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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Leadership by Example - The Servant Leader

Executive Summary

Martha Stewart, Kenneth Lay [Enron], Bernard Ebbers [WorldCom], Dennis Kozlowski [Tyco], John Rigas [Adelphia Communications]…what do these people have in common? Each was responsible for leading a high profile company prior to their indictments for fraud, conspiracy and other corporate crimes. Corporate fraud and unethical behavior has flashed across the headlines with disconcerting frequency in recent years while leaving unsuspecting victims wondering how they could have protected themselves when the very “checks and balances” were part of the deception.

As employee’s loose jobs, retiree’s loose their pension and investors loose massive amounts in the stock market; CEO’s have continued to recognize greater compensation packages than ever before in history. Calls for accountability and responsibility have reached a fevered pitch as the trust in the very fabric of business is shaken. Investors, regulators, consumers and employee’s are demanding to know what is being done to prevent fraud and exploitation? What does a company contribute to the benefit of others? Who is at the helm and willing to take responsibility for unethical behavior and fraud? To borrow a phrase from a well worn cliché’ “the fish rots from the head down”. The concept of “leader” demands a new perspective if a company is to instill trust among consumers, employee’s and investors.

When asked to define “leadership” most people respond with a list of attributes related to motivation, inspiration, ability to communicate and more; but taken alone these same attributes can be harnessed to produce a tyrannical manipulator rather than a stellar leader. Further, given the recent rise in corporate scandals that have shaken the very foundation of investors and society at large, the issue of integrity and social responsibility has never been more important. By examining the lives and leadership of great men and women throughout history a better understanding of the role of service and authenticity provide guidance in what it means to truly lead in a socially responsible manner as opposed to someone willing to “win” at any cost.

In response to the ever growing call for true leadership, a return to the basic foundation of service is gaining attention once again as a differentiator between “winning at any cost” versus socially responsible service to both society and business. According to Robert Greenleaf, the “father” of servant leadership; “Servant-Leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. In an era when the term “leader” has been cheapened by overuse to include nearly anyone in a position of authority or public recognition….advocates of “servant leadership” recognize the authentic nature of service as a form of true leadership. There are lessons to be learned from humility and service to others-both in society and the business world.

Gandhi exemplifies the “Servant Leader” and provides an in-depth study of what it means to lead by service. One of the critical differentiators between a servant leader and others is a “calling” or willingness to serve. Gandhi was one such leader who responded to the call to serve. Servant leaders have a desire to make a difference in the lives of others and will often cite examples of their responsibility to humanity or those they work with rather than vice versa. Servant leaders define leadership as a mandate for service rather than a position of authority. It is the orientation difference between “What do I give?” versus “What do I get?” This was a question Gandhi faced repeatedly throughout his life and his autobiographical account with his struggle with truth represents not only the outcome of his response but provides a much needed guide to those who seek to better themselves, build a better company or build a better world.

Perhaps the most enlightening aspects of the book is Gandhi’s personal struggles and failure. Gandhi was not a ‘natural born leader’ in the terms of what most would qualify as leadership potential; in fact, much of his innate talent for leadership was manifest through one quality alone—his desire to serve his fellow man. The consequences of serving demanded Gandhi to rise above many of his inherent tendencies and personality flaws: he was an introvert by nature, soft spoken, extremely shy, demonstrated a tendency towards a strong temper and more. He did not garner widespread recognition through his inspirational oratory ability nor aggressive posturing but rather garnered respect and influence through the conviction of his passion and dedication to a cause.

Service, dedication, commitment, humility and truth…what do these have in common? They are the attributes of servant leaders who have withstood the test of time despite ridicule, oppression and even the threat of death. For those interested in building a better business, restoring trust and faith while making a difference or just avoiding the ridicule and legal liability for the unethical behavior of others; the concept of servant leadership as related through the autobiography of Gandhi is a “must read”. For those who rue a world at war where terrorists threaten violence and even school children believe death is an acceptable response to an insult…the strength and lessons contained in Gandhi’s message is more important today than ever before.

Book Review

Although Gandhi is best known for his civil right work, this book is not solely a commentary about the struggle between India and the British Empire. Instead, Gandhi chooses to focus on his personal struggle with truth and how that personal struggle led him to a journey that touched the lives of millions. The book chronicle’s the life of Gandhi and his struggle with truth; as such, it is loosely organized into segments representing major transitional points in his life although he frequently cites episodes or stories from one era to another. It should also be noted, since this is an autobiography, the later stages of his life and eventual death are not related.

Early life
Civil rights movement in South Africa
Movement for Indian independence

Early Life

Gandhi was actually born as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869. The son of Hindu parents with strong cultural and religious beliefs, the concept of non-violence and vegetarianism were instilled upon him from his earliest youth. At the age of 13, Gandhi was married to Kathiawad who would be his wife for the remainder of his life.

