One of our associates, Pete Laburn, recently posted a precis of a new book entitled, Gandhi CEO (buy it at You can read Pete’s blog here.

The book’s sub title explains the general theme of the book: 14 principles to guide and inspire modern leaders

Mohandas Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in the coastal town of Porbandar in India. He was the youngest child of Hindu parents during British rule in India. His life’s work revolved around championing the cause of the poor, weak and down‐cast of South Africa and India. Gandhi is often refered to as Mahatma meaning ‘Great Soul’, an honour bestowed on him during his challenging work. He was a servant leader who was willing to dedicate his personal presence to highlight and improve the plight of others. As one of the greatest leaders of all time he created a standard for all who would manage transformative change in any collective endeavour.

Axelrod’s book ‘Gandhi CEO’ highlights 14 principles to guide and inspire modern leaders.

1. Following the Truth

The first of the 14 leadership principles that can be identified in the life and leadership style of Gandhi was his deciding to follow the truth. Gandhi measured all decisions against the truth. Slavery, oppression, injustice and violence were all untruthful because they extorted belief and forced compliance. When in doubt on how to evaluate a decision or policy Gandhi said to call to mind the face of the poorest of the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. For Gandhi the test of any proposed action was how it would affect the most vulnerable individual, keeping decisions human and particular, rather than ideological and general. In companies today company policy is too often used as a substitute for actual, individual decision making concerning actual individuals. Company policy should also be tested against real individuals.

Seeking the truth involves embracing transparency. While each individual and organisation must maintain a certain amount of confidentiality, as a management strategy, secrecy is counterproductive as it undermines trust and raises suspicion. It also discourages people from feeling that they have any significant stake in the enterprise. In contrast, transparency builds trust and invites a sense of ownership among everyone in the organisation. Gandhi ensured that everything he did was an episode in what he called open rebellion and each act of civil disobedience was public. Each organisation should review their policies with an eye toward introducing full transparency wherever possible.

In seeking for the truth and standing for the truth, you need to define your no‐compromise zones. While leadership does often require compromise, every CEO and manager must stake out the areas on which there can be no compromise. These no‐compromise zones should never be designed arbitrarily but should protect matters of principle and policy that have been proven to be vital to the operation or core identity of the enterprise.

2. A Do or Die Attitude

The next leadership principle evident in the life of Gandhi was his Do or Die attitude. This involved motivating people for maximum effort in situations that offer the highest stakes, the greatest risks and the greatest opportunities. Gandhi’s life illustrates that when the stakes are high – don’t wait. He proved that a single person can bring change, and that even great change begins with a single person. If you mean to make a difference in the world, you cannot wait for others to begin the change or wait for the changes to become widespread. Begin the project with yourself – and begin now.

As a leader you also need to learn to harness the energy of imperfection. Imperfection is what moves you and your enterprise toward the goal and drives every worthwhile endeavour, so while
you set perfection as your goal, recognise and nurture the power of imperfection as a motivating tool. Satisfaction is a dangerous thing for dynamic enterprises. It is far better to stay dissatisfied and recognise that true satisfaction lies in the effort rather than the attainment. Reward the members of your team for their hard work while you build greater challenges for them to keep them striving forward.

You also need to realise that time is the one absolute commodity. Time is entirely non‐renewable and can be spent, invested or lost. Gandhi saw a waste of time as a tragedy as it squandered our most precious resource. While Gandhi’s struggles required an absolute do or die strategy, not all goals in business require the degree of dedication that Gandhi’s life’s work required. However, there are junctures when the survival of the business is at stake and in which nothing less than maximum effort is likely to prevail.

Save your calls for absolute commitment and total dedication for these times alone.

