Management minus Jargon
Learning Management & Leadership from the Mahatma's "The Story of My Experiments with Truth"
"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history." - Mahatma Gandhi.
Mahatma Gandhi is an icon! Business and political leaders have marveled at his monumental achievements in South Africa, India and the world at large.
Mahatma Gandhi exemplifies leadership and managerial capabilities in the most myriad and trying situations. One can take various lessons in Self Management, Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Negotiation, Strategy, Economics, Communication, Rural Development, Social Inclusion, Education, Entrepreneurship, Women Empowerment, Law, Ethics and Corporate Governance from his work and methods.
This article explores some incidents from the autobiography. Being a bestseller, it is readily available in over 40 Indian and foreign languages. This book provides a strong base for the lessons that can be derived from practices of Gandhiji. His life, practices and work of course go way beyond the autobiography.
Self Management - "A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, that he becomes."
If charity begins at home, why should management begin elsewhere? It should begin with oneself. Self management and a constant strife towards improvement was the hallmark of Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts and practices. We see this introspection at a very early age where he describes his habit of meat eating. Short and thin, Gandhi was enamoured by a friend who shared the secret of a well built body. According to a friend, a non-vegetarian diet was the only way to strength and conquest of the British. Young and impressionable, Gandhi got carried away, and took to eating meat in secret, without the knowledge of his parents. His brother too was party to this activity.
Young Gandhi went through a painful thought process of constantly questioning the veracity of his actions and his argument that it was alright if his parents did not know. The activity carried on for about a year, during which he would have eaten meat about 6 to 7 times. He finally faced himself honestly and was able to take a stand that he would never eat meat again in his life. His battle with his senses and conscience is lucidly described in his autobiography. Nowhere is the blame cast on the friend, or an excuse made for his age, situation or background. Gandhi takes complete responsibility for his actions.
Just one episode provides powerful insights into his ability to introspect, question himself and take decisions about his behavior and life. Self management is not about perfection and faultless work, it is about knowing oneself, acknowledging and accepting one’s faults and mistakes and going ahead in life. This also builds tolerance for others’ weaknesses. Gen Y would do well to take a few lessons in tolerance and introspection.
Emotional Intelligence – "Nobody can hurt me without my permission."
This is defined as “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships” - Daniel Goleman, 1988, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury Publishing, London. To this definition, I would add - ‘without compromising basic values and principles of ethics.’
The Story of My Experiments with Truth abounds in examples of Emotional Intelligence demonstrated by some of the toughest decisions taken by Gandhiji in the most challenging circumstances.
Let us look at an example of a little discussed incident described in his autobiography. In South Africa, Indians were labeled ‘coolies.’ The laws as well as social structure in South Africa enforced various restrictions on Indians for various reasons. In this kind of an eco-system, it was natural that Indians faced and pocketed numerous insults in their personal and professional lives. Gandhiji was no exception. Once, a white barber refused to cut his hair saying he was a ‘coolie,’ and that he should go to a ‘coolie’ barber.
Gandhi was wise to the fact that an argument would lead to no good. He decided that day that he would be self-dependent and that he would cut his own hair. The result obviously, was a bad hair-cut. He had the courage not only to go to Court for his work, but also to tell his colleagues the reason for the bad hair-cut.
Another example is seen in the way he decided to take charge of his son’s treatment unto himself. When he had just shifted to Bombay with his family,his son, Manilal came down with a severe attack of typhoid, pneumonia and delirium. The doctor, a Parsi, advised egg and chicken broth. His son was just ten. The decision rested on Gandhiji. He convinced the doctor that they strict vegetarians and that this diet would not be possible. The doctor agreed to come for regular checkups and Gandhiji was to experiment with hydropathic treatment. Even here, he described the situation to his son who agreed with his father about the diet and treatment. The fever persisted and Gandhiji was at his wits’ end. Yet, the experiment continued and the child recovered. Gandhiji describes this incident and ends with all humility by thanking God for his support.
The ability of not compromising his values, explaining it to the doctor and following a chosen path in faith are indications of high emotional intelligence. We would do well to take a lesson from this. Emotional Intelligence goes beyond a fashionable trend of psychometric tests... it is all about recognizing oneself and extending this understanding to others. Emotional intelligence is also seen in the conviction with which one stands by his decisions and owns up responsibility.
Social Inclusion - "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
The term ‘social inclusion’ is being used widely by governments across the world. There is realization that growth of a minority at the cost of majority is detrimental to society. Examples of inclusion abound in scriptures globally. Yet, the issue remains a challenge. Exclusion is deeply ingrained in our psyche. The caste systems persist and so does an attitude of condescension over the underprivileged. The distinction is severe in school children in urban high profile schools and those in government schools.
Tolstoy Farm was the base for his experiments on the policy of social inclusion. Here, festivals of all religions were celebrated with equal gusto. Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Parsis, Christians supported each other during their fasting seasons like Pradosha, Ramzan, Lent etc. This camaraderie was nurtured through the team work facilitated by the various tasks on the farm. They had the responsibility of growing food, maintaining the gardens, teaching school children, scavenging. No task was considered menial and nobody was considered above any task.
