Mahatma Gandhi's Leadership Philosophy In The 21st Century

Read in 8 min. 'You have to be the change that you want to see in the world'
Mahatma Gandhi
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Some philosophies stand the test of time and when it comes to leadership, Mahatma Gandhi's words– "You have to be the change that you want to see" are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago when he successfully mobilised millions of Indians at the grass root level to come out of their homes and oppose the British oppression in India. His doctrine of non violence and civil disobedience was more appealing to Indians than the call for violence by many radical organizations.

Gandhi faced a great challenge and overthrowing the British was not the biggest one. His biggest challenge was to inspire Indians to feel and see themselves as equals to the British despite the visible superiority of the Rulers. He feared that if millions of Indians were not able to breakaway from the slave mentality the British oppression would be replaced by a domestic one.

Mahatma Gandhi understood the intricacies of what is now labelled as ‘situational leadership’, very well. He was able to understand all the factors in India's freedom struggle carefully - most importantly the psychology of the people and he crafted a strategy that would not only mobilise mass opinion in India and abroad against imperialism but would also leave a lasting legacy, a philosophy that would later be followed by many around the world in their own struggle against oppression - from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.

Who is a Leader?

An interesting observation that comes to the fore during our Leadership Workshops is that people often associate leadership with designations. Nothing could be further from the truth. You don't have to be the head of an organization or be elected to a political office to be a leader. If you are in a position to influence the life of another human being - in any sphere of life (if you are alive you are!) - that makes you a leader and it serves us all well if you are leading in the right direction.

Are you living the message?
Emily Lawson and Colin Price (2003)(1) argue that the impact of effective role models is equal to the sum of the impact of the other three conditions required in changing mindsets in an organization. Their findings validate Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and expand the definition of a leader to any person of influence in the organization.

They outline 4 conditions for changing mind sets –

1) Answer the question 'Why Change?' effectively by contrasting the Old vs. New and securing at least a buy in from the employees to apply the change on an experimental basis to give it a try.
2) Fine tune the surrounding structures (rewards and recognitions systems for example) to sustain the new behaviour. This could also include measuring the performance on the new areas using performance appraisals.
3) Equipping people with the skills they need for new activities. This could include training, coaching, mentoring.
4) Finally, employees must see people they respect modelling it actively.

"Each of these conditions is realized independently; altogether they add up to a way of changing the behaviour of people in organizations by changing the attitudes about what can and should happen at work" (1)

"Most clinical work confirms the idea that consistent role models, whom the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock regarded as decisive for the development of children are as important in changing the behaviour of adults as the three other conditions combined. In any organization, people model their behaviour on significant others" those who they see in positions of influence" (1)

We need to pay attention to the final words – 'those who they see in positions of influence'. So different groups might have different role models and their influence might not have anything to do with their designation in the hierarchy.
The Role Models could vary from the founding partner, trade union representative or the highest earning sales representative. The authors also emphasize that behaviour in organizations is not only deeply affected not only by role models but also by the groups with which people identify. If role modelling has to succeed it must also be validated by the influential groups that surround these individuals.

Leaders at all levels have to move beyond 'preaching the message' to 'living the message' and any change initiative with leaders who are living the message will encounter less resistance and is more likely to stick and succeed. No amount of training, coaching or preaching will yield any results for any organization, any family or society until the message that is being preached is being implemented by those whom the others hold in high esteem.

Attitude is infectious!

The Power of being the Change also applies to the Leader's emotional moods and their effect on those who follow them and the organization on the whole.

Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis (2008) reveal in their research how our moods and temperaments can affect those around us – "Mirror Neurons have particular importance in organizations because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds" (2).

The research on mirror neurons goes further to explain how the personality of a leader will impact the atmosphere of the team. "There's a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is self controlled and humourless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easy going tone puts those neurons to work, triggering simultaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process." (2) They cite another research by their colleague Fabio Sala who discovered that top performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates on an average 3 times more than mid-performing managers.

On the other hand, negative emotions of those in positions of influence can also have the power to infect an entire group and to hamper its performance – " researchers likewise find that when someone who is very important to a person expresses contempt or disgust toward him, his stress circuitry triggers an explosion of stress hormones and a spike in heart rate by 30 to 40 beats per minute. Then, because of the interpersonal dynamic of mirror neurons and oscillators, the tension spreads to other people. Before you know it, the destructive emotions have infected an entire group and inhibited its performance" (2)

So, whether an organization is trying to bring about a radical change in its culture or an educational institution seeks to imbibe solid moral values in its students, the driving force has to come from the 'role models' – the persons of influence in the organization who may not necessarily be the persons at the top of the organization.

Any change initiative which does not secure the partnership of these high influence individuals and their loyal groups, is bound to fall flat on its face. The fact that the role of effective role models supersedes the sum of the role of all the factors involved in changing mind sets is an indication towards the need to create brand ambassadors of change who are willing to live the message and to be the message.

The truth is that the change that we seek begins with every single one of us. We all have the power to 'shake the world in a gentle way' as Mahatma Gandhi said.

The need to revisit Mahatma Gandhi's Leadership Philosophy is felt the greatest in his home country where a nation of a billion people yearns for a new sunrise of hope, equality, justice, prosperity and peace. An India where these adjectives are not merely a part of oratory but the founding pillars of its future. India needs leaders at all levels; in all spheres of activity - its homes, educational institutions, government, media and popular entertainment and companies - who 'can be the change' and who can live the message, who have the courage to be different and who preach more through their actions than their words.

Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the Fragrance of love...

Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart...

Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen...

Go not to the temple to pray on bended knees,
First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden. ..

Go not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have sinned against you.

Rabindra Nath Tagore


References –

1 Emily Lawson and Colin Price, The Psychology of Change Management (The Mckinsey Quarterly, 2003, Number 2 Organization)

2 Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, Harvard Business Review page 80, September 2008.
This Article is authored / contributed by ▸ Simerjeet S. who travels from New Delhi, India. Simerjeet is available for Professional Speaking Work both Virtually and In-Person. ▸ Enquire Now.

Comments (11)
Your thoughts matter - more than you can imagine.

This information is very useful as it helped me a gain a great load of marks in my school project.... Thank you SIMERJEET for your direct or indirect help..... I express my deep gratitude to u... Thank you agin... :D
Aryan from India
Tnks a lot for such wonderful information. i m very much imprsed by ur critical & relevent exlanation
sham from India
Wonderful article, all politician of india should read it seriously
sujeet from India
Thanks Arun ji and Venus for your encouraging feedback!
Simerj from India
Each quote very well placed Simerjeet , Very thoroughly researched and put together I thank you personally for this piece , Amardeep too has carried away many lessons for his workplace . Thank you for touching many people and especially the youth of our country!
Venus from India
Arun K
A Leader should have Vision. The Vision should be clear, and should be understood by all. Gandhiji can be compared to a CEO and the organisation was India. His vision was clear. "Freedom". People of India, clearly understood and worked for that Vision. No ambiguity.
Arun K from India
Thanks a lot lungil and Nisha for your feedback!
Simerj from India
This is really nice and inspiring article related to leadership. Qualities which we like to see in leaders this is a perfect example. Thank You for sharing this article with us.
Nisha from India
I feel honoured to know people from our country who loved us fought to give us freedom
lungil from South Africa
Please accept my sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU for sharing this article. I really enjoyed readng this. Its quite inspiring!!
Shweta from India
Greetings!! I would like to congratulate and thank you for your such a thoughtful contribution in the field of behavioural science. It was pleasure reading the article and bigger would be the pleasure to practically implement the concepts highlighted in your article. Regards Shelly
Shelly from India

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