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Paul Russell

Luxury Academy

Founder and managing director

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Control to influence? Mahatma Gandhi on leadership


This piece was originally published on our sister site TrainingZone to mark the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. What can be learnt from his life and leadership?

"Those with self-control don’t need to control others" is a quote attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Gandhi was awarded the honorary name of Mahatma meaning Great Soul in Sanskrit. The Dalai Lama asserted he was the founder of the modern tradition of non-violent action through his efforts in setting India on the road to independence from British rule.

Yet turn the coin and Gandhi was also a practised lawyer, a rebellious youngster, and stated that he often got his best bargains from behind bars.

Today we ask, can one ever truly lead without controlling or is it simply a case of the wrapping?

Gandhi was educated in both India and England and spent 21 years practising as a lawyer in South Africa which included four spells in prison for his attempts to stand up against discrimination.

On his return to his homeland in 1915, Gandhi’s aim was a tolerant self-governed democracy for India and his plan was 'satyagraha', or pursuit of truth through non-violent means.

But Gandhi’s mission was enormous, to motivate and influence a nation across ethnic lines and, in-keeping with the ethos of satyagraha, his means of doing so were arguably limited. Despite this, much was achieved; Gandhi’s salt march of 1930 lit the match that would ultimately ignite the fire of independence some 17 years later. 

And so we ask, what is control?

In terms of leadership, control can be a means of influencing behaviour. A leader may attempt to control through structures, rules and procedures, none of which are particularly motivating.

They may also control through values and beliefs, say by instilling a strong work ethic and a positive attitude to the brand. These examples, if not taken to extremes, can be considered as normative levels of control.

On the far side of the control spectrum, though, sits excessive control whereby those in leadership positions might seek to use their power to dominate others. This unpleasant side to control is what often overshadows its gentler twin, tainting its reputation.

It could be argued that Gandhi did in fact use control to influence, albeit the softer version, when he brought the masses on-side with his values and beliefs.

Can one ever truly lead without controlling?

When Gandhi refused to speak

In Gajera, about to give a speech to an assembly and noting that there were none of the socially disadvantaged ‘untouchables’ present, Gandhi refused to speak until this was redressed.

In doing so, and in reinforcing his values and beliefs he was able to influence others, and to control others. In this matter, as in his main battle for independence, Mahatma was always very clear in his beliefs; it was not a rival race that was being opposed but injustice.

He was against child marriage, the dowry system, corruption and caste violence. This is something that we can all learn as leaders; once you have identified your values and beliefs, hold firm to them and ensure that they are clearly communicated to your followers.

Gandhi can teach us that control needn’t be a taboo word.

Enable followers to see the benefit to them and to the organisation in supporting these values and beliefs. And when a challenge to these values and beliefs raises its head, and it will, be ready to defend them.

Sadly on 30 January 1948, just one year after the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh (not Gandhi’s goal but nonetheless independence from colonisation), Gandhi was shot whilst attending a meeting of prayer against race violence in New Delhi.

Mahatma Gandhi achieved much in his lifetime and is still remembered for his services to India and his approach to leadership which revolutionised approaches to conflict. Gandhi can teach us that control needn’t be a taboo word.

When exercised by a Great Soul, it can motivate and inspire the masses.

It can change the course of history. 

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Paul Russell

Founder and managing director

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