This is further seen in the way an ‘untouchable’ family was allowed entry into Satyagraha Ashram (Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, India). Funding was discontinued; there was resistance from the inmates, yet, the core principle ‘the good of the individual is contained in the good of all’ - As quoted in the Autobiography from ‘Unto this Last’, Ruskin Bond - that had shaped this policy stood uncompromised. Actions of people are usually based on deep rooted beliefs and prejudices. These actions are gradually accepted as a practice and evolve into norms.
The acceptance of the family of Dudabhai, an ‘untouchable’ into the ashram was interpreted as a challenge to existing societal norms. The conviction with which he stood by this family against such resistance was no mean feat.
Social Inclusion is not just another term, when it comes to his work and methods. It was experienced through practice with a clear understanding of the mindsets of people and the challenges posed by social norms. This is seen in the way he chose to travel on deck while by ship, the third class compartment by train and the readiness with which he accepted various tasks like nursing (during the Boer War) to scavenging.
More than examples, one would find social inclusion as a principle followed in all his work. The Congress was considered elitist till he joined and started reaching out to the masses. A call from him evoked a stronger response from the entire population than would a call from any leader even today.
Communication - “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”
History stands evidence to this truth and understanding of Gandhiji on miscommunication. The challenge of communication lies conveying a message in the same letter and spirit as intended by the originator of the message. A beautiful example in the book is seen in the agitation taken up by Indian leaders against the practice of indentured labour emigrated from India to South Africa. Indians in South Africa faced various hardships and insults. They were virtually ‘slaves’ and were relegated to the position of untouchables, with all kinds of restrictions and enforcements.
In 1917, when efforts of leaders like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviyaji did not yield desired results, Gandhiji took up the agitation by starting a tour of India. Three proposals were discussed at the first meeting in Bombay, convened by Mr Jehangir Petit and attended by various dignitaries. One proposal favoured abolition ‘as soon as possible,’ another by ‘31st July’ and the third favoured ‘immediate abolition.’
Gandhiji favoured the option where a definite date ‘31st July’ was mentioned. His reasoning – ‘Immediate’ was open to multiple interpretations by people – the government in one way, the people in another. There was ‘no question of misunderstanding 31st July’ and this would give them the way ahead if nothing was done till then.
His argument convinced the rest and the resolution was passed that the proposal to put up 31st July as the date by which abolition should be announced. Incidentally, it may be noted that abolition was announced before 31st July.
Effective communication is the result of understanding how messages are likely to be interpreted by various audiences and tailoring your message accordingly. While there are so many examples of this throughout this book and his other work, for the purpose of this article, only one example is cited. Current practices in the corporate world include terms like crowd sourcing, participative decision making etc. The uninitiated would call it jargon. In Gandhiji’s work, speeches and language, one sees simplicity and ease and a care that his audience understood what he wanted to convey.
Leadership - “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”
This word assumes various shades in the corporate world. However, for ease of understanding, let us look at leadership as a practice of walking the talk. While theories abound, leadership has evolved to mean participation and team work.
An incident, not from the book, but from the history of the Indian freedom struggle comes to mind. The Chauri Chura incident was a horrific story of violence during the Non-Violence Movement. The masses were trained not to react with violence, however hard the provocation. When a mob set on fire a police station with policemen inside, Gandhiji realized that the Indians were not ready for non-violence yet. He immediately took a decision to call off the movement, and started a fast in penance. This act resulted in reigning in the frenzy that was taking over the psyche of masses. The message that freedom had to be attained only by right means went out strong and clear.
Another incident about his emphasis on transparency comes to mind. There would be prayer meetings at Sabarmati Ashram every evening. All the money donated during these meetings would be counted, recorded in a register, locked up in a box and deposited into the bank the next morning. Once it so happened that there was a difference of 25 paise in the amount entered in the register and the cash deposited in the bank. Nobody could explain how this happened. Gandhiji took responsibility and started a Fast as a penance. Needless to say, such an incident was never repeated again.
Coming back to the book for a base for his work as a leader, one would see that he evolved with his reading and unhesitatingly experimented with every idea that appealed to his finer sensibilities. His belief was that a leader had to practise before asking his followers to do.
At Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, he realized that the children needed education. Restrictions on Indians about schools, funds and the quality of education itself posed challenges. He believed that education has to enable co-ordination of hand, head and heart. The children had to learn to respect physical labour and they also had to learn language, grammar and other subjects.
To put this into practice, he began with himself and his own children. For himself, he learned how to stitch shoes, how to run the printing press, etc. His colleagues joined in and thus, the children had teachers for various subjects and activities. The teachers at the Ashram would work with the students.
His approach of being with his team at ground level stood him in good stead in the bigger challenges and movements. Leadership training programmes today highlight the importance of transparency and participative decision making. It is now fashionable to say that a leader has to be a ‘team player.’ All the three examples above demonstrate democratic leadership.
To Conclude -
A typical management programme includes modules in all the above topics through various sources – online and offline and teaching methods. The article examines how Mahatma Gandhi’s Autobiography and episodes from his life could help a professional learn fundamental management principles. It is high time Gen Y discovers the relevance of his methods and ideas in modern day business challenges.
1. The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K.Gandhi
2. Satyagraha in South Africa, M.K.Gandhi
Courtesy: Sasmira's Business Review 2013
* Associate Professor, Chetana's Institute of Management & Research, Bandra East, Mumbai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org