Ethical Leadership

By Arun Gandhi

Dr. Arun GandhiThere are few among the 20th century leaders who can measure up to the standards set by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the practice of ethical leadership. He not only won independence for India but ultimately brought down the British Empire without firing a bullet, which in itself was a remarkable achievement that could only be done with ethics, morals and a transparent sincerity in leadership. Through his example he gave the world an alternative to violent conflict resolution – a comprehensive philosophy of nonviolence – the practice of which requires high moral standards.

The answer to the often asked questions how and why he succeeded in his nonviolent campaign lies in understanding his philosophy of nonviolence. It will be my humble attempt in this chapter to share with you my interpretation of his philosophy and to connect nonviolence [or what Gandhi preferred to call Satyagraha, the Pursuit of Truth] with ethical leadership.

Clearly for Gandhi the word nonviolence meant much more than the absence of war or the absence of violence. He proved that the true practice of nonviolence is also about people’s attitudes, behavior and relationships not only with each other but with nature and earth as well. A more understandable definition is the “culture of violence” that has so obsessively dominated human life for centuries. Gandhi’s life mission was to help change the “culture of violence” to a “culture of nonviolence;” the only way humanity could be truly civilized. Gandhi preferred the term Satyagraha because it gave the philosophy greater breadth and depth. He always maintained that only positive thoughts could lead to a positive destiny and he defined positive thoughts as love, respect, understanding, compassion and other such positive actions and emotions. He would classify the violence that humankind practices today into “physical violence” and “passive violence”; the first being the kind of violence that requires the use of physical force and the latter the kind of violence that we commit consciously and unconsciously when we hurt people through selfishness and insensitivity often without even touching them or seeing them. We are taught from childhood to be successful in life by any means possible and success is always measured in terms of material possessions. We, therefore, succumb to our egos and become extremely selfish. Gandhi set himself very high standards in his practice of ethical leadership, standards that we often find difficult to practice.

His ideal in life was the story from the Mahabharata, a Hindu mythology, where Lord Rama is depicted as the epitome of ethical leadership. Even when the action hurt him, Lord Rama did not flinch from the Truth. As a crown prince expected to inherit the throne of his father’s kingdom, Lord Rama was told instead that in a moment of weakness his father had promised to banish him to the forest for 14 years. Without seeking an explanation or showing any hesitancy or bitterness Lord Rama renounced everything, left the Palace, the kingdom and his beloved family and spent the next 14 years in absolute wilderness. This sacrifice for truth and for his father’s dignity was what impressed Gandhi the most. Gandhi tried to model his leadership according to these standards. In fact Gandhi often talked of creating a “Ramrajya” [rule of Rama] in India after independence. Many people, even some of his close colleagues, misunderstood it to mean he was aspiring to create a Hindu India. Gandhi did not envision Lord Rama as a Hindu deity but as a model human being and when he talked of a “Ramrajya” he meant an administration based on such high ethics and morals.

In the modern world leaders believe otherwise. Ethics and morals are issues to exploit for personal aggrandizement and peace can only be achieved through brute force. Consequently, nations are vying with one another to build enormous stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Gandhi believed the peace that is achieved by holding a gun to someone’s head is a peace that comes through fear and lasts only as long as one is able to maintain a high level of fear. Similarly impossible is the belief that one can be highly ethical and moral while still being selfish and greedy. The connection between ethics and nonviolence is the same as between a seed and a tree.

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