As John Quincy Adams put it, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” By this standard, Mahatma Gandhi clearly emerges as one of the most remarkable leaders of all time.
In 1930, Gandhi was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. Seven decades later, he was second only to Albert Einstein for Person of the Century. On the occasion of Gandhi’s 75th birthday, of course, Einstein paid tribute to Gandhi by noting, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Why? Gandhi was essentially the archetypical moral force whose appeal to humanity is both universal and lasting. Originally a timid and taciturn soul, he grew into a paragon of visionary leadership, helping to secure the liberation of a fifth of the world’s population from the rule of the largest empire on earth. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1958, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”
Simply put, Gandhi’s legacy became the harbinger of freedom for many countries in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. In addition to Dr. King, he inspired exemplary leadership in other historic figures, ranging from Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi to U.S. President Barack Obama. While receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama accepted it as a tribute to “the man who founded the modern tradition of non-violent action for change, Mahatma Gandhi, whose life taught and inspired me.”
But despite the more than 400 biographies that describe his life, not to mention 100 volumes of Gandhi’s own collected works, the man remains an enigma. “No one so well-known is so little known,” notes Gandhi’s grandson and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi. In fact, if truth be told, what we think we know about the man may not be all true. When describing Gandhi, for example, American historian Will Durant wrote, “We have the astonishing phenomenon of a revolution led by a saint.” And that was simply not the case.
In Gandhi: A Life, biographer Yogesh Chadha provides a glimpse of how Gandhi was seen by the British public when he describes a scene from 1931. While in London pleading for India’s independence, Gandhi was approached by a small girl looking for an autograph. But before he signed his name, she drew back, suddenly uncertain about his historic worthiness. Looking at what she saw as a strange little dhoti-clad man — with cheap wire-framed spectacles and a roughly mended shawl — she looked up at her mother and asked, “Mummy, is he really great?”
That’s a good question. Gandhi’s critics call him idealistic, impractical and politically naïve. But much of what they write often reveals more about themselves than the man. After all, despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them, the man still has much to teach us 146 years after his birthday (October 2, 1869). As for his devoted fans, well, they complicate matters by spreading misinformation. As things stand, too many myths surround him. And as a result, I believe Gandhi’s greatest achievements as a leader are still waiting to be fully discovered.
In my recent book Gandhi and Leadership, I explore the spiritual and moral anchorage of Gandhi’s leadership, outlining seven Gandhian values that are most relevant in the contemporary workplace: authenticity/personal integrity, harmlessness (ahimsa), truthfulness (satyagraha or truth-force), transparency, humility, self-discipline and selfless service. Based on that work, this article looks to dispel two major myths about Gandhi in order to reclaim him as a human being and draw key leadership lessons from his successes and failures as a fallible individual who achieved great things.
MYTH ONE: Gandhi’s actual name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Karamchand being his father’s name). Mahatma, which means a “great soul,” was an honorific given to him by Sir Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel laureate poet. But despite the perceived greatness of his soul, Gandhi was no saint. This myth requires some active dispelling because it is one of the most common and dangerous misconceptions about Gandhi.
In his autobiography, Gandhi noted that the title “Mahatma” often pained him deeply because the term was too sacred to be applied to a simple seeker of truth. He insisted he wasn’t a “saint trying to be a politician,” but rather a “politician trying to be a saint.” And we should take his word for it because calling him a saint makes his virtues too lofty to be emulated and his vices too glorified to be instructive. “If we label Gandhi a perfected being,” observed Mark Shepard in his book Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths, “we lose our chance to view his life and career critically and to learn from his mistakes.”
MYTH TWO: According to some versions of history, Gandhi singlehandedly wrought the miracle of India’s independence. But the struggle for independence had been progressing for three decades before Gandhi arrived on the political scene, and it very likely would have borne tangible results of its own accord. Furthermore, while the extraordinary manner in which India’s independence was achieved can be pointedly ascribed to Gandhi, one of the great ironies of history is that the country that he peacefully led to freedom ended up divided, amid great violence, into India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947.
Gandhi did not want the “two-part independence” that India achieved. It pained him deeply to see 32 years of his selfless work come to an inglorious end. Without his influence, as Rajmohan Gandhi notes in Gandhi: The Man, His People, and Empire, “The violence would have been even greater, the parts more than two, and the future unity, pluralism, and democracy of the Indian part far more vulnerable.” And yet, it is important to recognize that he made mistakes.
