Mahatma Gandhi was a visionary leader in a time when political and social issues in India were facing a tumultuous time. He helped to garner India’s independence from Great Britain in the 1930s and 1940s by practicing a leadership style that most aligns with spiritual leadership. During the time he was fighting for India’s independence, he practiced peaceful dissidence, by engaging in a method he called “satyagraha.” Satyagraha can be defined as a method of peaceful protest that involves non-violent civil disobedience. This helped to give him the title of the founding father of India, putting him in a unique position, where he was not only revered by the Indian people, but also respected and well-known among British rulers, officials, and monarchs.
One of the primary tenets of Mahatma Gandhi’s belief system was the fact that he believed in unity of all of mankind under one god. He lived simply, owned no possessions, and wore simple loincloths and other clothing that was very minimalistic. He encouraged his followers to do the same, and to preach his ideology of all of mankind united under one god. This allowed those who followed him to live more simply, encouraging their government to do the same and to practice unity among all men. Spiritual leadership dictates that the leader engaging in spiritual leadership helps their followers to utilize the values and sense of calling and membership and act upon it. Spiritual leadership often involves people who share the same spiritual background, and who feel a calling to help disseminate and spread the good news of their mission.
Some of the basic ethical principles of Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership are truth, nonviolence, true religion, and voluntary poverty. These basic ethical principles were encouraged by Gandhi for his followers to live by, and many of his followers did wind up giving up all of their material possessions and practicing true religion, otherwise known as brotherhood of man, in order to align themselves completely with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. Without spiritual leadership, Mahatma Gandhi might otherwise have not had such a far-reaching and profound impact upon the Indian people, and his style of leadership dictates that each follower of his look into themselves introspectively and find the best way they can follow the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Many times, Mahatma Gandhi stated that the only way to see his vision come to life was to look at it through a lens of faith and vision. This deep and profound commitment to his faith and the faith of his followers is important in terms of spiritual leadership, because it notates that the leader is vested in the spiritual connection being built between themselves and their followers. When a leader engages in spiritual leadership, they allow their followers to develop their own sense of a calling, and give their followers the space to develop their own role in the movement.
Throughout the course of his prominence as the budding father of the nation, as India considered him, Mahatma Gandhi served as an inspiration for many other prominent, peace-seeking and equality-seeking leaders and contemporaries of his time, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. Similarly to Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi employed the same peaceful and non-violent approach, seeking change only through peaceful means. His theory of Satyagraha dictated brotherly love amongst people, regardless of who they are or where they came from, and he ensured that the members of his following knew that they were to only employ peaceful attempts when attempting to further their cause. The most famous and well-known of his protests was known as the Salt March, where Mahatma Gandhi and countless of his followers engaged in a peaceful protest against the United Kingdom’s monopoly on salt at that time. The march covered a span of over 240 miles, where it ended at the sea in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he and his followers began to make salt themselves. This act of protest motivated the monarchs of Britain to begin an attempt at negotiations with Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian government.
In many articles and texts, Mahatma Gandhi is described as a pacifist, and I think it is important to note that most spiritual leaders, are, inherently, also pacifists. His power laid in his ability to encourage and engage his followers. His power also laid in what is referred to as a socialized power orientation. By definition, a socialized power orientation dictates that a leader who possesses this type of leadership power also possesses the traits of a high level of self-control, a motivation to attain power in non-violent ways, and non-manipulative. They also possess a distinctive ability to see the bigger picture, the larger scheme of things. Spiritual leaders must possess this socialized power orientation if they are going to effectively lead any group of people. Spiritual leaders must hone in on the fact that their followers are looking to them not only for spiritual guidance, but for a leader who can show them how to enact long-term, meaningful change.
