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Running Head: Gandhi and Leadership

Gandhi and Leadership

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Gandhi learnt his Leadership skills during his years in South Africa, and honed them in India.

Yes, he was naturally charismatic. Yes, he had a "feel" for his Follower’s needs which was uncannily correct. But he did develop formal tools and methods to become a better Leader over time. What he learnt is instructive to us all.

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Not surprisingly, I believe that he is a classic example of the Leadership model put forward in "Leadership Truths". That is, he had a rock-solid value system from which all of his activities stemmed, he wanted to make major changes at every turn in his life, and he had a totally interdependent relationship with his followers. And, as a man of action, he used the 4 E’s throughout his life.  

Before we delve into the analysis, it is important to understand a little more about Gandhi’s beliefs, and how they relate to his actions. His entire program rested firmly on his moral code.

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As discussed in the biography, whilst a Hindu, his wide-ranging interests and learning gave him knowledge and an eclectic assimilation of other faiths. He was without doubt a "learner" and an experimenter in almost every aspect of his activities, and throughout his life.
Some of his Christian followers once argued that his approach, especially as regards self–sacrifice and "suffering love" meant he should convert 100% to Christianity and be done with it! Indeed, he once walked through the Vatican, ignoring the artwork, but stopping to weep before the Crucifixion.

His beliefs are central to everything he did. He saw love in Christianity, a direct relationship with one’s God in Islam, and the unity of life in Hinduism. Religion for Gandhi was what one did, not what one believed. Action was everything.

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Western doctrine talks of either mind/body, or mind/body/soul, and then adds the mind distinction of the ego and the id. Gandhi however constructed a more complex, multiple layer theory of the human being. Some of the aspects were classic Hindu, and some were "Gandhi" additions or modifications. Frankly, some of Gandhi’s writings are inconsistent with others, but that reflects his learning over time rather than some kind of intellectual immaturity.

Gandhi saw a four part whole making humanity what it is. First, there is the body, in the classic Cartesian sense. This splits into two parts - the physical aspects of the body, and then the senses by which we communicate with our surroundings.

Second, there is mind (or "Manas"). As many other thinkers do, Gandhi distinguished between consciousness ("Chetana") and intelligence ("Buddhi"). So far, there is little new.

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Third, Gandhi, like all Hindus, believed in the Spirit (or "Attman"). This is not a Cartesian "Ghost in the machine", but rather it is the universal principle or force within us all, and which connects us to the Universe. This is critical to understanding of Gandhi’s "Satyagraha", as that was designed to rekindle the true spiritual self in all of us. Recall that in "Swaraj" he did not just want the independence of India – he wanted the independence of each one of us, in a spiritual rebirth. Going further, Gandhi believed that the Attman within each of us allows us all to have the "charismatic" effect needed to lead others – because it connects everything to everything else.
The fourth component is the psychological or moral disposition that we all have, which uniquely belongs to each individual (the "Swabhava"). He believed that this was more a product of rebirth and "Karma" than learned characteristics. This is because God in his view is not a person, but is Truth. Thus, by discovering one’s own true dispositions, one reaches one’s own unique spiritual destination (or "Moksha"). Again, spiritual renewal is to Gandhi the key to personal freedom.

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For Gandhi, Truth was everything, and it was intrinsically linked with the concept of the non-violence and spiritual renewal that was "Satyagraha" and "Swaraj". "Satyagraha" was not just a political method but a moral statement about how to act politically. Unless events were conducted the right way, he would rather not act, and often called off protests or other actions as a result.

Truth was also connected to humility, cleanliness, celibacy and poverty. It was connected to unity (of religions and beliefs), and to the goodness of humanity. He always believed that people were intrinsically capable of good – which was both a key to his success as a Leader, and one of the reasons for his failures. He believed in action, and not just words.

