Time For a New Kind of Leader?

What Gandhi can teach us about Leadership

There can be little doubt that these are testing times for society as a whole and for business in particular. As long as I can remember, the banks in Britain have been considered as paragons of security and probity (remember the song in Mary Poppins that ridiculed the very idea that they might not be so…) Today, 10th Feb 2009, the leaders of the four big banks are being dragged before the Treasury Select Committee to publically answer for their actions and strategies.

So it is clear that the old model has failed, or at the very least, that this is a very apposite time for questioning if there isn’t a better way of leading than our current carrot and stick method. I know it is a crude characterisation but by-and-large, most businesses say to their people “You get this if you are good, and if you fail this happens…”

However there are a number of things to consider in this:-

  • Who does a leader owe a duty of care to?
  • How do you measure your success and the success of your business?
  • How to you get people to change?

I’m sure there are many other big questions but perhaps this last one is the place to start. If you take a view that people are somehow wrong now and need fixing you will act one way. If you see them as full of potential and it is your job to help them discover this, then you will behave differently.

Gandhi was someone who saw things differently despite being surrounded by a system that told him he was wrong. He was a London trained barrister so one might expect him to assume the view of the establishment. He was appalled by what he saw in South Africa and accepted a job with an Indian law firm there so that he could do something about it.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Mahatma Gandhi

I don’t intend to make this a historical treatise but we should examine some of the ways he behaved and see what lessons there might be for today’s leaders. Firstly he wasn’t afraid to ask difficult questions of himself and those in power. Next he put himself at risk first and let others decide for themselves if they could do likewise. He didn’t tell anyone what to do, he showed them. He was committed to the long term good, not being diverted by short term expediencies. He communicated simply and powerfully with symbols and actions. He practiced what he preached to the extent of spinning the cloth for his own clothes rather than buying English milled cotton and supporting the status quo. He espoused non-violent confrontation so as not to give the British an excuse or a reason to attack him and write him off as a ‘traitor’.

He not only freed a continent and gave birth to two nations, India & Pakistan, but he influenced many of the great political leaders we still look to such as Martin Luther Kind and Nelson Mandela.

“If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Martin Luther King

Gandhi counselled “Be the change you want to see” and that underlies his whole approach. If you want to transform your business then perhaps the easiest and best place to start is with yourself. When you start changing, those around you will notice and respond.

So perhaps when you have read this, you can shut your door for 30 minutes, and take some time to consider where you would like to start? Don’t be afraid to plan this and invest in it as you would in any other significant change programme and I think you will be surprised and delighted with the results and dividends.

Good Luck!

“Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.” Mahatma Gandhi



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