Mahatma Gandhi and His Legacy

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world... as in being able to remake ourselves”

Mahatma Gandhi, Indian activist

What determines the true greatness of a leader? How successful their efforts are? How many followers they have? How famous they are?

While Gandhi is unanimously considered among the greatest leaders in world history, his legend is more controversial when we examine what he actually accomplished. Yes, he achieved India's independence in the most famous peaceful revolution of all time. The 241-mile march, on foot, to make a single gesture: raising a handful of mud in the salt fields, disobeying the British order to extract no more than the amount they had imposed.

Indeed, this is an indisputable achievement: 18 years later, in 1948 and without violence, India became independent from the British Empire. There was no violence... until the process ended and, almost simultaneously, the entire country was submerged in a civil war between Muslims and Hindus, culminating in Pakistan's independence.

Gandhi was a peaceful leader who inspired others including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. But his closest friends emphasize the rigid and demanding character, and underlying asceticism, of Mahatma (literally "great soul"). Today India is not immersed in a civil war, but is still plagued by high levels of violence against women.

One of his greatest challenges was to end the marginalization of the lower castes (the “untouchables”), and one of his greatest gestures was not to initiate a broad dialogue until the heads of the nearby villages invited the untouchables to attend. However, to this day in India it is still very rare to see members of different castes treat one another normally. And the untouchables are still the poorest of the poor.

Nor was he successful in his attempt to turn the villages into economic centers, promoting the weaving of textiles in the looms of each town (instead of Western clothing) and setting an example in the way he himself dressed. Today the rural exodus continues, and the large conurbations are driving the country’s economy.

So, can we say that Gandhi was great? Is the success of his initiatives the only criterion? The answer depends largely on how we measure the greatness of his leadership: by the magnitude of his achievements, the magnanimity of the desire that propelled him or a combination of the two.

Gandhi shows us a facet of leadership that we cannot downplay: the ability to inspire others to be better. His persona, his ideas, his gestures and his whole life have been a beacon for so many other leaders and associations that seek, on a small or large scale, to improve the world, inspired by the example of this great little man.

The ability of a leader's ideas and initiatives to improve fellow citizens is the clearest measure of a leader's caliber, especially if these improvements endure the test of time, even after the leader has gone.

What truly matters is not his perfection, nor his actual virtues. In fact, if Gandhi can be reproached for anything it is that imitating him is not exactly an attractive personal path, let alone easy. But that is the big mistake when we talk about leadership: to confuse following with imitation. Following is good; imitation is not.

A leader does not engender imitators, but rather followers who, in their own way, with their own talents and approaches, try to be better and to contribute to the cause for the common good that served as inspiration for the leader—by adapting it to the relevant social, economic or personal context.

A leader essentially mobilizes free individuals, not slaves or imitators, to use their own initiative and creativity to build something attractive that transcends them.

Gandhi was just that. And so, from this perspective, we can point to his faults, his mistakes and his failures, without undermining the greatness of what he lived and promoted, his gestures, the inspiring power of his persona or the quality of his leadership.

We believe that the quality of someone's leadership is measured by the number of people made better by their presence and how that improvement has endured even in their absence. With this yardstick to measure leadership, Gandhi surely earned his place among the greats of history.

To summarize:

  • Greatness cannot be measured solely by specific and verifiable results.
  • Strength of inspiration and personal example outlast the successes and miscues in management or political approaches.
  • People are invigorated less by an ideology than by the face of a real person who inspires them and shows them a greater ideal.
  • The leader, the initiator of a movement or idea, should not engrave protocols in stone, but instead focus their efforts on developing the freedom and initiative of their followers and the strength of their purpose (function over form).