As I have traveled throughout the world for a number of years, I have been struck by the prevalence of this particular myth. In my coaching or teaching, I have often encountered the entrenched 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 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.
The more one looks below the surface, the more one sees that the “extraordinary experience” theory of leadership is false. Most often, we discover that leaders have life experience that is 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. Let’s re-examine Gandhi’s watershed incident, the turning point in his life.
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.”