In 1978, James McGregor Burns wrote about the dearth of leadership. “One of the most universal cravings of our time is a hunger for compelling and creative leadership.” McGregor Burns’ search for “moral leadership” reveals the tragedy of leadership studies- the confusion of leadership with power. Traditionally, leaders have been defined as those who hold power; allowing presidents, prime ministers and military generals, regardless of their accomplishments, to be considered leaders. Leadership studies have been further detracted from “moral leadership” because of the confusion of leadership with management. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates are considered leaders for the economic power they amassed. The confusion of leadership with power and leadership with management has led to a model of leadership that is Machiavellian (manipulative), hierarchical, authoritative, impersonal, elitist, and self-interested.
The person I believe to be the greatest leader of the twentieth century exhibited none of the qualities named above. This person held no official political title; he commanded no army and he amassed no great wealth. He did, however, have tremendous influence. This truly exemplary leader derived his power from the conscious citizenry. The leader I am referring to is Mahatma Gandhi. Instrumental in the Indian Independence movement, Gandhi’s influence extended beyond the borders of India to the rest of the world. Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence inspired millions, including the great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. A simple, pious man, Gandhi identified with and won the hearts of India’s most politically and economically marginalized people. He spent his life fighting to overcome modern forms of enslavement and oppression- caste oppression, religious hatred, gender oppression, and, what he saw as the worst form of violence, poverty.
The purpose of this essay is to outline Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and it’s influence worldwide as well as the strategies and characteristics that made Gandhi successful. Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence involved civil resistance, refusal to comply with unjust laws. He developed this philosophy while living and practicing law in South Africa. Organizing resistance to the notorious and grossly unjust apartheid system, which provoked significant legislative change, Gandhi left an indelible mark on the South African struggle for racial justice. Upon his return to India in 1915, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence became infused with the struggle for swaraj (self-rule). In India, Gandhi raised his philosophy of non-violence to new levels of sophistication. Gandhi believed that organized non-violent civil resistance, not war, would awaken the consciousness of the British to their unjust domination over India.
This was the belief that guided the Bardoili protest, the Amritsar Massacre and the Salt March. Gandhi’s mobilizations were so successful that they tarnished Britain’s international reputation and provoked irreversible change in Britain’s policy towards India, illustrating the potential of organized non-violent civil resistance. Gandhi was an uncompromising opponent of violence. He knew that using violence to fight violence corrupts and debases even the most noble of causes and leaves a legacy of bloodshed. If we look to the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, we see the truth in Gandhi’s beliefs. The Bolsheviks, Maoists, the Khmer Rouge, the Shining Path, Sein Fein and the Palestinian Liberation Organization all left tremendous bloodshed in the paths towards “liberation.” They left a legacy of death and violence, rather than peace. Gandhi knew that the only solution to hatred, ignorance and fear was love, truth, and forgiveness.
He knew that overcoming unjust hierarchies doesn’t mean inverting them; it means eliminating them altogether. Gandhi and his followers, like those who risked their lives to hide Jews during the Nazi regime, were prepared to die to make injustice visible for the entire world to see. For Gandhi, truth was a powerful weapon, needing no others. Indeed, truth has proven to be the most powerful weapon humanity has even known. One of the strategies that made Gandhi an effective leader was his ability to build bridges between communities, between upper and lower caste Hindus and among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Gandhi saw the intrinsic humanity of all individuals, regardless of their caste, religion, gender, or social position in society. Deeply upset by communalism (Hindu-Muslim animosity), Gandhi was able to promote religious harmony through his personal and public actions. When this harmony was threatened, he fasted.
Gandhi’s tremendous ability to bring an end to provincial and religious hatreds was tested time and time again with the Yeravda Pact and his fasts to end violence in Calcutta, Bengal and Delhi. One of the characteristics that made Gandhi successful was his ability to identify with the poor masses of India. Gandhi’s philosophy of self-rule distinguished itself from the elitism that characterized the Indian Independence movement, as well as virtually all other Independence movements of this century. Gandhi knew that freeing India from the yoke of imperialism also meant freeing the masses from economic servitude. Gandhi was opposed to Independence for only an elite few; he was fearful of an Independent India that would replicate past religious, caste and economic oppressions. Gandhi provided leadership by example.
He exhibited the perfect marriage between personal morality and public action. The best example of this was his use of homespun cloth that provided employment for the poor masses and revived the village economy. In a world in which the inequalities generated by a global economy are becoming more obvious and frightening, Gandhi’s critique of technology and economies that benefit the powerful and marginalize the powerless is all too relevant today. The best demonstration of Gandhi’s leadership is his worldwide influence. American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Belo of East Timor, and countless other leaders have been deeply influenced by Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence.
For example, in 1994, in a Gandhian spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela reached out to his adversaries- the same ones who had tortured and imprisoned him to bring an end to apartheid rule. Gandhi’s greatest legacy is the notoriety he achieved for advocating non-violence as a means of overcoming oppression. It is this belief that guides the actions of millions of average citizens who participate in civil society movements today across the globe. A tribute to Gandhi’s enduring lifetime achievements will be paid by naming the first decade of the new millenium the United Nations Decade of Non-Violence. No greater tribute has ever been paid to a leader of this century. Inspired and profoundly moved by his life and work, I hope the Decade of Non-Violence will truly awaken the consciousness of humanity into liberating ourselves from all and every kind of oppression; using truth as our only tool.