Much of his early life related to his relationship with Kathiawad; by his own admission he was extremely jealous and preoccupied with lust. This preoccupation with his wife at an early age led to significant guilt when his father died without Gandhi at his bedside. Later in life, when Gandhi took a vow of celibacy it was to change the relationship into a mutual support system and kindred friendship. Kathiawad was uneducated and Gandhi failed to take the time to teach her or inspire her own mental development—an admission that greatly pained him later in life.

Gandhi was born into a Hindu family which practiced the Vaishnava faith but throughout his life experimented with the readings and philosophy of nearly all the great religions; incorporating and dismissing various ideas from each into his own life and understanding of the truth. It was through his family that Gandhi was established to study law and after his father’s death the family elders and his mother agreed to allow his departure to England for the purpose of studying law. This decision conflicted with the community at large resulting in Gandhi becoming an outcast in his home land. Once in England Gandhi dedicatedly engaged in the study of law and passed the matriculation exam in 188 and set out for Bombay. However, his natural temperament was a hindrance to his ability to not only practice law but also engage in the common practice of bribery and influence. It was not long before Gandhi found himself representing the poor and disenfranchised people’s rather than building a thriving practice to support the family as originally hoped.

Civil rights movement in South Africa

It was in 1893 that Gandhi first set sail for South Africa as a representative for an Indian firm. This voyage marked a major transition in his life as he experienced overt discrimination and harassment throughout the voyage and ensuing stay. A year later, in 1894, Gandhi was originally slated to return to India after completing the case but instead, was persuaded to remain. It was during this time he drafted a petition on behalf of the Indians to the South African legislature and began his political career. By May of 1894 he assisted in organizing the Natal Indian Congress.

Gandhi remained in South Africa for well over the next decade, only returning briefly to India in 1896 to retrieve his wife and children. During the ensuring years, Gandhi and his followers were often the victims of violence and persecution; tribulations that solidified ideals such as non-retribution and non-violence.
Gandhi was an adamant supporter of Indian rights and self rule, arguing they must participate fully in all aspects of governing in order to lay full claim to equal citizenship. To that effort, he organized volunteer groups consisting of hundreds of free Indians and indentured servants alike; unfortunately the efforts were met with strict resistance and the plight of the Indians become worse rather than better. It was during these times of great protest that Gandhi first introduced his principle of satyagraha or devotion to truth which centered around non-violent protest. For this, Gandhi stood trial and was sentenced to two months in prison. Likewise, his practice of satyagraha resulted in several more prison terms however, however, the South African government finally negotiated with Gandhi in order to end the struggle.
Movement for Indian independence
One of the more controversial stands that Gandhi is noted for was his emphasis and support of Indians fighting a war alongside the British. Supporters and critics alike cited the seeming contradiction between supporting the war effort and a platform of non-violence. Gandhi himself did not appear to experience difficulty unifying these expectations and persisted in strongly supporting the British war efforts.
By 1920, Gandhi was elected president of the All-India Home Rule League under Gandhi's leadership, the Congress was reorganized and given a new constitution, with the goal of independence. It was during this time that Gandhi introduced the concept of boycot’s by urging all Indians to wear only homespun cloth, refuse to pay taxes, resign from government employment and more. In 1922 Gandhi was tried and convicted of sedition and sentenced to six years in prison. Due to illness he only remained for two years but during that time, the movement suffered from a lack of clear direction.

In 1927 a new tax on salt was passed and this again marked a turning point in the life of Gandhi. In 1928 he again organized a resistance effort and marched to the sea-along with thousands of followers-to make his own salt in direct opposition to the newly stated tax. The ensuring years took their toll despite his notoriety and Gandhi resigned as party leader in 1934. Several attempts upon his life had been taken, his notorious fasting episodes had not brought the full results he had hoped and Gandhi reported often feeling his message was misconstrued by those it was most meant to help.

The Principles Gandhi held to be true

More important than the life of Gandhi is the legacy, not only in the civil rights arena but as a lesson in servant leadership. Gandhi relates numerous principles he felt signified the journey of his life, each of which in turn, demanded growth from Gandhi. Although numerous, the major themes to which Gandhi adhered can be summarized by the following Principles
satyagraha (active, non-violent resistance)
moksha (salvation)
ahimsa (non-hurting, non-violence)
bramacharya (celibacy)
aparigraha (non-possession)
samabhava (equability)

A Special Note About Truth
Gandhi presents this autobiography as his experiments with truth and as such, this is ostensibly the most important theme of his journey. Oddly enough, the index notes the word “truth” appears on only seven pages throughout the entire book. Of those, only half dictate any direct thoughts on the matter [the others are merely reference points]. So, what does Gandhi actually have to say about truth itself? Here it is in his own words…

