In my class sessions and conversations with leaders, I often use the story of Gandhi’s experience in South Africa, as it illustrates several of the important lessons I like to highlight.
The first lesson is one of courage. In Gandhi’s reflection about the decision in front of him, he says “I asked my self, what I should do?” Of particular interest to me is the way he recounts this life changing experience. He states clearly that in this important moment, he looked inside, at himself, at his beliefs, at his values…and he decided to follow his heart.
This passage illustrates a concept that I have come to espouse in my teaching and consulting. Much has been written in the leadership literature about the concept of ‘courage’. At times I feel that it is an overused and misunderstood word. In the many leadership situations I have encountered on my journey, I have seen that true courage stems not from learning to face the world, but rather from learning to face oneself.
The second lesson is about experience. In my travels, and in my coaching or teaching, I have often heard the opinion that there is something extraordinary or ‘special’ in the life experience of people who emerge as leaders. In other words, people such as Gandhi are ‘formed’, ‘shaped’ or ‘molded’ by the watershed or crucible events in their lives. Their life experience is perceived as somehow unusual, and these out-of-the-ordinary events in their lives have prepared them for their role as transformational leaders.
This concept, that effective leaders have extraordinary past experiences, formative events that shape them as leaders, is one of society’s great myths about leadership. Most often, leaders have life experiences that are no different from that of those around them.
In the case of Gandhi, it is easy to see that the experience that ‘changed the course of my life’ is, in fact, nothing unusual. How many others had similar experiences? How many thousands of young Indians, or others, had gone abroad before him and experienced similar types of discrimination or injustice?
At that time, and in the environment of South Africa (and other places as well), such discrimination must have been an everyday occurrence.
The third lesson is that Gandhi’s stand against injustice is an example of leadership that we can apply to ourselves and to everyday life. When Gandhi is thrown off that train, he makes his decision to lead. In effect, he refuses to accept the context, and he eventually finds a voice. Again, we see that leadership begins as a decision to stand for something we believe.
In events large and small, we can all do this!