Mahatma Gandhi: Inspirational Leadership

Arun M. Kumar

Every year, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, I find myself reflecting on the lessons on leadership that are among his legacies.

Those who aspire to lead can learn from Gandhi that the most meaningful goal of leadership is to inspire. Not to demand or command, but to inspire. The leaders most respected for leaving their mark on the world, their countries, or their organizations have been those who have inspired people to act and perform.

What can we learn from Gandhi’s own development as a leader, one whose life and messages have been an enormous source of inspiration worldwide?

To inspire, one must be oneself inspired. Where did Gandhi find his wellsprings of inspiration?

Reading was one source. Gandhi read widely and deeply. Gandhi turned to the Gita, his true introduction to it came when he was in England, from Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial. The Gita became his lifelong guide, and its message of duty and selfless action motivated his life. Gandhi read The New Testament and was drawn by the messages in the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, his life’s mission can well be defined by the beatitudes of that sermon: supporting the poor and the weak, pursuing peace and kindness. He read and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy; they both shared a veneration for Socrates, Buddha and other thoughtful leaders. He found John Ruskin’s book “Unto This Last” to be transformative and translated it into Gujarati. Gandhi’s lessons of Sarvodaya, the welfare of all, came from Ruskin’s philosophy. Gandhi was inspired by the American transcendentalists, particularly Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson whose writings shaped his concept of self-reliance.

Another source of learning came from interacting with people who were inspiring, some of them became his philosophical mentors. Gandhi famously saw Gopal Krishna Gokhale as his teacher. A less well-known guide to Gandhi was Shrimad Rajchandra, who he referred to as Raychandbhai. A diamond merchant in Bombay, Raychandbhai was also a poet and philosopher. Gandhi would write to him with questions that would be promptly responded to.

Gandhi surrounded himself with people who were themselves inspiring. His collaborators included thoughtful individuals of diverse backgrounds and of high intellect. Just a small sample: Sarojini Naidu the poet, Jawaharlal Nehru who was an extraordinary thinker and writer, Sardar Vallabhbhai who was an accomplished lawyer, and Charlie Andrews, the educator and Christian missionary.

What made Gandhi inspiring?

Most importantly, he had a clear, bold, and unselfish mission. He aimed to make India free of foreign rule and to rid it of division and discrimination. This was a mission that was not about him. When India attained freedom, he resigned his four-anna membership of the Indian National Congress. He did not seek power or position in independent India.

Gandhi captured the imagination of people and unified them. The Dandi march was an early example of a simple act, of taking salt from the sea, that became a dramatic symbol of defiance against unjust rule. His encouragement of khadi, and images of him spinning cotton, sent a clear message of resisting British products as millions of women took to spinning and weaving handloom cotton in solidarity.

He was authentic, he did as he said. He wrote, “My life is my message.” His integrity was never in doubt. When he made a mistake, he owned up to it and undertook acts of penitence to underscore his accountability.

Gandhi was courageous, physically, and mentally. In the cause of his goals, he was willing to be physically assaulted, to subject himself to ordeals like fasting. Mentally, of course, he stood up to the powerful United Kingdom, then rulers of India.

Gandhi conducted himself in politics with decency and grace that invoked respect. He was respectful in his dealings with both friends and adversaries. In a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in July 1942, when he wrote that the British should “unreservedly….and immediately withdraw their rule”, and unambiguously stated his “intense dislike of British rule,” he also mentioned “the good wishes” he had for Great Britain and his “numerous personal friends in England who I love as dearly as my own people.”

Gandhi’s messages and actions inspired generations of leaders and change-makers the world over. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted methods of non-violent protest and wrote of how Gandhi had influenced his own activism. He saw how Gandhi’s satyagraha was a way to use truth and love to fight oppression. Shortly after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, King declared that “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”

Former US President Barack Obama, who had a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in his Senate office, has written, “As a young man, I’d studied his writings and found him giving voice to some of my deepest instincts…. More than anything, though, my fascination with India had to do with Mahatma Gandhi. Along with Lincoln, King, and Mandela, Gandhi had profoundly influenced my thinking.”