“…. In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise, Truth would be impossible to attain. A man who is swayed by passions may have good intentions, may be truthful in word, but will never find the Truth. A successful search for Truth means complete deliverance from the dual throng such as of love and hate, happiness and misery.” {pg. 345}

“A devotee of Truth may not do anything in deference to convention. He must always hold himself open to correction, and whenever he discovers himself to be wrong he must confess it at all costs and atone for it.” (pg. 350)

“I can only say that I have spared no pains to give a faithful narrative. To describe truth, as it has appeared to me and in the exact manner in which I have arrived at it, has been my ceaseless effort. The exercise has given me ineffable mental peace, because, it has been my fond hope that I might bring faith in Truth and Ahimsa [non-violence] to waverers. My uniform experience has convinced me that there is not other God than Truth….the only means of realization of Truth is Ahimsa….the little fleeting glimpses I have been able to have of Truth can hardly convey and idea of the indescribable luster of Truth…but all this I can say with assurance, as a result of all my experiments, that a perfect vision of Truth can only follow a complete realization of Ahimsa. [pg 503-504).

Most Important Themes & Concepts

So, how does this apply to the challenges facing modern men? Briefly, the central themes can be summarized in a more ‘western” orientation to include the following seven principles:

· Truth
· Discipline
· Integrity
· Humility
· Service
· Non-violence
· Sacrifice

It should be noted that some of these terms would be used in the more expansive view; for example, non-violence. Of course, violence is rarely tolerated in the workplace but a more expansive view of violence includes exploitation; a trend that many argue has become common place in a global society. Likewise, the more inclusive definition of non-violence as advocated by Gandhi includes all living creatures and earth itself-not just humans. Under this definition, dedication to society as well as nature itself would be a primary goal and objective during the course of business.

The values of integrity, self sacrifice and particularly honesty are particularly applicable to the character of a leader. If trust and integrity is to be reinstated into the practice of business, it is imperative these personal attributes be adopted and acted upon by those in power and authority.


At over 500 pages, this book is extensive and not for the faint of heart. Although the translation is excellent, there are still unfamiliar words and concepts which do not lend to casual reading. Also, due to the dual nature of the book it is written as both a chronology and reflection on principles of truth and personal growth which require frequent juxtaposition between time and essence. Gandhi was not a graceful writer and the emphasis on dietary discipline borders on onerous. Likewise, many of his personal habits and dealings with family stun the senses-for example, not allowing his own children the benefit of a proper education. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that Gandhi was not only a “kill-joy” but quite dislikeable in many respects. Nonetheless, the book still garners a “must read” for anyone seriously contemplating the need for service and self sacrifice as a cornerstone to leadership.

Refreshingly, this book is brutally honest and does not mimic the self-aggrandizing nature of most auto-biographical accounts from prominent leaders of today. In fact, early in the book one begins to question how this awkward, introverted, nervous and somewhat dislikeable young man becomes a major force in world politics. The book is truly inspirational if for no other reason than Gandhi’s apparent lack of any notable or impressive features. His sole motivation and a constant theme throughout the book [and his life] was a regard for the truth. The Bible states, "And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)". Apparently this applied to the life of Gandhi as he found the freedom to live life in response to that truth and in so doing, became great. Not likeable - but great just the same.

The concepts of authenticity, respect, vision and even motivation as characteristics of leadership discussed in class are exemplified in the life and story of Gandhi. What would inspire people to be beaten or put their lives and the lives of their family at risk? Certainly few would follow a man to that extreme for money alone. No-they were following a vision of a better life that Gandhi was able to communicate. But, followers have been led astray in the past and will again in the future so what differentiates Gandhi from the likes of Hitler or Lenin? Simply this: the desire to serve mankind and the willingness to sacrifice self or even life for others. What about the test of time? Modern examples of great leaders include popular figures like Jack Welch from G.E.; while impressive, only time will tell if Welch was a great leader or simply “lucky”…as this term has progressed, his legacy at G.E. is currently being downgraded along with GE itself which is recently approaching junk bond status. Of course, lest we forget there are those who rule by force and sheer manipulation while the masses look on in envy with the desire to emulate the tactics of brutality in the pursuit of profit or victory. Best selling books have included titles such as; “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun”, “The Art of War” and a recent return in interest to Ann Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. Can this be the new corporate culture that will lead the world in a global society? Heaven help us all.

The journey of servant leader would certainly qualify as the path less traveled in a world stampeding toward the cliff of disillusionment. If for that reason alone, it is a message worth the time and effort required to read this book.


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