Tag Archives: Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi: Lessons from one of History’s Most Unlikely Leaders of Great Change

"Be the Change You Want to See in This World" - courtesy of McKee Public SchoolBe the change you want to see in this world’ is the simple quote usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

But did he really say that? And what does it mean? Is it the reason he managed to lead his country to overthrow the British Empire?

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

It is certainly true that Mahatma Gandhi almost singlehandedly transformed India. In my previous post (Nelson Mandela as a Remarkable Innovator), I suggested we could look at Nelson Mandela as an innovator, and, by doing so, draw powerful lessons. We can do the same thing by looking at the life, thinking and character of Mahatma Gandhi in a similar way.  Here are three traits that made Gandhi a man who changed the world.

1.    A Singularity of Purpose, a Dominant Core Value

As mentioned in the post on Mandela, people who change the world or innovate are usually driven by an intense singularity of purpose, often by one core value in particular. Mandela’s was a life-long dedication to equality.

Gandhi too had a singularity of purpose that was driven by a near-obsession with one core value.

What comes as a surprise to many people, especially in these days of skepticism and cynicism, is that the singular core value Gandhi pursued was truth.

If you read Gandhi’s autobiographry, the first thing you might be struck by is its subtitle, ‘My Experiments with Truth.’ The entire book describes how he linked everything he did with his personal reflections on truth. The pursuit of truth even guided his thinking on policy. His conclusion that India should not be ruled by Britain was in fact based on his pursuit of truth: he simply saw no basis in truth to suggest that the Indian people were in any way lesser than the British. It followed – logically – that India should be free and rule itself.

2.    Diverse Knowledge

Once again, modern research shows that the most creative minds have not just deep knowledge in a particular field, but also diverse knowledge and understanding of a variety of subjects. Creative people and innovators are curious: they ask questions and pursue answers, wherever those answers might take them.

The evidence of Gandhi’s remarkably curious mind is found in the vast legacy of articles and books he wrote. Gandhi was unbelievably prolific, writing some one hundred books and articles, on topics that ranged from politics to policy to non-violence to history to philosophy. This was in addition to his formal training and early profession in the law.

The lesson we can draw is that while we certainly need to teach people to specialize in the field of their choice, we must equally encourage people to balance specialized knowledge with a continued pursuit of knowledge in areas they are curious or passionate about.

3.    Emotional Wisdom

Everyone faces challenges in life, and perhaps the biggest one we all face today is to fend off negatives and set backs in order to stay focused on our positive goals.

Like Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi developed the skill of what we can call emotional wisdom. It is more than just emotional intelligence. It is the ability and skill to take life’s negatives and setbacks and actually transform them back into positive ends.

Here’s how Gandhi once put it, and consider if this skill alone may have made been the key reason Gandhi was able to achieve what he did: “I had learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.”

Gandhi also inspired others to do exactly the same. Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi, was fourteen when his grandfather was assassinated in 1948. When it happened he was so filled with anger that he wanted revenge against the assassin. But then he recalled what his grandfather had taught him: “Gandhi taught me at age twelve that anger is as useful and powerful as electricity … but only if we use it intelligently. We must learn to respect anger as we do electricity.” Today, at 79, Arun Gandhi is a renouned advocate and public speaker who campaigns for non-violence and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

My kids and their classmates would be proud of him.


Nelson Mandela: How His Singularity of Purpose Drove the Positive Change He Dreamed Of

Nelson Mandela in 2008 - courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Nelson Mandela

It is customary to salute Nelson Mandela as a great leader and statesman, which of course he was. Against all odds, he led South Africa from an unjust, apartheid past to a new state founded upon equality and democratic rights. We salute Mandela for the incredible moral strength he developed during 27 years in prison. And we salute him for the wisdom he found to forgive, let go of resentment, and stay focused on his life-long goal of achieving equality in his country.

Can we also think of Mandela as an innovator?

We can. If we define innovating as bringing about positive change that has value to society, then Mandela is actually at the top of the list. He innovated an entire country. Without the positive change he inspired, South Africa could easily have slipped into chaos, corruption and civil war.

From this point of view, Mandela was not just an innovator. He was one of the greatest innovators of all time, and most of us can only yearn to have even a fraction of the positive impact he had on the world.

So what can Mandela teach us about what it takes to innovate?

Let me share my take on three aspects of Mandela’s life that I believe helped shape his mind, develop his wisdom, and make him the leader and innovator he was.

  1. A Singularity of Purpose, a Dominant Core Value

The people who change the world or innovate are usually driven by a singularity of purpose that other people just never develop to the same level.

Edison was singleminded in his purpose to invent not just the lightbulb but a new society that used an electric grid and electric devices. Mahatma Gandhi was driven by a near-obsession with truth, a principle that guided all his actions and thinking.

What was Mandela’s singularlity of purpose?

Mandela wrote his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, with the assistance of writer Richard Stengel, who spent three years with Mandela in the process. In Mandela’s Way, his own book on Mandela, Stengel writes, “Nelson Mandela is a man of principle – exactly one. Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class, or gender. Pretty much everything else is a tactic.” The result was that Mandela was both an idealist and a pragmatist – a “thorough-going pragmatist who was willing to compromise, change, adapt, and refine his strategy as long as it got him to the promised land … [which] meant one thing: the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of a non-racial democracy with one person, one vote. Full stop.”

2.    Diverse Knowledge

I believe the world still undervalues a simple but significant step Mandela took while in prison. If he had not taken this one step, history might have turned out very differently. It was even an easy step to take. He started a language course in Afrikaans. I sometimes call it the language course that changed the course of history.

By taking a course in Afrikaans, Mandela did two things. First he expanded his mind. All the research shows that the most creative people have developed not just deep knowledge in their particular field or discipline, but they also develop diverse knowledge. They are curious. They develop passions in other fields and learn other subjects. Einstein the scientist was also Einstein the violinist. By studying Afrikaans, Mandela expanded his mind by coming to see life and South Africa from the point of view of his captors.

Second, by learning Afrikaans, Mandela expanded his capacity to understand people differently. He no longer saw his captors as the enemy. They were human beings. He came to know them. They were men just like him. They had families. They had children. They had fears. A surprising bond developed between Mandela and the men who guarded him, all because he had expanded his mind – through a language course.

No one can ever say what might have happened in history but for some particular event. But I think it’s a safe bet Mandela would not have emerged from prison with the depth of wisdom and understanding he had if he had not made this extraordinary effort to speak the language of the people who held him captive.

3.    Emotional Wisdom

Emotional intelligence became a popular term beginning in the 1990s. It’s a good start. But it’s not the finish line. People like Mandela took emotional intelligence to the next level, a level we could call emotional wisdom.

For Mandela, this involved a disciplined approach to staying positive and tranforming his life’s negatives and setbacks back into positive ends. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described it this way: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

It’s a remarkable attitude and skill, and it’s another reason Mandela became, on a grand scale, one of humanity’s remarkable innovators.