Mahatma Gandhi was once quoted as saying, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This quote is perhaps one of his most well-known quotes, garnering a variety of social media posts featuring this quote, and even appearing on t-shirts, mugs, and myriad other kitschy items. However, that quote is quite possibly the cornerstone of his entire leadership philosophy. Mahatma Gandhi was a true believer that the only way to enact change in the world was to change your words, your actions, your thoughts, and your deeds. He was a true believer that even he, of modest stature and small means, could enact meaningful and impactful change on what was then a constantly evolving country affected by intense political turmoil. At the time, India was still under the firm control of Great Britain, and the fight he took on was a fight for all Indian people to be free of the chains of British rule in their country. Mahatma Gandhi had grown tired of the way the Indian people were treated by their British overlords, and decided to take matters into his own hands. However, he was not going to take matters into his own hands in a violent and angry manner; he had already seen far too much anger and violence put upon the Indian people by the British. Instead, he decided to take a spiritual approach, first garnering a great following based on his non-violent approach. His works eventually saw him become imprisoned, simply for wanting the people of his country to breathe free, but that did not serve to stop him or his followers from continuing to pursue their dream of a free India. This idea that he could motivate people simply through showing them a peaceful and non-violent approach most likely left the monarchs and leaders of Britain confused, and quite frankly, troubled. However, this is how a spiritual leader works; a spiritual leader takes a following by showing his people that there is a better way to live, and by demonstrating that they already possess the inherent gifts they need in order to see that vision come to life. He used his values of peace, love, and brotherhood to establish the concept of satyagraha, giving his followers something to lean on and something to latch onto in a time of immense uncertainty.
It was extremely important to Mahatma Gandhi to show tremendous empathy, particularly to his followers. At the time, India was going through a great deal of upheaval, and it was important for him to ensure his followers that they were going to see resolution. His empathetic manner and his caring and peaceful ways also put him squarely in the category of also being a servant leader. Servant leadership is a relatively new concept of leadership, established in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf, who first described servant leadership in an essay he wrote on leadership that ultimately wound up becoming published. In his essay, Robert Greenleaf stated that the servant leader is servant first, then a leader second. It is also important for the servant leader to discern if the people he is serving are growing because they were served, and if the people being served are growing more free, more intelligent, and more healthy as a result of being served. Throughout the life of Mahatma Gandhi, it is important to note that he always considered material possessions unnecessary, and encouraged his followers to live in the most minimalistic way possible. He also placed a very large emphasis on the fact that people who were less fortunate, and did not have as much to eat or people to love them, must be taken care of, as well. This attitude that placed others first ahead of him and promoted the treatment of all neighbors as brothers is what ultimately allowed him to become so influential and powerful. When people noticed that he was willing to put himself last, serve people first, and bring a better tomorrow to India, they became encouraged. They had not experienced this unconditional acceptance and caring of a peaceful leader that considered his followers family to him. This is what helps servant leaders become so powerful and so influential; the fact that they motivate people to follow them simply by caring about them.
To elaborate on his treatment of those who were less fortunate, Mahatma Gandhi referred to the lowest caste of people in India as “the untouchables.” He promoted protection of this lowest class of people in India, going so far as to call them children of God, and ensuring that their needs were met. His empathy for those lowest members of society in India is surely part of what helped him garner so much traction as a meaningful and impactful leader. Surely, those members of the lowest caste of India had been trodden upon by the British government, neglected and seen their needs go unmet. This sudden approval and support from someone so influential and powerful must have seemed like the hand of God, reaching out to them. These people then felt that it was their duty to back the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, standing behind him and joining him in protests and participating in his way of life. By noticing the least influential members of society, Mahatma Gandhi was able to influence the most influential members of society.
One of Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest and most interesting philosophies was that the Indian people needed no government at all. He was of the belief that as long as all of the Indian people followed his ideals and practiced good morals and fairness, that there would be no need for governance of the Indian people. To some, this may seem like a pipe dream, but to Mahatma Gandhi it seemed attainable. He was widely criticized for his beliefs by many of his influential contemporaries, such as Winston Churchill, who was one of his most vocal and persistent critics. A country without government simply did not make sense to many people. However, by remaining relatable to his people, and ensuring that his people were well taken care of, he turned many Indian people into believers. At one point, Mahatma Gandhi even stated that he was not trying to create a cult, or establish a following, stating that, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” This practical and peace-embracing philosophy is what caused him to become so endearing to many. Despite the fact that he may have been perceived as idealistic, he was able to sway the opinions of much of India, and even the British.