3. The Genius of noncooperation

Gandhi understood that the authority of the government came from the consent of the governed, and that if the people turned their backs on the government, it was worthless. For business leaders today, non‐cooperation is a reminder of the need to do far more than order employees around. A company’s business cannot be run on forced obedience. Voluntary cooperation is required and it is the task of the CEO and manager to secure it day to day. Cooperation must be earned. Leaders need to realise that authority alone is insufficient to create cooperation throughout an organisation. Full, effective cooperation can only be given and not demanded or taken. Leaders need to understand that their authority only goes so far. High levels of organisational performance require cooperation that must be earned by respecting staff members, engaging with them, challenging them, rewarding them and listening to them. The autocrat or tyrant who forces obedience only gets forced compliance. This coercion must be continually maintained with force. CEO’s need to learn that forced obedience is less than worthless. Only an organisation built on voluntary compliance is built to endure and prosper.

The thrust of Gandhi’s campaign of noncooperation was that when offered a bad bargain, the best thing to do is walk away from it. In business, when offered a bad choice, choose nothing. Turn away the choice and start walking. If you are pursued with a better offer, consider it, but if not, find another deal partner. The most powerful bargaining chip you have is your presence at the table. Withdraw it and you have made a powerful statement. For Gandhi, laudable ends never justified violent means because such means contaminated even the noblest objectives. Gandhi believed that the ends cannot justify the means. In the business context, leaders lead for change but should take great pains to ensure that the proper instruments of change are employed. Deception, fraud and intimidation cannot bring about healthy, ethical, enduring change. Such contamination will destroy any benefit that the desired end might otherwise have offered.

4. Give Everyone a Stake

Gandhi campaigned for universal equality. This example is relevant to today’s business world as it illustrates that everyone with whom you do business needs to be given a stake in your organisation. That way everyone will feel a commitment to you and your organisation. In this regard everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Assume universal equality and demonstrate the same respect for everyone with whom you interact.

It is also important for leaders to structure the organisation in ways that honour the value of all the work to be done. An effective manager ensures that each worker understands how that task contributes to the company. The best run companies are characterised by individual pride and satisfaction in doing excellent work toward common goals that pervade the entire organisation. Gandhi advised his followers to regard any institution in which they were involved as a family. In the same way, business leaders should regard the members of the enterprise as a family in the sense that each member has his own life and own role to play, but all are united. In any business, the wellbeing, livelihood and future of each member is dependent on the performance, behaviour, caring and good faith of all. A company can only achieve uncommon excellence by bringing together uncommon people for a common purpose. As Gandhi did, the leader of a company needs to find ways to give the members of the organisation a common identity without sacrificing the unique talents, experience and perspectives of individual employees.

Gandhi’s life and work were built on the right and duty of dissent. He held that the will of the majority should not cancel the vote of the minority. However, where there is no principle involved and there is a programme to be carried out, the minority has got to follow the majority. If there is a principle involved; the thoughts of the minority should be taken into account. In this way dissent can be valuable to an organisation and should be heard and evaluated as it provides a valuable additional perspective on majority decisions. Each perspective enhances a decision. Leaders should also be inflexible about goals but flexible about the methods used to achieve them. The goals of the organisation are absolute, but the process and style of how to get there can be the function of individual personality, attitude, strengths and weaknesses. Tolerate nothing less than excellence, but open the organisation to the greatest possible tolerance for the range of personal processes that achieve excellence.

5. Learning and Experience

Gandhi came to understand that education and experience can be both liberating and confining. For him, managing beneficial change depended on knowing what knowledge to use and what knowledge to look beyond, modify or reject entirely. Early on Gandhi learned that rich experience of practical affairs is more important than education. In recruiting, hiring and managing employees, leaders should look beyond titles and papers that certify education and drill down into the candidate’s practical experience.

Gandhi used his life experience to make relevant decisions. He did this by basing his decisions on thorough, honest evaluation of relevant experience to build enduring rules, and principles of policy. Gandhi also adopted his ideas from others work and made them his own. He even admitted to having no original ideas but having absorbed everything from others. In the same way effective managers should use whatever works for them. When you find an idea that excites you, take it in and make it your own. In addition, there are many lessons to be learnt from the past and good leaders endeavour to learn from the past, but not let it hold them back. Don’t let knowledge of the past restrain your organisation and threaten to put it in a pitiable condition. Learn from the lessons of the past but aim to rise above them.

