With Independence Day around the corner,strategist Sonia Jaspal takes a look at the corporate lessons history teaches us.

Going back in history, Indian freedom struggle lasted nearly a century. The last 25 years of the struggle was lead by Mahatma Gandhi on the concept of non-violence. India is one of the unique countries which gained freedom without much bloodshed. In this article, we explore Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership and management style, linking it to the current management practices.

Walk the talk

Mahatma Gandhi preached the concept of simple living and high thinking, although he came from an affluent Indian family. He came up with various austere living standards and requested his followers to adopt them. His kept his life open to public scrutiny. People may debate regarding his personal choices but no one would raise questions on his ethics and integrity. Irrespective of the difficulty involved, he always was able to take the high moral ground and never compromised on his personal values.

In the present corporate world, we too respect leaders who are able to walk the talk, demonstrate ethical and principled behavior, and lead by example.

Think out of the box

The strategy and tactics adopted during the Indian independence struggle were unlike any other country’s revolution. Some of the concepts were:

  • Non-violence: A war fought on the basis of principles without any bloodshed.
  • Civil disobedience: Court arrest if the British officials threaten imprisonment for demanding your rights.
  • Non-cooperation: The message given was maintain your jobs with the British Empire, however do not support it regarding its practices against Indian people.

Managements today are advocating ‘out of the box’ thinking and competing strategically. The organisation which implements a unique strategy generally wins the market.

Brand building

Mahatma Gandhi’s personal brand has lasted 60 years after his death without any investment. He created a brand of a simple moral man living life on the principle of Ahimsa (nonviolence). His home spun cotton clothes, wooden shaft, leather slippers, and vegetarian meals – everything embodied his personal brand. His character and communication depicted his core values to the masses. We must acknowledge that fact that very few leaders in history have as strong a brand image as Gandhi.

The corporate world is spending huge sums on advertising to build the corporate brand. We hear Tom Peters and other management gurus talking about building the “Brand You”. The focus now is on developing a personal brand.

Competitor’s size doesn’t matter

The Indian freedom struggle gained ground with the idea of a few committed individuals who wished to bring about a change. They envisaged taking on the might of British Empire which had the resources, funds,weapons and management capability. The Indian leadership team acknowledged the strengths of the British Empire and devised a strategy which minimized those strengths.They built a strategy on the following:

  • Non-violence which required no weapons;
  • Asked masses to contribute for the independence and live frugally, hence survived on minimal resources;
  • Developed local leadership across all regions under Congress banner.

Using a similar strategy, Barrack Obama won the American presidential elections when he had no funds and support. Recently, corporate world had witnessed small IT companies (e.g. hotmail) developing into big names just by pioneering a unique product and leveraging the market properly.

Build dream teams

Indian Congress Party besides Gandhi had a number of other accomplished leaders. Namely, C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and others. These leaders all had different personalities and ideologies, however worked for a common cause. Gandhi and Nehru complimented each other tremendously and mostly operated as two in a box. Senior leaders acted as mentors for the younger generation. The party had leaders at grassroot level, and people were encouraged to develop leadership traits.

Business world is focusing on building dream teams with leadership at all levels. The Human Resource Departments are focused on concepts of two in a box, alternate leaders, chief mentors and succession planning.

Engage and empower people

Mahatma Gandhi in his speech on the eve of Dandi March said -“Wherever there are local leaders, their orders should be obeyed by the people. Where there are no leaders and only a handful of men have faith in the programme, they may do what they can, if they have enough self-confidence”. He encouraged common man to show leadership and commitment under the overall umbrella of Congress. He united the people by specifying the mission, vision and code of conduct of Congress. The masses were committed to the cause and in all his symbolic protests he involved people participation.

The corporate world’s biggest challenge is of disengaged employees due to actual or perceived lack of empowerment. It is becoming apparent that success or failure of the organisation is increasingly dependent on a healthy organisation culture which encourages employee participation.

Accept and encourage diversity

The British are generally blamed for implementing “divide and rule policy” in India. On the contrary, India already was divided into various regions, religions and castes before the British rule.

Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for independence attempted to unify the country. He encouraged the princely states to join hands, brought Hindus and Muslims on the same platform and removed caste barriers for joining the freedom moment. He supported gender equality and encouraged women to actively participate in the movement. His wife, Kasturba Gandhi played a pivotal role in getting women’s participation.

With less than 10% women in senior management positions in the corporate world, the mantra today is to bring more women on board. With globalization the concept of accepting and encouraging diversity has taken hold.

Don’t make it personal

In the Quit India speech in 1942, Mahatma Gandhi stated- “Then, there is the question of your attitude towards the British. I have noticed that there is hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behavior. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people”. Deal with the issue and not the person; this is the corporate mandate today. Mahatma Gandhi pioneered this thought process. In all his communication and dealings he stood up against British Imperialism. He however had friendly relationships with Britishers and never made a personal attack in his speeches. On the other hand, he continuously advocated decent and humane behavior even towards one’s enemy. His thought process was- address the issue at hand and keep a positive attitude towards a person from the competing camp. In nut shell, there is a lot to learn from the Indian freedom struggle for the corporate world. It had unique dimensions which are now gaining hold as corporate best practices. History is the best teacher, if we are willing to learn from other people’s successes and failures. Wishing you all a very happy Independence Day.