gain derived from violence as in the nature of things those manifestations will get back to us in a way which we not always are able to either sustain or endure. The corner-stone of Gandhi’s movement was non – coöperation and the principle was non-violence regardless the violence at times of an oppressive police force. When at some stage villagers in a rural area of his home land responded in a barbaric way too such police violence, Gandhi based on his conscience reflected that the key tune from the non-violence movement was violated in this act and he judged firmly against this. Gandhi once said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

Obviously this is true but the strict non violent approach is difficult to apply in any circumstances where a dictator stands up with a large armed following of people applying the same violent principles as the dictator himself. The only way to disarm a dictator is with the approach of non-cooperation by both the whole population and his generals, which is not the usual approach to be followed if we look at reality. Whilst the principle is excellent where leadership is able to enforce this as part of “self-rule”, disciplined as it needs to be, – circumstances may arise where such approach is not effective. In terms of international politics the “doctrine” of not attacking nations unless we are attacked is achievable, whilst accepting mass attacks by repetition of a different country or movement is the same as not protecting own citizens.  On the other hand, like Gandhi once said: “The policy of retaliation has never succeeded.”

Character traits like humility, persistence, assertiveness and self-awareness are likewise important as a mindset willing to learn and to change through experience in the perceptions of Gandhi. In  the discipline of this with the above notations incorporated people are ready for “self-rule”, as far as Gandhi concerned.

Proper values

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Value systems being properly assessed on their implementation were important in Gandhi’s way of thinking. For Gandhi, truth and morality was crucial.  It was in and on its own linked with the concept of non-violence and spiritual renewal and it did determine his conduct in events to be absolutely right before proceeding. If he considered the conduct of certain events not to be right he would rather not act. Often as a result of this he called off protests or other actions.

The importance of vision:

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“There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing.” –James Kouzes and Barry Posner

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.” –Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame

Gandhi’s vision of the future was both spiritual, moral and practical, and it was through his consistent application of his vision that he led. He and his vision were one, as he lived it with clear articulation. When people have no self-respect others are able to rule them and so felt Gandhi about the Indians and he felt that they should approach their place towards British rule in a proactive way. What Gandhi emphasised was not only political independence from the British empire, but also spiritual renewal for the people of India and the means he emphasised this was of an absolute non-violent nature.His ideas were rooted both in the beliefs of the Gita’s with a Christian influence and in this he reached the hearts of millions. He not only tried to bring justice to the people of South Africa, but his endeavours in the direction of Indian Independence were based on justice as well. What he was unable to meet was his own deeply felt vision for a just society in his own country.

Based on the experience in both South Africa and with British rule, Gandhi felt that “the violence of all Governments” meant that the people should move to a situation in which they control their own destiny in small-scale groups and sort their issues out at this level. A concept which proved at a larger scale not to work far earlier in history when the Greek had their experiments with democracy. Gandhi did not argue for a plural democratic India. There is a plural society, when different sections of the community (eg the Indian, the Chinese, the European) do live side by side, within the same political unit. They do mix but do not necessarily combine. It was Nehru who was the driver of mass democracy in India.

The importance of Unity

If a leader and his followers pursue a shared goal with similar motivation to go ahead in positive action, to try with the similar positive energy and strategy to meet what they so dearly want to do, –  they have the potential to make history as they will leave a legacy. This requires great team work and coaching, support and empowerment when people have been rallied to buy into the principle direction by own choice,  to follow a common goal with diversity of talent and qualifications. Gandhi did understand the importance of unity, like Martin Luther King,jr, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama did understand the importance of unity. Regardless direction, we find the principle of keeping unity back in both the leaders with conscience and integrity, besides the leaders who are lacking those virtues.

The importance of integrity and respect for human rights.

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Hitler was neither the only leader who understood the principle of unity nor was he last leader who was lacking integrity and respect for human life.  This virtue does not come from physical capacity but from an indomitable will to show strength in this direction, being the most cohesive and enduring force of our unity in diversity, the most cohesive force and a test for civilization.

Gandhi expressed this differently in terms of respect for life. He said:  “Power based on love is thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” Gandhi is correct in his assessment that if the arms race continues all over the world, with today more countries having access to weapons of mass destruction, the last resort is a slaughter such as has never happened in history and if there is a victory for a nation this victory will be a living death for the nation being able to claim victory, – if there is one. The approach of Gandhi which is based on respect for human life calls for unconditional action to refrain from violence. The concept is not the easiest, but the background is clear.

With all respect there is violence right at the heart of nature but humans have the ability to apply respect for life and restrict violence by noncooperation with evil. Whilst violent noncooperation has the potential to multiply evil, sometimes evil needs to be eradicated to prevent a “cancer” which could abolish life and respect for human rights & life.