Contrary to what many CEO’s believe, ‘shaking things up’ with large scale change is not beneficial to the organisation. Constructive change within an organisation requires a managed revolution that identifies what needs to be changed and what should remain the same. Some aspects of the status quo should remain the same. As a leader, it is your job to make change simultaneously as meaningful and painless as possible. Similarly, as leaders we need to analyse what aspects of our thinking need to change and what can stay the same. It is not a bad thing to change your mind as you learn and grow in leadership. You need to exercise the courage to absorb new knowledge and better ways of doing things for the good of the common endeavour. It does not matter if you made mistakes in the past, but you should continue to learn and grow from them.

6. Making it real

Gandhi specialised in accurately assessing and productively engaging with the realities that confronted him with an eye toward managing them for the best possible outcome. Gandhi was particularly talented at defining his present reality. In order to bring about change, you need to begin by embracing reality as it is, and then adjusting the terms of reality to suit your ends. The most meaningful and durable alterations to reality are made not by force, but from within. This requires shaping and reshaping the perceptions and values of the people you lead by words and actions. First you must define the reality you want, and then combine acts and words to effectively create this new reality. To inspire your organisation to great effort you need to employ no deception.

Emphasise the benefits to be gained by a certain course, but also the cost involved. Instead of trying to disguise difficulty and sacrifice, use these as the selling points of a truly worthwhile goal. Gandhi refused to contemplate darkness. While you should not fail to evaluate risks and anticipate pitfalls, you should expect success. It is a fatal strategy to allow the anticipation of trouble to paralyse you or your enterprise. Hope is not a substitute for strategy, but it is a necessary ingredient in any worthwhile strategic plan. The goal is to create a strategy that makes possible and facilitates the very best that you dare to hope for. At the same time, you need to plan for contingencies, while expecting to succeed.

Gandhi remained always hopeful because he understood that pessimism is self‐fulfilling. Pessimism is depressing, but it can also be strangely comforting as it lowers our expectations and helps us avoid the painful shock of disappointment. But pessimism also discourages innovation, imagination, vision and even prudent risk‐taking. It militates against everything that goes into any successful enterprise and by discouraging good business practices, pessimism is self‐fulfilling. Gandhi proposed the creation of an India thoroughly Indianized. This idea was literally unheard of at the time and had never occurred before in history, making it highly improbable. However, it is the mark and the role of the visionary leader to liberate the possible from the probable by refusing to allow history to tyrannise the future.

7. Exemplary Miracles

Gandhi looked to the lives and deeds of men and women for models of action and conduct and examples to follow. In the same way, the most effective business leaders should seek out examples to inspire and empower them. When trying to lead people toward innovation and change, it is important to create meaningful links between the past and new unfamiliar ideas that you are trying to promote. Gandhi relied on examples drawn from the real world to provide familiar links for his followers.

As a CEO or manager, you are on display. Each thing you say or do represents who you are and what you stand for, as well as the organisation you lead. You are an example to others and are on display as a model against which others will measure their attitude, belief and behaviour. You need to make sure that you are thoroughly permeated with your beliefs so that it is impossible for you to behave differently in public and in private. Gandhi taught that leadership is not a title or a position, but rather a way of life that is lived when you are in company or on your own, so make sure you are living your beliefs wherever you are.
Gandhi said that all reforms in history have begun with one person. The fact is that everything begins with an idea and the only thing in the universe that can originate an idea is a human. Therefore, change must being with one person. Innovation does not come as a result of a mass movement but with one person who has an idea and takes it to others. This is the root and beginning of change. Savvy CEO’s see their employees as the most important asset that the business has because they can come up with ideas. The loss of a single person can mean the loss of any number of ideas capable of transforming the company, so it is a good idea to build, develop and use your human capital as it is the most important asset your company has.

