Perspectives on Leadership: Lessons from Mahatma Gandhi
Submitted by Munjal Dave, Class of 2011
“Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this (Gandhi) ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Albert Einstein
Gandhi is generally considered one of the most inspiring and influential world leaders of the last hundred years. From humble beginnings he gained world prominence, helped achieve independence for India and left a lasting legacy for us all. However, in the age of Facebook and iPad, are his leadership lessons still relevant? I have come to realize that many of Gandhi’s core principles are remarkably relevant. This is especially true of Gandhi’s thoughts and practices in the realm of leadership competencies and self-development, especially the ideas of:
- Continuous learning and improvement – Gandhi always told his followers that if two of his sentences contradict each other and if they thought he was sane at that time (!), please ignore the first one and accept the second one. This reflects his learning and growth mindset, as well as anticipation of his followers’ needs. As an added corollary, rigid consistency was not one of his traits!
- Looking at each person without labels, just as a human being – Personal meetings with Gandhi were very short, generally lasting a couple of minutes (in part due to an onerous poster pasted behind Gandhi’s seat that read, “Be quick, be brief, be gone!”). However, in those minutes people felt that Gandhi gave them undivided attention (no multi-tasking for him!) whether the person was a leading industrialist, a political leader or an average person off the street. He made them feel as if they were the only person in the world that Gandhi would have liked to talk at that time.
- Being an excellent listener – Gandhi was not a very skilled public speaker; generally he was believed to be quite average. On the other hand, he was an exceptional listener of both the articulated and the unsaid. He seemed to be practicing “seeing with your ears.”
- Proactively identifying barriers to make change sustainable – In the 1920s an American journalist asked Gandhi what the biggest problem was that India faced at the time. The journalist expected Gandhi to say that the problems were slavery and British rule or pervasive poverty. But Gandhi said the biggest challenge facing the country was “callousness of intellectuals.” He was not just thinking about getting independence but about building a sustainable society.
- Being the conscience keeper – Non-cooperation was one of the key political movements that Gandhi initiated and led. It was a widely successful initiative. In a distant village, some villagers resorted to barbaric violence against the oppressive police force. Gandhi aborted the movement saying a key tenet of the movement, non-violence, was violated, and that in his opinion “we are not ready for self-rule.” Many analysts and political leaders felt that this was not politically smart or expedient. Gandhi followed his conscience and stopped the initiative. A related trait for Gandhi was his belief that the end did not justify the means. He was insistent, nay adamant, about purity of path in order to achieve desired goal.
- Heavy emphasis on self-awareness and discipline
- Balancing value-driven vision and execution efficiency
- Emphasis on path and result
- Adopting holistic perspective in every endeavor
Note: This article draws from a series of books and lectures by Gandhi’s long time personal assistant Narayan Desai. These lectures were delivered in Gandhi’s native language, Gujarati, to the Ahmadabad Management Association in India.
To read more of the author’s musings, visit his occassional blog at http://munjaldave.wordpress.com/.
Though the book is framed around the rise of Deng Xiaoping and his reforms that transformed China into an economic powerhouse, Ezra Vogel’s compelling biography examines how China went from being a desperately poor country to certainly one of the two most important countries in the world today.
A Communist revolutionary and military commander under the brutal rule of Mao Zedong, Deng emerged as China’s capable leader in 1978 for fourteen years. For all of Deng’s success leading China out of poverty, he cannot escape the central role he played in violent attacks on landlords in 1949, or intellectuals in 1957 or the tragic killings in Tiananmen Square under his own leadership in 1989.
Deng was a strong believer of socialism although he supported a market economy and created an export model of economic development. Subsequently China’s economy grew at over 10% per year for 20 years.
As part of our work at the Foundation we strive to improve 10 or 20 million lives in the areas of global health and global development. We have discovered new approaches and created new tools to get vaccines, AIDS drugs and contraceptives to the people who need them, and advanced agricultural innovation to transform farmers’ lives so that they can feed their families.
But, China’s reforms coupled with the tenacity and hard work of its people has improved hundreds of millions of people’s lives in less than a generation. That is more human lives climbing out of poverty post World War II than any other country.
Today, about 15 percent of people in the world - over 1 billion people - live in abject poverty. Fifty years ago, 40 percent of the global population was poor. The massive reduction in poverty is due in part to the “Green Revolution,” in the 1960s and 1970s where researchers produced seeds that helped farmers vastly improve their yields. And because of China. One country alone has lifted 500 million people out of abject poverty.
China in 1979 was one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer than India. They were barely scratching out a living and their population density made it difficult for them to feed their population. There was very little to build on other than the fact that the party had incredible authority. With this authority, Deng set in motion a series of critical changes early on in his leadership to achieve cultural stability and significant economic growth.
Surviving the Great Famine of 1961 where millions died, Deng reformed the land system and increased agriculture production, initially in just one part of the country. He extended farmers’ land leases and encouraged them to profit from any grain they grew over and above what they owed. He introduced high-yielding varieties of cereal grains and synthetic fertilizers emulating the best innovations of the “Green Revolution”. As a result the agricultural sector exploded with farmers producing three times as much in 10 years, all with less labor.
Where before they taxed poor farmers to bootstrap the industrial commune, the workers who were no longer needed in the fields moved into the cities and created a robust industrial sector.
To support a high growth industrial sector, Deng fostered education and built new schools and institutions of learning to underpin the economy. He also endorsed students and business people to travel internationally to study and learn from other countries. China’s success in part has been its ability to synthesize what successful economies have done well and leapfrog history and the competition.
Vogel, an emeritus professor at Harvard University, demonstrates a deep understanding of China’s complex culture and draws on extensive research and his East Asian experience as an intelligence officer for the Clinton Administration. In a recent New York Times interview, Vogel said, “with this book, I thought I could write something new that would educate Americans about China.” I think he absolutely achieves this. Vogel also helps his readers navigate the labyrinth of people and places with mini bios and a map that was an invaluable reference when reading his book.
Although Deng’s transformation of China cannot be separated from the violent attacks that he administered under Mao’s rule or the brutal approach he took to stopping the Tiananmen Square student protests, the economic reforms have improved the livelihoods of millions of people. China has capitalized on advances in education, healthcare, agriculture and innovative technology to help accelerate their own development and transition beyond the need for aid.
To have done this essentially in one generation is an unbelievable accomplishment and is unique in the history of the world.
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