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Mentor Blog

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gandhi's Higher Standard of Leadership

It's Gandhi's birthday today. In perhaps a statement of our times, I was first reminded of him when I saw him on the homepage of Google. :) Then, I thought of my dear friend Jayesh Patel at the Gandhi Ashram, who is an exemplar of Gandhian values; and at some point, I happened upon an unread book sitting on my desk -- A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi, by Keshavan Nair.

In so many ways, Keshavan Nair's first chapter really articulates all that I am feeling today ... so here it is:

In putting forward a path to a higher standard of leadership, there is no greater exemplar than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi spent more than fifty years in public life and is best known for leading hundreds of millions of people against one of the greatest empires in the history of the World.

In contrast to the other political leaders and military commanders of his time -- men such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Patton and MacArthur -- Gandhi wore no resplendent uniform, commanded no armies, and held no government position. Instead he preached and -- more importantly -- lived the gospel of truth and nonviolence and demonstrated through his life of service the oneness of humanity. He reminded the world that the human spirit is indomitable and that courage and love are more powerful than force. The world acknowledged his special place when the United Nations flew its flag at half-mast when he was assassinated. He is the only individual with no connection to any government or international organization for whom this has been done.

Gandhi had many of the qualities we associate with a successful leaders. In addition to courage and determination, he could sustain high energy level for extended periods, he was decisive, he had great interpersonal skills, he was thoughtful but action oriented, and he paid great attention to the details of implementation.

Gandhi's life was not governed by policies; it was governed by principles and values. The best political leaders have their country as the source of passion. Business leaders have as their passion the organization, whether it is through customers, products, or technology. Gandhi's life was driven by his religion: truth and nonviolence and life of service to others. When a journalist asked Gandhi for a message for the United States, especially for African Americans, Gandhi responsded, "My life is its own message."

The lessons from Gandhi's life challenge our beliefs about the standard of leadership -- beliefs that many of us have come to accept as necessary for success. While most leaders identify with symbols of power to elevate themselves above the people they lead, Gandhi symbolized the people he was trying to serve. He tried to be like them with his lion cloth and his commitment to voluntary poverty. He symbolized service rather than power.

Gandhi believed in a single standard of conduct in public and private life -- a standard founded on integrity derived from the absolute values of truth and nonviolence. He believed that individuals must have ideals and try to live up to them, and he demonstrated that an idealist could be practical and effective. His claim, however, was to integrity, not infallibility. He made his share of mistakes but was not afraid to acknowledge them. He did not strive for consistency except in his quest for the truth.

As all policies, strategies, and laws ultimately have an impact on people or the environment, Gandhi believed moral principles had to be included in setting goals, selecting strategies, and making decisions. He worked for the betterment of all people so they could enjoy freedom from fear and exploitation.

Some of Gandhi's ideas may seem irrelevant today -- applicable only to his time and place. But on the fundamental values of truth, nonviolence and service, he had a message for the ages. He asked us to reject not only physical violence, but violence to the spirit. It becomes more self-evident every day, that if we do not embrace the ideal of nonviolence, societies all over the world will deteriorate to the point where life will be intolerable.

Today we talk about controlling physical violence with more violence and controlling spiritual violence with laws. Maybe its necessary. But I believe that the long-term solution is to put before us, especially the young, the ideal of nonviolence of the brace. We need a new heroic ideal: the brave, the truthful, nonviolence individual who is in the service of humanity, resists injustice and exploitation, and leads by appealing to our ideals and our spirit. Such a heroic ideal is embodied in Gandhi.

Gandhi's life point the way to a higher standard of leadership in which integrity based on a single standard of conduit is central, a spirit of service is imperative, and decisions and actions are bound by moral principles.

May we all be the change we wish to see in the world!