A Leadership Lesson from Gandhi


The life of Gandhi, and for that matter, his quests, are often subject to scrutiny, wonderment, and amazement due in large part to cultural differences, influences, life experiences, and happenstance. Some with Western philosophies may find it hard to imagine all the different pieces that came together to make a timid, shy, and unsure person a national hero, leader, and treasure (Bondurant, n.d.). What follows is not a glorification of Gandhi. Instead, it is a leadership lesson worth considering. I think Americans can learn a lot from his story. Of course, Gandhi was not perfect and had some flaws and habits that some find questionable. However, that in and of itself should help demonstrate some of the coming points. Approach what follows with an open mind.

For our purposes here today, one must remember a basic premise when evaluating Gandhi: you can really only push someone so many times before they get tired of being pushed. Much of Gandhi’s life was under the thumb of the British Empire. He was educated in London, fascinated by the life of the “gentleman,” and even tried to emulate the British for a time (Jackson & Gutknecht, 2001). He was loyal but like a dog. Ironically, he eventually saw that he and his countrymen were treated as such (Biography, 2004). One can only imagine the revelations one could have had when coming to this realization. Ideas of true liberty begin to show their face, and it is usually only a matter of time before they are acted upon.

However, Gandhi is an exception in many ways, especially considering how liberty has been achieved worldwide. Gandhi’s methods were unique but still quite effective. Yet, it can almost be confusing how one set on achieving liberty can also be an advocate for interdependence – which Gandhi did. The two concepts of liberty and interdependence are often portrayed as mutually exclusive (IE: democracy vs. communism), but that is because most people consider philosophical ideas such as these as simple or one-sided – despite their complexities. It makes sense that Gandhi would be able to bridge these two ideas.

Liberty is a concept most are at least familiar with. It is the basic philosophy that identifies the condition to which an individual has the right to behave according to one’s responsibility and free will. Generally speaking, most people believe this to be a fundamental human experience. During the time of Gandhi, though, only a select few around the world enjoyed such freedoms. In this case, we speak of the British, the oppressors of India and South Africa. Of course, it does not take a man of great insight to see that oppression is fundamentally wrong. Gandhi recognized that we are born free as individuals and that our only masters or monsters to conquer should be ourselves. Gandhi once said, “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me” (Gandhi M., The essential gandhi: An anthology of his writings on his life, work, and ideas., 2002).

With that being said, we must also understand that the world (or your country) does not operate by the hands of one man alone; even Gandhi understood this. Gandhi once said, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being. Without interrelation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism. His social interdependence enables him to test his faith and to prove himself on the touchstone of reality” (Gandhi M., Young India., 1929). This is reminiscent of Rousseau’s statement that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rippey, 2001). Are these socialistic or communistic ideas, or do they speak to the need for unification? It would seem as though Gandhi understood that we are often bound by one another as a society. As a species, we often operate in packs.

Perhaps the mesh came with his Western-influenced education that gave him insight into basic American ideas that we are all born with certain unalienable rights but that we need one another to secure these rights. If so, perhaps it reflects Thomas Paine’s statement that “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in it’s worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer” (Common Sense, 1776). One can only speculate on the inner workings and reasoning of Gandhi.

Ultimately, and historically speaking, we must remember that securing such freedoms or liberties comes at a cost. It has often been said that freedom is not free. Of course, gaining such freedoms requires large teams unified in a common cause. Being a perpetual learner, Gandhi more than likely understood this as the world has shown us that such liberties are usually paid for by the blood of those teams willing to secure them. And allow me to be abundantly clear in the idea that, usually, it is the sacrifice of those who are principled that purchase the liberties enjoyed by the meek. Perhaps Gandhi wanted to change that.

Gandhi’s struggles had to be non-violent to win over his followers and the world. Perhaps he understood that many people were by nature non-violent but that they still wanted to be involved. Perhaps it was a strategic measure to gain support from citizens worldwide witnessing what was unfolding. Or perhaps, when referencing Gandhi’s study of the Bible, we find he sought to echo the Christians in the coliseum who accepted their fate of martyrdom (Jackson & Gutknecht, 2001). Regardless, and while I am not a fan of the tactic, the tactic worked. Yes, people got hurt and even killed. However, the tactic was smart because the number could have been, and more than likely would have been much higher had combat ensued. Had Gandhi not recognized the limits of his movement, the brute strength and capabilities of the British, or had he sought a violent revolution, he likely would have led his people to the slaughter.

Thankfully, this was not the case for Gandhi or his people. Gandhi achieved his goal by choosing another path. In many ways, this is due to Gandhi’s ability to capture the power of symbolism and share that vision with the world. That’s a HUGE lesson. Understand that humans want symbols and often see symbols even when there are none to see. For example, one could argue that Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s order to massacre the Indians at Jallianwala Bagh or even the imprisonment of Gandhi (any of the numerous times) was symbolic (Jackson & Gutknecht, 2001).