Every leader must possess a certain set of traits or qualities that helps them rise above the rest of the people, vying for power and influence. Without these traits or qualities, everyone would be an instant leader. It is clear that leaders must possess a unique set of characteristics to take on the position. Some of the qualities and traits that Mahatma Gandhi possessed that enabled him to become an effective and successful leader were the confidence he had in himself and his ability to enact meaningful change, his persistence, and the way he kept fighting and kept pressing on, even when the situation seemed hopeless, and his honesty, which helped build a sense of trust and transparency between himself and his followers, and even his critics. He was also a huge proponent of taking the first step on a hard journey; even if it was an uphill battle, or seemed like it was not likely that you’d succeed, he was a huge proponent in at least trying. He was quoted as once saying, “nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.” This attitude helped to give him the strength and the faith he needed to take on the giants of the British empire at the time, taking him from being virtually unknown to being one of the most prolific leaders of all time.
Even though it’s important to note that Mahatma Gandhi rose to prominence during a time where it seemed like India had virtually no representation or anyone who cared enough to take up the cause of establishing India’s independence, it’s important to note that a spiritual leader does not worry about establishing a following. As stated previously, Mahatma Gandhi was careful to emphasize that he was not interested in starting a cult or garnering a huge following; he was more interested in the well-being of his people, and ensuring that they were being treated fairly and justly by the British government, and ultimately able to seek independence. His fight was never about money or fame or fortune; in fact, he ensured that it was a well-known fact that he had little to gain materially by going on this journey towards India’s independence. A spiritual leader is less worried about the material aspect of what could be gained, and more interested in the spiritual aspect. A spiritual leader engages their followers by tapping into them on a spiritual level, engaging the deepest desires of their soul, and making them aware that they have unlimited unharnessed potential that could be used towards benefiting the greater good. Mahatma Gandhi had a gift, by being able to make people see themselves the way he saw them; he was able to motivate people to take drastic measures, get rid of all their possessions, live morally and in harmony, and do this all to benefit the greater good of all the people of India. He was, perhaps, one of the most non-divisive leaders of all time. His teachings and his philosophies gave the people if India the hope they needed to continue on what was undoubtedly a very difficult path toward independence. The spiritual leader takes the people, and transforms them from people whose hands are tied, who are ineffective and powerless, and shows them characteristics and traits that they may have never known they possessed. The spiritual leader is effective, because they are effective at showing people just how powerful they are, too.
In conclusion, spiritual leadership is an intricate and elaborate style of leadership, where the leader is often charged with developing a spiritual persona that many individuals eventually come to follow. There are many facets to spiritual leadership, all of which Mahatma Gandhi embraced and engaged in, and his non-violent and peaceful way of making two drastically different groups of people see eye to eye is what was most engaging and interesting to me in this analysis. Spiritual leadership allows groups of people to connect on a spiritual level, and see their vision to reality with the cooperation of one another’s callings and values. Mahatma Gandhi was the textbook spiritual leader, engaging his people in protests, marches, and fasts that helped break the gridlock of communication between India and the British government. Without his influential philosophies rooted in brotherly love, India may never have seen independence from the British government. He was a true spiritual leader, and ensured that his followers knew that as powerful as he may have seemed, they were just as powerful, too.
- Greeleaf, R. (1970). The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
- Pyne, S. (2015). Top 10 Leadership Lessons From Mahatma Gandhi. India’s Business Journal.
- Friedman, J. (2008). Mahatma Gandhi’s Vision For The Future of India: The Role of Enlightened Anarchy. Penn History Review.
- Ingram, O. (2016). Servant Leadership as a Leadership Model. Cook School of Leadership Journal.
- Spears, L. (2010). Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Loving Leaders. The Journal of Virtues & Leadership.
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