Critical Thinking On Gandhi As An Effective Leader
Mahatma Gandhi is, without a doubt, one of the most effective and captivating leaders in history, and one of the most influential figures in the 20th century. Leading the Indian people to silent, passive resistance against the colonial British forces who ruled India in the mid 20th century, Gandhi himself proved to be an extremely charismatic and results-driven leader, who was nonetheless highly principled in the conduct he expected of his follows and which he set himself. By studying his role as an effective leader, many things about the nature and dynamics of leadership can be gleaned – including the importance of leading by example, of creating a clear and concise leadership statement and philosophy for your mission, of being a transformational or servant leader rather than a transactional one, and much more.
Gandhi and Context Leadership
Gandhi’s leadership, first and foremost, must be examined in light of context leadership theory, which focuses on a more holistic method of leadership than a top-down approach, in which one leader addresses all critical leadership issues (James, 2011). Rather than just having leadership be allotted to roles labelled as such, context leadership allows for a more collaborative approach to leadership with several different units or teams making decisions for the greater good. Leadership is highly dependent on the context of the situation, as well as the available personnel, the setting and political background of the organization and more. Here, leadership roles are largely taken naturally, and often require a bit of input from others, making it a much more collaborative scenario than the typical top-down hierarchy of an organization. Rather than leaders being appointed, those who take on a leadership identity are celebrated and singled out for notice, naturally inspiring followers within the context of their leadership situation (James, 2011).
As it relates to Gandhi, this is absolutely true of him, as he was a leader almost strictly within the context of who he talked to and who listened to him. Gandhi never had an official title, or a formal position to be filled, but simply set a strong example for others. His way of thinking was convincing and charismatic enough that it allowed others to follow his example and passively resist British rule in India. Gandhi himself was not a manager or political leader – simply someone who had the appropriate ethos that appealed to the vast majority of disenfranchised Indians during colonial rule. In doing so, he managed to convey tremendous leadership without ever officially being placed in a leadership position.
Gandhi’s Character and Individuality
Gandhi’s individuality and strength was a fundamental tenet to his success as a leader. Gandhi was a highly philosophical man, drawing from religious texts, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, for the basis of his beliefs. One of his central theses of philosophy and leadership is his book the Hind Swaraj, or “Indian Home Rule,” written in 1909. In the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi puts forth an argument for total independence from Britain and the entirety of Western civilization; Gandhi’s idea was to remove English culture from India as well as its people, as that culture was thought to be dangerous. Western civilization was thought to be inherently unhealthy, as the Indian people"has to be patient and it will be self destroyed" (Gandhi 1909, p. 22). Gandhi’s central strategy was passive resistance; not only did he believe that violence was not effective as a means of bringing about change, he actually thought violence would worsen their situation: "The force of love and pity is infinitely greater than the force of arms. There is harm in the exercise of brute force, never in that of pity" (Gandhi 1909, p. 106). These chief points in his strategy cemented him as a highly principled leader with a clear message and mission, which made him effective as a leader.
As a leader, Gandhi’s character was extremely strong, though with that aforementioned aversion to violence. Instead, he took very strong ideological stands; in the Hind Swaraj, Gandhi advocated for cutting off trade relations with the English in order to assert their independence and refuse the English what they wanted. He tells the British, "If you do not concede our demand, we shall be no longer your petitioners. You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed; we shall no longer have any dealings with you" (Gandhi 1909, p. 106). Central to Gandhi’s leadership strategy was not to yield any quarter to their enemies, or to those who would support colonialism and British rule of their country. During World War II, Gandhi led a “Quit India” campaign, along with several others, to discourage both Nazi oppression and British violence in their ‘war for democracy.’ That being said, Gandhi was far from an idealist, seeing things for what they really were: "Ultimately Gandhi's objections to war and violence and his defense of nonviolence stemmed from his insistence that the quotidian and the mundane had to be evaluated for what they were, without leaning for support on some idealized reckonings of what they could be" (Mehta, p. 136). There was no such thing as a ‘just war’ for Gandhi, which fundamentally informed everything he did as a leader.
Gandhi’s character as a leader was to advocate for peace not as a way to maintain the status quo, but a way to passively make change without stooping to the level of violence. Gandhi did not want a war to generate freedom, which he believed was hypocritical: "The philosophical grounds for Gandhi's opposition to war and commitment to nonviolence cannot be integrated with the modern tradition that vouched for peace as a form of political idealism" (Mehta, p. 139). Instead, he preached to his follows a consistent philosophy of nonviolence and tactical refusal to trade with Britain; while no one was at peace, no one would get hurt either.