I think it is important for leaders to actively engage in manipulating symbolism for the favor. It is how people remember things. It is how people respond. People simply associate better with symbols. This is evident by the multi-billion dollar advertising industry that tries desperately to implant logos into our brains. Furthermore, even if a leader does not actively engage in this practice, it should be understood that people will pull out their own symbolism if it is not provided. All this is to say that providing the symbol is usually better.

The story of Gandhi is striking in many ways, but none more so than the fact that his idea had never been tried before. In fact, there was not even a word for it until Gandhi created one. “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance” in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase” (Gandhi M. K., 1928). As we can clearly see, any other method would have gone against his core beliefs. Being a man of principle, one would be hard-pressed to imagine any other method being employed.

This tells us a lot about true and effective leadership. For starters, it illustrates that sometimes leaders have to forge a new path instead of leading everyone down a road with known and often negative consequences. It shows us that leaders must be willing to take a leap of faith before expecting others to make the same leap. Finally, it demonstrates that sometimes there is a better way, even when we do not see it immediately.

Perhaps discipline is the keyword we need to utilize here. Remaining steadfast to the plan when we believe it to be the right way. Look, the job of a leader is not always a great one. Hard decisions must be made. New ideas must be forged. The world is watching.

In the end, many aspects of Gandhi’s leadership apply to and are useful in our own leadership practices and studies. As mentioned before, being willing to forge into uncharted territory is a great place to start. Doing so isn’t always popular. Innovative ideas and concepts are a must, but they must originate from somewhere, they must be laid out and sold by leadership, and everyone must pursue them together.

Perhaps the key is belief. Nothing can truly happen without that. Of course, this could also mean accepting the ideas of a follower – if you truly believe in it. You do not have to have all the answers. What you need is belief. However, belief comes from a TRUE understanding of the goal or vision. For example, it might be hard to truly believe in (or be vested in) the Constitution if you have not read it. Sort of like how it might be hard to be a real Christian if you do not know the doctrine.

Other great examples could be remaining dedicated to a resolution or solution, no matter how long it takes or what kind of hardships one must endure. Of course, one could also argue that Gandhi’s lifelong learning and improvement were vital to his success. He was always trying to improve himself, and this was admired by many. Looking at everyone as equals or listening to others are yet more great examples. Finally, simply being open-minded regarding the barriers we face and the solutions we could apply. With all this, if someone were to merely apply half of what has been covered and be only half as principled as Gandhi, you would still have a very effective leader on your hands. Perhaps his level of commitment alone is something to strive for.

That being said, it should be recognized that in today’s world, there are aspects of Gandhi’s style that would not be workable other than in very limited contexts, such as in religious settings. A good example of this would be attempts at hunger strikes. In great part, this method works only if the opposing party cares. Another issue would be that he dictated how and when people could communicate with him—for instance, Gandhi’s weekly day of silence (Biography, 2004). One could only imagine what reaction the President might receive if he had a weekly day of silence where he was unable to speak. Most of the weaknesses come about or from Gandhi’s personal initiatives. Not to say that constant refinement is not necessary for a leader, but I do not believe that in the Western philosophy, Corporate America, or government in general, such practices would be tolerated for long.

Regardless, the study of Gandhi is important in many ways. To begin with, it illustrates the possibilities of willpower, intestinal fortitude, drive, and above all else, what can happen when you are truly committed to your goals. Additionally, it provides insight into the realm of what-if, and it could be argued that the story of Gandhi could be a road map for those who find themselves to be timid or reserved – that perhaps one need not be an extrovert to change the world or even their surroundings.

Finally, it seems that almost every aspect of what one could learn from Gandhi could be utilized in the initial stages of course correction. As we discussed earlier, it is the symbolism of the figure that we must pull to make the coloration—the Constitution, the Founders, our Monuments, etc. We are not at war yet, but we have begun to passively resist bad ideas or unconstitutional behaviors. We must constantly refine ourselves and navigate the turbulent waters of tyranny being handed down. We must hold our tongues at times as it is often best not to speak – because our actions will speak louder than words.

Maybe regarding leadership in the months and years ahead, the life and struggles of Gandhi are best summed up as analogies. While I feel this does a tremendous disservice to Gandhi’s life, we must also recognize that times are very different and that most people do not have a fraction of the self-discipline or principle that Gandhi did. Maybe that is the problem. Perhaps that is the place to start. At the very least, the lesson is that we must be resolved and see it through, no matter what. You may find yourself in a leadership position soon enough if you are not already. What are you going to do when you are in it?