8. The nonviolent CEO

Fail to define your identity and someone will define it for you. This is true for individuals as well as for great corporations in any competitive business. Know your strengths and make yourself competitive in the areas to which they apply as they represent your best opportunity for victory. In dealing with any crisis or in negotiating with even the most difficult person, begin by determining what you can control and what lies outside of your control. Then focus only on what you can control. Struggling against forces, facts and people beyond your influence presents no chance of altering reality in your favour. However, identifying what you can influence, and then acting to influence it, does impact reality and benefit you and your organisation.

9. Principles and Pragmatism

Gandhi lived a life of principle, maintained by the strength of his determined will and his clear conception of a set of worthwhile principles. But he also managed the application of these principles with a pragmatic eye to the dynamic, fluid nature of the day to day life. He tested his principles against the objectives and goals he had formulated and even strengthened or modified and even rejected certain principles as he devised new ones. For any leader it is important to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism to produce meaningful and productive change. Gandhi believed in utopian thought – to have a picture of what you want before you can approach it.

Although his dream was not ever fully realised, just the fact that the ideal can be approached, although never attained, is of great value. You should keep the bar impossibly high, but see failures to reach it as achievements that fall short of this impossible height. Provided that you dream ambitiously enough, the approach defines success. Also, while it is praiseworthy to demand great things and bold dreams, it is destructive and self‐defeating to expect instant fulfilment of those dreams, especially if it prompts you to reject progress, however small and limited it may be. Gandhi allowed compromises and half steps forward as long as they were in the direction of his ultimate goal. It is never valid to reject what is good because it is not the best. Instead, plan your course so that you may move from one good to another on your way to the best.

Also, while ideology and principles are important aids to effective leadership, neither is an end in itself. Gandhi did not serve principles, but people. Adherence to ideology must end where individual welfare and collective welfare begin. Service and stewardship of the people are the cardinal duties of a CEO and ideology should never come before the good of the organisation or its people. It is important for leaders to realise that ethics is as important to an enterprise as profit. An ethical enterprise treats all stakeholders justly, in all circumstances. For Gandhi, ethical conduct is a continuum along which it is impossible to divide means and ends as they are essentially the same thing. An enterprise that proposes to be ethical must deliver ethics in everything it does. An ethical firm never walks away from an unethical result for there is too much value at stake.

10. Reject Tyranny and take responsibility

Gandhi understood injustice not as a crime inflicted by one person against another, but as a transaction between two parties and that even the victim was responsible for its own victimisation. The first step toward becoming a victim is to relinquish responsibility for your own welfare. While one party can label another, the label has no value without mutual acceptance of the label by both parties. Blaming the other party achieves nothing, but taking responsibility lets you take command of what is under your control and empowers you to act productively.

In all his dealings Gandhi emphasised to never swap real values for apparent gains. He felt that the price of Indian peace with Britain was the forfeiting of Indian sovereignty and self‐respect, which he felt was not a good deal. In business, it is the role of the CEO as the steward of the organisation to prevent the enterprise from succumbing to the nominal gains offered by greed, fear and indolence that could erode the real and enduring value in the organisation.

11. Revaluation as Revolution

Business leaders should emulate Gandhi in questioning every value, policy, rule and goal of their organisation with the view toward revitalizing or replacing them. Gandhi was constantly questioning the absolute nature of certain realities and asking what would happen if these realities were treated differently. In this way he climbed out of the box and looked back inside. A company’s innovation is directly dependent on changing your current perspective. If you dare to ask the question of how could things be different you are looking for new innovative solutions. The sense of urgency pervading business today is driven in large part by technology. Digital technology has sped communication but also eliminated the benefit of added time in decision making. When the stakes of a decision are high, it is prudent to avoid being goaded by technology into instantaneous communication, but rather make time your ally and take the time you need to make a wise decision. Don’t let technology set the pace of how fast you need to make decisions.

Gandhi did not agree with the use of machines as they tended to multiply mans wants, create artificial needs and enslave people to machines. While modern CEO’s cannot retreat from modern
technology, Gandhi’s thoughts are still relevant in urging leaders not to pursue instantaneous change, but to use whatever means at their disposal to create a gradual revolution in the principles and sentiments of others that would eventually bring about the desired change.