Gandhi’s efforts were not entirely successful, and his initiatives would not often yield the results he was looking for. Gandhi was notoriously "frustrated by diplomacy and propaganda,” as he slowly but surely became part of the American propaganda machine during World War II to bring Indians into the war (Pullin, p. 40). While Gandhi resisted the Nazis, he could not in good conscience convince his followers to join the war effort, as they would be tacitly supporting Britain and its colonialist rule. Despite this, Gandhi did the best he could to galvanize his people in a united goal, and in that respect he was extremely successful.
Gandhi and Servant Leadership
One of the most fascinating aspects of Gandhi as a leader is his emphasis on servant leadership. Servant leaders are somewhat transformational in nature, focusing on making themselves available as a resources for their followers instead of using their followers as a means to an end (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Gandhi himself easily fulfills the six major qualities of servant leadership: service, self-sacrificial love, spirituality, integrity, simplicity, emphasizing follower needs, and modeling (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Gandhi was prone to voluntary subordination, in which he became a servant to others willingly, performing acts of service and acting as a symbol for the people he wanted to serve. Rather than leading a revolution so that he himself could achieve power, Gandhi’s primary goal was to win freedom for his people, and focused on poverty with his hunger strikes and modest clothing (including the infamous loincloth).
Servant leaders often think of themselves as servants first rather than leaders (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Gandhi specifically took pleasure in serving the poor, rather than performing it for show or to build up public opinion of himself. Among his many acts of service includes his teaching of English to Indians without taking pay, allowing them to improve their living conditions despite the racial tensions between the English and Indians (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Gandhi offered nursing aid during the pneumonic plague in South Africa, and worked to heal the injured during the Zulu Rebellion.
Foremost among his talents as a servant leader was Gandhi’s penchant for putting forth his authentic self towards his followers. Authentic leadership comes with a certain amount of humility, integrity, security, vulnerability and other such traits, giving the impression that what you saw of Gandhi was what you got. Gandhi never put on airs or ‘performed’ for his followers; he simply put forth who he really was, thus making him more trustworthy and respected. Gandhi was incredibly humble, refusing to take positions in government, only really taking on a provisional role in the Indian National Congress until other leaders could assert themselves (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Gandhi’s integrity was also quite high, as he showed an incredible consistency between his actions and his words – Gandhi built up a reputation as an honest man who was not prone to dissembling, forgiving anyone who abused or mistreated him. For someone who preached forgiveness, he set a strong example for his followers by doing this, offering the same grace unto others as he wished his followers to do in their own lives.
Gandhi was also an incredibly influential and appealing leader, leading to a great sense of collaboration and availability as a leader. In servant leadership, this is known as building ‘covenantal relationships,’ in which servant leaders form close relationships with equal collaborators, while making themselves available and valuable to others (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Servant leaders are always collaborative, working with others rather than telling others what to do; Gandhi did this, as he consulted frequently with his aids and co-workers, talking to local Indian leaders to create conditions in which the entirety of the Indian people could start resisting the British forces and fighting for their rights to freedom. In this way, Gandhi not only led the people, but worked with them as an equal.
As a leader, there has never been one as principled, humble and authentic as Mahatma Gandhi. A humble servant leader, Gandhi showed his authentic self while also making himself available as a resource for those who needed him – namely, the harassed Indian population who wanted to regain their nation from the grip of British colonialism and imperialism. His dedication to nonviolence and poverty was highly consistent with his spiritual philosophy and teachings, demonstrating a thoroughness and authenticity that made him incredibly reliable and compelling as a leader. While he was not always successful in his efforts, the incredible idealism and calculated strategy of his mission allowed him to form plans and show his followers a consistent method of rebellion in order to get what they wanted – a free India. He was a leader in context, hardly ever taking an official position but instead using his gifts to benefit the people he felt he could help the most. In this way, he was a great contextual and servant leader whose teachings and level of consistency and grace set a high bar of excellence for all leaders who would come after him.
Barnabas, A. & Clifford, P.S. (2012). Mahatma Gandhi – an Indian model of servant leadership.
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Gandhi, M. (1922). Indian home rule (2nd ed.). Ganesan.
James, K.T. (2011). Leadership in context: lessons from new leadership theory and current
leadership development practice. NHS.
Pullin, E.D. (2010). "Noise and Flutter": American Propaganda Strategy and Operation in India
during World War II. Diplomatic History, 34(2), 275-298. doi:10.1111/j.1467-
MEHTA, U. (2010). Gandhi and the Common Logic of War and Peace. Raritan, 30(1), 134-156.
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