It is possible that Gandhi underestimated the toxicity of warring religious factions, not to mention let idealism and optimism get the better of him. It is possible that his constant use of Hindu symbolism alienated Muslims irrevocably. Perhaps he pushed his dietary practices and his experiments with celibacy beyond reasonable limits. Perhaps humanity was not sufficiently evolved to genuinely embrace Gandhi’s creed of love and non-violence.
Whatever the case, it is no wonder that none of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns initially won over his adversaries, at least not directly.
There are some great leadership lessons here. Consider:
- Not all people share the same values, so leaders need to understand their own and others’ values and intentions.
- It is not always wise to be good to a fault; discretion is indeed the better part of valor.
- When dealing with racial diversity, it is not prudent to overplay some ethnic themes.
- Knowing when enough is enough is a hallmark of wisdom, so one needs to be moderate about moderation.
Gandhi’s most important lesson for leaders is that no power on earth can make a person act against his or her will. And self-control, meaning the ability to discipline oneself, delivers us the strength to shape the environment in which we exist. But there are many more valuable lessons that can be extracted from Gandhi’s life and thought. Here is a short list:
- Leadership is about serving and sacrifice, not personal ambition.
- Effective leaders embrace challenges instead of avoiding them. Met squarely, challenges bring strength and build character.
- Leadership is an internal affair with all battles won or lost within the mind.
- Effective leaders are peaceful warriors — bereft of attachment and personal likes and dislikes. They do not do what they like to do. They do what needs to be done.
- Effective leaders relinquish self-interest and egotism because their strength resides in the richness of their being, not in the multitude of their possessions.
- Effective leaders master their senses instead of letting their senses master them because they find joy in self-mastery.
- Effective leaders know that self-awareness is the key to leading others effectively, and they convert unfavourable circumstances into opportunities for self-development (Sisyphus was not wasting his time; he was developing his muscles).
- Effective leaders know that selfish desire obscures self-awareness, which requires patient cultivation and ultimately depends on self-knowledge.
- Effective leaders place the right means above desired ends. The right ends follow exalted means.
- Effective leaders understand that everybody is flawed, but nature does not give us the ability to see our flaws as others see them.
- Effective leaders know that the right thing to do and the hard thing to do are usually the same.
As Time declared in its millennium issue, no myth-making can rob Gandhi of “his moral force or diminish the remarkable importance of this scrawny little man.” The following three stories illustrate why this is true.
STORY ONE: A mother once brought her son to Gandhi looking for help in getting the boy to stop eating sugar. Gandhi looked at the kid for a long time, then told the mother to bring her son back in two weeks. The mother did not understand the rationale for the delay, but she did as instructed. Fourteen days later, Gandhi looked deeply into the boy’s eyes and said, “Stop eating sugar.” The mother was grateful, but puzzled. “Why didn’t you tell my son to stop eating sugar two weeks ago?” she asked. Gandhi replied, “Two weeks ago, I was eating sugar.”
STORY TWO: Gandhi once lost one of his sandals as he was boarding a train. With no time to retrieve it, he immediately removed his other sandal and tossed it to the ground along the track. When asked by an astonished fellow passenger why he did this, Gandhi replied, “Now the poor man who finds it will have a pair he can use.”
STORY THREE: According to Narayan Desai’s My Gandhi, five months before his death Gandhi gave the following advice to a fellow truth seeker: Whenever in doubt, recall the poorest and weakest person you know or have seen and ask yourself if whatever it is that you are contemplating will be of any use to this person. Do that, and you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.
Gandhi was indeed great. But his greatness does not only lie in what he accomplished. It also lies in what he did despite his human failings. He struggled to always practice what he preached, renouncing the trappings of title, authority and position as he relentlessly strived to help others in an utterly selfless manner. His greatness lies in his stirring of the conscience of humanity, in his demonstrating the power of spirit over material things, in his turning of his moral searchlight inward, and in his extending the gospel of love and peace from a personal level to the social arena.
It is not without significance that Gandhi subtitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. His whole life was one long series of experiments. But it also serves as a sermon on how to lead. In all that he achieved, he was passionately guided by the twin principles of truth and non-violence. These values are as old as humanity itself, but Gandhi’s devotion to them — which required an equally impressive amount of sacrifice, strength, courage and self-control — was on a massive scale. And that is worth remembering on the birthday of “this little brown man in loincloth” who brought the mightiest empire on earth to its knees.