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Was Mahatma Gandhi really a leader par-excellence?

Roads and other public landmarks around the world are enough evidences that Mahatma Gandhi is considered one of the most influential world leaders. What was so special about him? Was he really a great leader or did he just happen to be “the right person at the right time” at a critical juncture in world history that catapulted him to the position he came to occupy in public consciousness? He is reviled too by certain sections for some of his actions or inactions-which is very common to all the great leaders. But how would a student of leadership evaluate him through theoretical frameworks? Was he a born leader or became one due to experiences?


Nothing in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s student life showed any inclination or prognosis of his subsequent greatness. Most millennials wouldn’t even comprehend what “Third Division pass” or earlier era meant. But like most average or below average students who have the means or the sponsor, try to complete their education abroad, Gandhi (then M K Gandhi) went to England to do his law degree (Due apologies to those offended). His photographs of that period show that he was fond of British sartorial style. But he was a miserable failure as an advocate. Then some friend suggested that there was a shortage of lawyers in South Africa and he made up his mind to shift base.

All of us are familiar with what happened on a railway station platform, and how that not only changed his life, but world history. It did not require a genius to make that decision that, “enough is enough, I will no further put up with nonsense.” Many of us would do well to remember that journey towards greatness does not require talent; it is just a matter of a decision, “Enough is enough”.

Of course, he was an avid reader. Most leaders are readers for life.

Leaving aside classical and outdated concepts of leadership types, leadership is a matter of five practices that can be practiced and honed by anyone (Kouzes and Posner). First is, “Challenging the status quo”. Right after that platform incident to his first address in Congress session at (the then) Bombay to Dandi March, etc., Gandhi’s life is all about challenging the status quo. Does it require talent? No, just a decision. Even the thought of using ahimsa or non-violence as a weapon to wrest independence was quite a maverick idea in his time.


Next practice is “Visioning”. All of us dream, but leaders are distinguished by a dream that has the power of capturing imagination of the masses, whether it is ML King’s “I have a dream” speech, JF Kennedy’s “First man on the moon will be an American” or even Modi’s “Achhe din ayenge” or even Mayawati or Lalu’s address to his followers that they can capture power if they vote as a block. Of course, it also involves enlisting the support of others. Gandhi showed remarkable ability to sell his dream as well enlisting the support of many great men and women. His uncanny ability to communicate through symbols was extraordinary.

“Enabling” comes next. No, leader can leave a lasting legacy, if he/she is not able to create, empower and promote next generation of leaders. Nehru and Patel were prime example, like umpteen others.

Next is “Modelling”. Gandhi, and Gandhi alone, quickly donned the attire of common Indians with only one cloth. More people could relate to him that with any other leader. His uncanny ability to communicate through symbols was extraordinary. He came at a time when neither Hindi nor English was understood by people across the country. People may not have understood what he spoke, but his repeated pictures with Charkha communicated that he was stressing self-reliance as an instrument of overthrowing foreign power. Not only that, he modelled what he expected others to do.

Was Mahatma Gandhi really a leader par-excellenceThe last practice is “Encouraging the heart”. This involves many things including fostering high expectations, acknowledging contributions, making creative use of rewards, etc. Gandhi went out of his way to acknowledge contributions in most cases, barring a few notable ones like Subhash Chandra Bose. He would rather profusely acknowledge journalists who carried his message across the world.

Two things stand out. Whether we may agree with him or not on ideology or certain actions, Mahatma Gandhi was indeed a leader par-excellence. Second, he also showed that none of the things he did required talent. They were simply a matter of decisions and convictions. Leadership is just that.