He believed in industry and in self reliance. He was skeptical of Modern society, and especially of the breakup of the rural communities as people migrated to industrial cities. Gandhi believed that natural methods were the best way to keep one healthy, and except for an appendix removal never used "modern medicine". Finally, to Gandhi, being vegetarian was more than a "health" issue. It was a question of morality.
His entire life story is about action, to bring about positive change. He both succeeded and failed in what he sought to do, but he always moved forward and he never gave up the quest for improvement, both social and spiritual, and both for individuals and for the Nation as a whole.

In some changes he succeeded, and in some he failed. And, in some case, the success came years after the action. For example, the Salt tax was only fully repealed at Independence. But, in every case his actions were targeted against a specific change he was trying to bring about.

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Gandhi’s life is one of total service to others, and of the unselfish representation of their needs. His spirituality and charisma just added to his plain hard-nosed rationalism in analyzing each issue he faced – to evaluate how best to motivate and therefore lead his Followers. Rarely has one man been able to generate such a band of willing followers.  

His vision of the future was a combination of the spiritual, the moral and the practical, and it was through his consistent application of his vision that he led.

He clearly felt that the apparent Indian lack of self-respect enabled the British to rule India, so he felt that Indians should take prime responsibility for their own situation. Thus, as consistently noted, Gandhi wanted not only the political independence of India, but the spiritual renewal (and independence) of all of India’s people.

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His vision of the future of India was firmly rooted in the glorious, spiritual past of the Gitas, yet with significant influence from Christian and other values. In expressing his vision, Gandhi touched the hearts of millions, and to this day holds a moral beacon for millions more.
Practically, he chose causes that were of great importance to his potential followers, and brought alive his vision of what success would look like. Examples are his work to bring fair treatment to people in South Africa, the repealing the Salt Tax and Indian Independence itself. In every case he did not just use philosophical statements or flowery visions, but he laid out concrete objectives which people could buy into and then act upon.

By contrast, his failures stemmed from not being able to make concrete his own deeply felt vision of a just society - most importantly the final Partition of India.

In all things he did as a Leader, he thus put forward a powerful and appropriate vision to the Follower group. He could write the most complex, intellectual work to be sure his point was understood. Yet, he could express the feelings of his Followers in the most simple and eloquent ways. Picking up a handful of salt on the beach was perhaps the most dramatic practical expression of his vision of freedom from the salt tax, an act that was copied by thousands.

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On the other hand, he frankly had a model of "modernity" which was open to question. He respected the British people, but did not respect "Modern Civilization". He felt that the industrialization process led to irreligious society, and even felt it incongruous that women should be working in factories – although he did support the British suffragette movement. In essence he felt that the British were good people, with good institutions, but that they were being led off course by modernity.

It also seems that, whilst his prescription of "self reliance" for India was a fair option, and one that rang a cord with the population, it was an exclusive vision – excluding the positive power of industrialization and the global economy in the making. It is somewhat ironic that a man of such inclusive ideals would not more actively seek to find better resolution between the opposing forces of core spiritual values and modern industrialization.

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Whilst Gandhi clearly felt that "the violence of all Governments" meant that the people should control their own destiny in small scale groups, he did not per se argue for a plural democratic India. He believed that the small-scale village communities would be able to work things out. Nehru was the driver for mass democracy, with his vision of a socialist India, rooted in her history, learning from the British democratic ideal, but firmly and independently looking forward.

In formal organizational terms, Gandhi employed few unique methods. Yet, he clearly knew how to get people in the right place, to do the right thing. From arranging ambulance corps, to setting up formal "protest" organizations, to raising funds or even recruiting troops to fight in the War, he was no stranger to structure.

However, his greater enablers were in his own actions. He literally lived the life that he wanted other people to live. He demonstrated exactly how to behave, whether in normal day to day life, or in high-profile political protest. From the philosophy and structure of the "Constructive Program", his use of a spinning wheel was both a symbol of revolution, and a method of demonstrating how to build the "perfect" Indian Society.

