Feb 7, 2009

India Inc. rediscovers Mahatma Gandhi

Business gurus in India are talking about a new role model: Mahatma Gandhi.

The Father of the Nation is now being held up as the master strategist, an exemplary leader, and someone whose ideas and tactics corporate India can emulate.

From Boston Consulting Group's CEO Arun Maira to management guru C K Prahalad and economist Professor Arindam Chaudhuri, key business thinkers are preaching how corporate India needs to revisit Gandhi's ideas and apply the lessons learnt from him to their leadership styles.

Three months ago at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas held in New Delhi, Prahalad unveiled his interpretation of Gandhi as a 'strategist.'

Gandhi's ideas are of particular relevance to India at this juncture, as it struggles to find ways to inch closer to the 8-10 percent gross domestic product growth rate necessary to become an economic superpower, he says.

Gandhi reinvented the rules of the game to deal with a situation where all the available existing methods had failed.

He broke tradition. He understood that you cannot fight the British with force. So he decided to change the game in a fundamentally different way. He unleashed the power of ordinary people, inspired women and men in the country to fight under a unifying goal. Resource constraint did not bother him. He aimed at a common agenda: Poorna Swaraj. That was the motivation, says Prahalad.

Drawing lessons from this, he suggests that India needs to fundamentally change the way it can grow.

Freedom or Poorna Swaraj was necessary. We did not know how to get it. Same way, today, I do not know how to grow at 10 percent or more, or how to create 10-15 million new jobs every year. But that is not an option for us. We have to invent a new way and that is what Gandhi taught us: clarity of goals. Let us have the courage to invent the means. Let us change the paradigm on how we can run, says Prahalad.

For Arindam Chaudhuri, Gandhi and Lord Krishna have both been big sources of inspiration.

In his book, Count your chickens before they hatch, Chaudhuri has written extensively about Gandhi's style of leadership and how it can be applied to corporate India.

Mahatma Gandhi's example to me is a perfect case of adopting styles to suit the culture. The country today stands divided on whether what he did was good or bad... I just know one thing: there was never a leader before him nor one after him who could unite us all and bring us out in the streets to demand for what was rightfully ours. To me, he is the greatest leader our land has ever seen. It is 'Theory 'I' management' at its practical best: productively and intelligently utilizing whatever the resource you are endowed with, says Chaudhuri.

[Theory 'I' management has been propounded by Arindam Chaudhuri and refers to India-centric management. Like the popular management theories, Theory X and Theory Y, Theory 'I' is an attempt to define the Indian worker and develop a theory on management style for him, keeping in mind the Indian conditions.]

Gandhi's leadership style is being termed as 'follower-centric' and one that took into account existing conditions before determining the strategy.

Gandhi advocated having leadership styles that were dependent on the circumstances. When Gandhi was in South Africa, he launched his protests in a suit and a tie. But when he came back to India, he thought of khadi and launched non-violent protests on a greater scale, says Chaudhuri.

The rediscovery of Gandhi by corporate India is not surprising, says Dr Gita Piramal, managing editor, The Smart Manager.

Ideas travel very fast. Gandhi is a fascinating figure. On the one hand, he had totally ambivalent feelings about industrial manufacturing. But, on the other, he was a wonderful strategist, showman and leader. He had an amazing public relations network and a very good relationship with the press then, says Piramal.

For instance, look at the Dandi march. If Gandhi had gone there quietly, it would just not have made an impact. He knew he had to create an event to make an impact and so he took his followers on a march that stirred popular imagination of the time. He had a total understanding of the human psychology and used it along with his public relation skills, she says.

Part of the reason for the re-emergence of Gandhi's ideas is the crumbling of popular role models drawn from the West.

Arun Maira, chief executive officer, Boston Consulting Group, points out that Jack Welch, corporate India's perennial favourite, was recently criticized for his retirement perks which even came under scrutiny from the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

We keep feeling that models of people in the West are the ones we should follow. In a way, we remain subservient to the leadership values and models of the West. But since the last two to three years these models are being doubted even in the West, and so it is time for India to look within itself for leadership examples, says Maira.

According to him, Gandhi's style of leadership as applied to corporate India would involve making even the lowest person in the organization believe in it and the significance of his contribution towards it.

In business, empowerment is all about making sure everyone is connected to the organization's goals. Gandhi has a way of doing that: making sure that everyone in the cause is connected to the goal, says Maira.

But how does a capitalist corporate India reconcile itself to the socialism that Gandhi stood for? Gandhi was vehemently against industrialization and felt it would have a highly negative impact on society.

Maira and Professor Chaudhuri agree that accepting all of Gandhi's values would not be possible for corporate India but, with an open mind, the disconnect between Gandhi's socialist ideas and the capitalist views is not as wide as it may seem.

In the last few years, there is a thinking that capitalism is not just about creating wealth, but you have to take care of the shareholders and stakeholders, too. Many years ago, this emphasis on the interests of the stakeholders was labeled socialism. So, Gandhi's ideas and the lessons learnt from him are not totally different from what corporate India would like to do, says Maira.

It is not really selective application of Gandhi's ideas. Gandhi's example as a manager and leader is extraordinary. There was no one like him who could get people together to embrace his vision as their vision. An understanding of these qualities about him is what is happening now in corporate India, says Piramal.

Which is why business leaders are clear that Gandhi's managerial ideas are what they want to follow.

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