From ordinary life events to extraordinary leadership – Gandhi’s defining moment

From ordinary life events to extraordinary leadership – Gandhi’s defining moment

When I think of having the courage to take a stand, of daring to speak out about the things that matter, or of finding one’s leadership voice, I am reminded that these concepts apply to all kinds of situations, large or small.  Whether transforming a small workgroup or inspiring an entire nation, the leadership decision begins with daring to take the stand, and then to communicate this stand to others.

Often an individual’s decision to take a stand is triggered by a specific life event.  In the case of Mahatma Gandhi, his most famous decision to take a stand is provoked by a straightforward incident that is not unique or remarkable. It might even be considered quite mundane in the context of South Africa in the 1890s.  Before I relate this watershed moment in Gandhi’s existence, here is some quick information on his background:

Gandhi’s early life was generally unremarkable. Born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat in 1869, he was educated in law at University College, London.  In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser in its office in Durban.

From Gandhi’s beginnings and until his departure for South Africa, we see no signs of the great leadership potential he was to show later in life.  As is often the case with leaders, his ability to influence others begins small, and with a straightforward decision.

Upon arrival in South Africa, Gandhi’s life was to change dramatically, based largely on a single incident.  In an interview just prior to his seventieth birthday, he describes this defining moment as follows:

“I recall particularly one experience that changed the course of my life. Seven days after I had arrived in South Africa the client who had taken me there asked me to go to Pretoria from Durban. It was not an easy journey. On the train I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out. The train steamed away leaving me shivering in cold, I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty; I asked my self. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that day.”

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