The Ashrams were permanent examples of how a society constructed of small, "village" groups should operate. The Ashram had very formal rules, which all built on the core value system he was adamant the inhabitants should have. Nothing helps humility or cleanliness come alive better than a turn at cleaning the latrine…

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Gandhi also used words as enablers, ranging from writing protest letters to helping to construct the Constitution of the Indian Congress party. "Satyagraha" and "Swaraj" are themselves both words of description and words of action.

From his dedication to a life of action, every thing he did enabled his Followers to follow and to act. "Do what I do, not what I say" was his greatest enabler. It was also his greatest energizer.

Gandhi’s life was a combination of discipline and freedom, for himself and for his Followers. His greatest successes came from empowering people with the methods and the desire for "Satyagraha". When those individuals faced attack or prison, they were both terribly alone, yet totally connected to their fellow protesters. They were free to pursue their goals, yet they had a contract with Gandhi and with each other. He needed to serve them, just as they served him, the cause, and each other.

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Unfortunately, his belief in the goodness of everyone to some extent blinded him from the frailty of human nature. Letting people free who cannot overcome their own demons leads to unpredictable consequences. This was clear in the violence of Partition. And, his belief that "Satyagraha" would have helped the Jewish people in their terrible struggle with Hitler was at best idealistic, and at worst inconsistent with the nature of the task

Gandhi had a knack of choosing causes which would have maximum impact, and which would have the maximum chance of touching everyone. Many members of Congress were skeptical of overly focusing on the Salt tax issue, as it had been a long-standing source of discontent. It could be seen as a minor issue in the grand scheme of the fight for Independence. Yet, the Salt March caught the imagination of the Nation, the global media and the world.

Not only could Gandhi energize on a large scale, but he could also touch individuals. A classic example is the response of the Judge who hoped Gandhi would be dealt with leniently, despite the Judge having to serve a mandatory sentence on him.

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Gandhi’s humility and obvious care for his opponents as equally as his followers, meant that virtually everyone Gandhi met had an emotional response to the man and his actions. Witness the Lancashire mill workers in England, who should have disliked his boycott on their products. His obviously truthful and heart felt explanation, both of why he was doing what he was doing, and why he hoped the mill workers would not suffer, struck a significant cord.

Gandhi also chose his personal symbols well, from the white dhoti ("cleanliness and humility") to only wearing sandals made of leather from cows that died naturally. The only decoration on the walls of his room at the Ashram was a crucifixion. He took the philosophy he espoused and turned it into visual representations of his "story". These symbols clearly provided a consistency to the energizing process he consciously used.

From a "story telling" viewpoint, his speech on the Salt March, almost angrily denouncing the overzealous use of scarce rural resources for the benefit of the marchers was a classic case of his speaking from his values, and galvanizing his Followers back onto the right course.

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Single handedly, he stopped slaughter at partition in Bengal, with two of his most powerful energizing tools. He fasted without fear, and he met the "combatants" face to face, with no fear for his own safety. In fact, it is worth noting that his apparent fearlessness and disregard for himself was in itself a powerful energizing force and a great problem for his opponents.

Yet, he also failed in energizing. The fait accompli of partition showed that he had failed to overcome both the fears of the Muslims in a largely Hindu India, and the nationalism / exclusiveness of Jinnah. He also failed to generate a sufficiently multicultural, pluralist sense in the leaders of Congress to build the right bridges. He could find insufficient enablers, and he could not energize a unanimous desire for "One India". Equally, his use of Hindu symbolism and obvious belief in the goodness of humanity, almost "against the odds", at least partly contributed to his own assassination.   

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Gandhi’s effect on the world was and still is immense. On the positive side, he helped create the world’s largest democracy. He also gave to the world a way of thinking about and acting upon value systems that profoundly influenced such important figures as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Gandhi directly influenced the American Civil Rights movement, and thus the broader Human Rights concerns and activities of


Bhana, Surendra and Goolam Vahed. The Making of a Political   Reformer: Gandhi in South Africa, 1893–1914. New Delhi:   Manohar, 2005

Bondurant, Joan V. (1988). Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. Princeton UP

Chadha, Yogesh. Gandhi: A Life.

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