When I talk of society’s widespread misconceptions about leadership, one of my favorites is the notion that leaders are charismatic. As a society, we tend to think that charisma is a sort of mysterious and divine gift, given only to a select few. If Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela became transformational leaders, it is at least in part because they had this “difficult to define” quality, this innate charisma that allowed them to move large numbers of people with their words.
The truth is that none of these heroes began as skilled orators or individuals with “natural charisma” (if indeed that even exists!). Rather, the source of their influence, and the source of their personal power, lies in their acquired ability and willingness to speak from the heart about the things that truly matter to them. They touch us with their authentic stories told in their natural voice. If we take a close look at their leadership journeys, we see that their “charisma” grows as they find their authentic voice and their passion.
Many people I met on my Latin American conference tour with Harvard Business Review seemed particularly fascinated by my portrayal of Gandhi as a young man. They were surprised to hear that his story is of an individual making the decision to lead, rather than one of an ordained or “chosen” leader with a gift from birth.
In fact, there is nothing about Gandhi’s early life that would lead one to believe that he was born with a special talent. A competent but not brilliant student, he was educated in law at University College, London, and admitted to the British bar in 1891. At 22 years old, he returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. In 1893, he accepted a job as legal advisor to an Indian firm in South Africa.
Seven days after arriving from India, Gandhi travelled on business from Durban to Pretoria, on a first-class ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, guards came and turned him out, at the instigation of a white passenger, purely due to the color of his skin.
Gandhi recounts that he watched the train steam away as he shivered in the evening chill, afraid for his life. He remembers the cold, and his fear of a big white man in the waiting room. Gandhi asked himself that night if he should go back to India, or if he should stay and go forward with his work. In the end, he decided that he should remain in South Africa and get involved in ways that would promote change in an unjust system.
Gandhi’s decision to take his stand, to stay and fight for justice, led to a 21-year quest for the rights of Indians in South Africa. Of course, with hindsight, we understand the importance of that decision and of Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership in the world. But, on that cold night in Maritzburg when he was thrown out of the train, Gandhi was a fearful, shivering young man, an everyday individual who made a choice.
I use this simple story to demonstrate a point about leaders, context, and decisions. At the moment he decided to lead, Gandhi had three possible paths before him. He could have chosen to leave the context, in this case to return to India. He could also have chosen to remain, do his work, and accept the reality of the context of South Africa under apartheid. Or, he could decide to remain in South Africa and take a stand against an unfair policy. In other words, he could choose to exert his influence on the context.
A second concept I like to discuss using Gandhi’s experience in South Africa is that leadership often begins in small ways, with simple choices and actions. When Gandhi made his decision to lead on that night in South Africa, there had been nothing remarkable in his prior life that would have foreshadowed his emergence as a person of such astonishing influence on the world stage. At that moment, he was an ordinary man who decided to stand for something he believed in.
At the time of his decision, Gandhi had no grand intention to change the world, and he had no large audiences that would listen to him. He simply began speaking to a few friends and relatives about the unfairness he had encountered in South Africa.
As I often tell my students and seminar participants, our daily lives frequently present us with straightforward moments where the same three paths that lay before Gandhi also lie before us, even in the most common and mundane of situations. For example, if we are involved in a project at work or at school, and our team is not functioning the way we would like, perhaps due to lack of commitment of some of the others involved, we can choose our path. We can leave the context, surrender to the context, or take a stand to change the context.
It is in these moments, and in our learning from these moments, that we define ourselves as leaders. We decide when and for what causes we are willing to take a stand. When we know where and when we will decide to make our stands, we understand what truly moves us, and thus what we stand for in life.
In my workshops, we embark on an inner journey to self-knowledge, a journey to clarify who we are, what we believe, and what we truly stand for. It is only through this clear and deep understanding of ourselves that we can recognize the source of our leadership, and our motivation to lead.