Evil violence can’t be tolerated as this type of evil could multiply itself if the forces of noncooperation with such evil are not strong enough. History teaches us that leaders can stand up with both the worst intentions and followers and if evil does manifest as a result of this at a larger scale it needs to be resisted with right and proportionate means to stop it. Absolute non violence might be highly regarded in terms of values and whilst ignoring provocations can be helpful, non – violence regardless the circumstances at times could be the same as being indifferent to evil, – the last which is wrong.

Whilst Gandhi claims that the law of love governs the world, this is not the reality of day-to-day life.  Respect for human life however is able to conquer hate, but the same respect for human life means as well the willingness to protect human life.

Integrity is a different entity, however whilst integrity and honesty based on conscious are part of strong leadership, integrity in the avenue of respect for human life embraces the quest for truth “to nourish the soul and life itself, as untruth tends to corrode it”.

Leaders are different

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Even  with  some  failings  Gandhi  is  still  considered  as  one  of  the  most  positive  and  effective  leaders  of  our past century.  He  made  a  major  step  forward  and  broke with  all  existing  perceptions  by  solving  the  problem  India  faced  with  a  different  level  of  thinking,  – escaping  from  a  war  with  the  British  empire  and  gaining independence  by  applying  the  principle  of  non  violence  and  noncooperation.  He  considered  the  use  of  violence  an obsolete  paradime  and  proved  to  be  effective  in  the  way  he  approached  the  subject,  – both  with  integrity  and  leadership.  He  was  able  to  mobilise  most  of  the  Indian  people  at  all  levels  of  society  and  despite  the  many dilemma’s  he  achieved  a  quality  movement  of non-  violence  with  a  legacy  all  over  the  world,  – last  but  not  least  affecting  the  movement  for social  justice  in  the  US  where Martin  Luther  King,jr  was  the  leader  in  the  early  1960ties.   Gandhi  had  despite  failures  and  despite  the  concept  of non-violence  not  being  applicable  in  all circumstances  both  at  least  great  courage  and  vision,  – both  great  compassion  and  integrity.   He made  a  choice  to  be  used  for  a  purpose  larger  than  his  own  self  and  he  did  this  with  both  joy  and  balance  of  mind.   He  inspired  people  to  follow  his  steps  based  on  a  foundation  of  trust  and  influence  which  had  a  long  lasting impact  in  the  last  century. But  even  today!

If  more  people  would  buy  into  his principles  we  would  indeed  end  up  with  a  better  world,  however  by  free  choice  people do  opt  to  create  more  arms  and  use  more  violence  and  at  international  level  the  principle  of non-violence  is  only  practical  if  all  stakeholders  buy  into  this  principle. This  does  not  happen  as  yet  and  is  not  likely  to  happen  in  the  future  as  many  countries  live  by  the  application  of  achievable  politics, –  and  non-violence  is  still  a dream.  A  dream  however  with  great  value  as  it  asks  from  us  to  act  with  wisdom  and  restraint  in  a  world  potentially  more  dangerous  than  ever  before.  The measure of  the  man  (his  leadership)  is  what  he  achieved  with  this  and  tried  to  do  without  seeing  “the  promised  land”.   He  did  add  value  to  life  and  we  can’t  say  this  from every  leader.  

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The  last  principle  of  good  leadership  with  all  above  ingredients  included  is  perhaps  indeed   > to add  value  to  life <. 

Together  with  creating  the  margins  to keep  the  mission  going  and  to  make  “the  dream”  come  true.

Thank you!

Paul Alexander Wolf

2 responses to “The Art of Leadership and Lessons from the Past – Gandhi.”

  1. Trilok Chandra Srivastava Avatar
    Trilok Chandra Srivastava

    Gandhiji was a true ‘Management-Guru’.There was no difference in his precepts and practices.Before embarking on the full fledged mission of the independence struggle, he travelled miles on foot to establish a communication with the common man and also to have an insight as regards their problems and expectations.He was of a strong view that positive results can be accomplished only by being a part of people whom to lead. His sensitivity for the poor turned him into a ‘sage’ who adopted a very simple attire and made him an epitome of simplicity, integrity ,truth,non-violence, compassion, honesty and purity. He emphasised not only for purity of the Object/Aim but also for the purity of the means to achieve them. His great philosophy and deeds can not be confined in a paragraph. In fact, Gandhian Philosophy is like a great ocean…..the deeper we go….the more we find…..
    Trilok Chandra Srivastava
    Human-Rights and Gandhian Scholar

  2. John R. Naugle Avatar
    John R. Naugle

    Greetings from Atlanta: City of Peace.
    Hello Dr. Wolf.
    This is an excellent essay on Gandhi’s life, work and perspectives. I really admire your depth of thinking and I thank you for your example in the peace community. I look forward to referring to this many more times in the future as I enjoy growing in the areas of a peacemaker too. Thanks for your articles!
    Peace in…
    John R. Naugle
    Founder, President & CEO
    Atlanta: City of Peace, Inc. (ACP)