12. Sacrifice and the Servant Leaders

In Gandhi’s world, leaders were servants. The economic crisis that began in 2008 demonstrated the need for servant leadership in government as well as the private sector. Greed as the engine of capitalism cannot sustain an enterprise for the long run. Rather, a view of leadership that recognises that social justice and a high level of prosperity benefit everyone. Servant leadership is not only ethical, it is also necessary to drive sustainable capitalism. For Gandhi, a true leader was a faithful servant of the enterprise, which is a body of people organised for a common purpose. It is the leader’s job to see beyond his personal needs in order to serve the needs of the organisation, industry and community of which he is a part. Leading your organisation well and serving it as a good steward will not only benefit you, but your enterprise and the entire industry. Regarding executive compensation Gandhi had a straightforward answer: “take only what is necessary to satisfy the needs customary in your society and then spend the rest for social service – thereby becoming a trustee of the common good.

Gandhi also believed that a person’s talents were a trust and must be utilised for the benefit of society, and that we are fully alive and satisfied when we live unto society. The great virtue of any worthwhile enterprise is that it gives individuals the opportunity to achieve self satisfaction by creating a benefit for the entire organisation. As a business leader you need to provide the context and environment that allows, encourages and demands that each person use their talents for the benefit of all.

13. Suasion in Persuasion

Suasion is persuasion with a specifically moral force and involves persuading people to do something out of moral grounds. Gandhi aimed to insert morality (such as the promotion of liberty, justice and general welfare), into every act a person commits. The ethical conduct of business requires that everything it undertakes benefit all of the firm’s stakeholders. Too many CEO’s think of ethics as a bonus in business that they can take on after the essentials of profit and loss have been attended to. Companies are in principle, voluntary organisations that people join willingly. However many companies are run according to rigid organisational rules that force individuals to fit their positions rather than allow latitude for the employee to shape the position to suit their style, experience and talent. While every organisation has functions that need to be performed, room should be given for an employee to find his way of working. To the extent to which a worker can make his job his own, he takes ownership of the results and becomes that much more committed to achieving excellence. Gandhi believed that every man is born with certain natural tendencies and certain limitation which he cannot overcome. In this regard, no one should be expected to forcefully change and deny tendencies in order to fit a rigidly structured organisation.

Gandhi felt it important to lead from the heart with passion as it opened the door to the possibility of greatness. Joined to intelligence, enthusiasm and passion can drive the highest excellence. Your employees are also human beings and not pure intellect so it is important to tap into the spirit and feelings of your workforce when inspiring them. This emotional appeal needs to be balanced with education that provides clear direction. The ideal motivational talk marries head to heart by presenting ideas, objectives and goals that join intellect and emotion.

14. Truth

For Gandhi, for something to be truthful, it had to be an activity offering fair value, equal benefits and full justice to everyone partaking of it or affected by it. Anything other than fair value was false. This is an interesting thought when applied to modern business. Using Gandhi’s definition of true or false, is the relationship between companies and employees/customers in business truthful? Any enterprise that does not provide enduring value to its employees and customers is doomed to fail.

Insisting on truth can help a leader maintain focus on what really matters, on objectives and goals rather than on distractions. Gandhi said that “nothing more need be said, truth alone triumphs .. truth always wins.” By formulating and living up to sound core values leaders show a commitment to truth.

In conclusion, while there are so many important business lessons that can be gleaned from the life of Gandhi, it is important to note that his impact came less from what he did but more from who he was. As Robert Greenleaf says in his book Servant Leadership “Leadership is grounded in a state of being, not of doing. Leadership is not about what you do but is an expression of your being.” It was the expression of the being of Gandhi that resulted in him becoming known as Mahatma (Great Soul) and made an impression wherever he went. The many little things he did emanated from the impeccable man he was.

Precis of book by Alan Axelrod
ISBN 978‐1‐4027‐5806‐5

by Pete Laburn

TomorrowToday Global