Aquarian Leadership
⮎ Leadership and Duty

Gandhi’s Example


My life is my message.”

M. K. Gandhi

“Leadership by example is not only the most pervasive but the most enduring form of leadership.”

Keshavan Nair

Leadership is a social process which helps to set direction such that a group can unite to realize an aim or objective.

The following are some practical concerns wherein the application of Gandhian thought points to a higher standard of leadership.

How can a leader maintain governing values in a world of flux and expediency?

As Keshavan Nair writes in his volume, A Higher Standard of Leadership, “Today many people believe that it is not possible to be successful in the world of business and politics and still to maintain one’s integrity—integrity not defined by absence of financial corruption, but by adherence to moral principles in all activities.” (Nair, P. 1)

M. K. Gandhi demonstrated that his life was governed by moral principles and values, and that they provided his moral compass through complex and uncertain times. Nair calls this “a single standard of conduct.” For Gandhi, a commitment to absolute values such as truthfulness and non-violence provides this moral ballast.

“Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.”

Thomas Paine

Our absolute values, expressed in our ideals, must be embodied in our world of relative truths.  Gandhi said that for ideals to be potent they must be put into practice.  Expressing truth is based on what is relevant to its context—both potential opportunities and constraints.  The leader must find the opportunity in the interstices between policies and personalities to transform absolute truths into living expressions of inspirational direction and implementation of beneficial actions.

“Truth in its inward parts at once breaks down barriers which separate us from our fellow man.”

Dean Inge

Gandhi felt we can transform our ideals into creative service.  Enterprises or organized groups exist to serve others.  To serve means to assess, creatively engage, and learn what people need.  A higher standard of leadership requires that a response, consistent with aim or mission, must evaluate one’s vision and actions against values of truth and non-violence as well as effectiveness in attending to the needs of others.  One can reflect upon the question, “How can we expand the ideal of universal brotherhood and sisterhood and do no harm in our decision-making?”  This is consistent with the Gandhian statement that “all men are brothers” (including sisters).

Just as doctors take a vow, called the Hippocratic Oath, so leaders in various spheres, in addition to adhering to professional norms, can also take a vow to a single standard of conduct in one’s life. “When human beings bind themselves by the power of a vow, they seek to become wholly reliable.”  (Hermes)   M.K. Gandhi stated that “self-restraint is the very keystone of the ethics of vow-taking.”  This allows a more self-conscious, ethical awareness of the decisions we take.  As Nair writes, “A trained conscience is developed through personal reflection.  But without a commitment to truth, personal reflection will result only in rationalization.” (Nair, P. 34)  A rationalization is a rational lie.

A commitment to truth allows the leader to emphasize continuous improvement.  That is why some leaders create “hairy goals.”  This creates the ability to evaluate the gap between where we are and what we want to be.  In doing so, we can draw out everyone’s potential, not blame individuals for imperfections.

Gandhi was very clear that his actions were designed to ameliorate untruth or injustice through mutual education:  to work on correcting unjust policies, not attacking personalities or the “Other.”  Taking on the self-suffering, or tapas, of a situation, even if painfully striving to make connections between moral intuition, values, and facts in a situation, can transform the heart and minds of all of those involved.  One pathway, for example, is to identify the interstices in emerging situations or cycles, “free spaces”, and inject the moral benefits of a positive goal of service.  A positive goal of service is inclusive and benefits each and all (lokasangraha).  One can always maintain the initiative by quietly attempting to draw an inclusive, larger circle for the “good,” even if it involves several incremental phases and “course corrections” to get there.

Gandhi always stressed that the values of the means are intimately connected with realizing the values of the ends.  So the means, so the ends.  In practical terms, this may not always be possible.  In action, there is always uncertainty.  Yet one can, at minimum, “do no harm”, thus increasing the probability of humane outcomes, while, at the same time, making the means proportional to the ends in terms of requisite scope, resources, and abilities.

How Can We Reconcile Power and Service in Organizations?

Gandhi stressed identifying with the people.  As Abraham Lincoln did with his “team of rivals”, one must share the experiences of people with whom one is trying to serve and reconcile differences, especially when it comes to understanding the needs of one’s beneficiaries or clients.  One can cultivate the virtue of “detached engagement”.  One has to put oneself in another’s shoes and understand their difficulties.  One also has to collect and interpret data, acknowledging contributions from diverse perspectives, yet seeing issues in a broader context.  Wisdom consists of articulating the essentials, knowing what can and cannot be changed on different issues.

Nair writes about how a Gandhian-inspired leader would navigate a collective hierarchy and the power of one’s decision-making authority:

“Power provides the authority to convince people to act in a way that moves the business, or any organization, toward its objectives.  You can exercise power through control or through service.  Control motivates people through attachments.  In business, it is exercised by supervising employees, determining their compensation, and offering job security.  Service motivates people through their sense of personal obligation and a moral imperative.  It is exercised by setting an example and creating the moral authority to ask others to take individual responsibility.” (Nair, P. 90)  Allowing some degree of role flexibility and transcendence draws out creative potential in the use of human resources, time, and energy.  It also adds to trust and confidence, providing a stronger bond of team-working toward common ends.

Nair then suggests that we can reconcile power with service through Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship.  “Power is given to you by others.  It is not yours; it is in trust with you and it is a great responsibility.  Power is to be used for the benefit of those whose trustee you are.” (Nair, P. 91)


One has to be open to surprise!  Gandhi wrote, “All action in this world has some drawback about it.  It is man’s duty and privilege to reduce it, and while living in the midst of it, to remain untouched by it as much as it is possible for him to do so.”  (The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, P. 66) Error is an aspect of all human action.  To error is human.  Gandhi once called one of his errors a “Himalayan Blunder.”  Gandhi wrote that non-attachment to the self-cherishing “fruits of action” is important.  The less emotional attachment one has, the greater one’s ability to see more clearly and self-correct.

The ability to self-correct is an important quality of a leader.  One can conduct a nightly review, and “true oneself” within the inner light of a non-violent heart.  Reappraising and clarifying one’s motives for action (or inaction) is a prime consideration as well as discerning and reappraising others’ agendas, both for the purpose of learning.

For Gandhi, honesty is an important moral quality.  While every situation may not call for a public acknowledgment of error, on select occasions, a leader must take public responsibility for error and be willing to accept the consequences.  This is important, for in Nair’s words, “to be consistently indifferent to self-examination is certain to undermine the moral credibility needed to induce others to make sacrifices on behalf of shared values.” (Nair, P. 69)

Thus, a higher standard of leadership must include moral courage, holding wherever possible to absolute truth and non-violence as a standard, while being honest about the moral values and empirical factors in the situation.   From these considerations, a leader can exercise their creative imagination and vision, keeping in mind what can be changed and what cannot from moment to moment, and this includes fellow leaders and followers alike.

Recommended:  Keshavan Nair, A Higher Standard of Leadership:  Lessons from the Life of Gandhi

Raghavan N. Iyer,  The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi


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