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Mahatma Gandhi and Change Management : Lessons for the CEO

One of the biggest challenges which most CEO’s face in the new millennium is that of “Managing Complex Change”. In a world of fast changing technologies & global business models, the customer / consumer in every industry is asking more for less. It is no wonder, that CEO’s constantly have the challenge of transforming their organizations to meet their stake holders requirement. Managing Complex Change therefore becomes a part of the CEO’s agenda, and CEO’s who are able to successfully transform their organizations, are leaders in their industry.

There are lessons for the CEO to learn from Mahatma Gandhi, who himself led one of the most complex Change in the history of mankind. Lets understand what the Mahatma did, and how CEO’s can learn from the same.

1. Creating a Vision & Defining Values : Mahatma Gandhi had a Vision of a free and independent India, and it is this Vision which brought him from South Africa to India. Not only did the Mahatma have a Vision, but he also held certain Core Values, which he felt were instrumental in achieving the Vision. His core Values of “ Satyagraha & Ahimsa” ( Satyagraha – insistence on truth; Ahimsa – Non Violence ) were the vehicle for achieving the Vision, and therefore it was not Vision without Values, but Vision and Values. Mahatma Gandhi traveled across the length and breadth of the country understanding the reality at the grass root level and constantly talking about the Vision and Values to the freedom fighters, to the common man in India and later to the British Government. This helped in creating a Shared Vision and Values, which all stakeholders ascribed to.

The learning for CEO’s is that when they are conceiving a transformation plan for their organization, they too need to think about a Vision for the future and define Values which will help achieve the Vision. CEO’s also need to build a Shared Vision which well have the buy in of all stake holders. Too often either the Vision is made only in the Board Room known to only the CEO’s Eleven, and no effort is taken to communicate the Vision and Values to the masses who will really be the engine for change. Investing in creating a Shared Vision and defining Values, is the start point of any change effort.

2. Living the Values : Mahatma Gandhi, did not just speak about the Values but lived them, such that he was the role model for the same. Once, a woman who was at the Mahatma’s Ashram, requested the Mahatma to counsel one of her family members not take sugar as it was detrimental to that family members health. The Mahatma, asked her to bring that family member to him after 3 weeks for counseling. The woman was confused but did as told by the Mahatma. After 3 weeks, when she got her family member for counseling by the Mahatma, she was told by the Mahatma, that “How could I counsel a person for not eating sugar, if I myself did not practice it. I had to give it up myself and know what it is like to give up eating sugar, before I can counsel someone else to give it up.”

It is not infrequent to find many a time in the corporate world for the CEO to not “Walk the Talk”. So often you find the CEO talking about the need for cost cutting and cost optimization to the rank and file, yet you find the same CEO flying business class, staying in 5 star hotels and unlimited expense accounts. The CEO and her team have to live the values themselves and demonstrate it, before they can expect the rest of the employees to live them. Living the Values is key for the CEO, who is leading the Change effort.

3. Courage and Persistence : There are numerous example when Mahatma Gandhi displayed the values of courage and persistence, in the face of violence and resistance by the British government. No change effort can be done without resistance, yet it requires courage to speak the truth and persistence of efforts to make change happen. CEO’s need to be able have the courage to speak the truth to their various stake holders. Whether it is setting realistic expectations with the Board and the investors, or whether it is employees. In this era where success is determined by quarterly results – it requires courage to take decisions which will benefit the organization in the long term, and may mean sacrificing gains in the short term.

The average tenure of the CEO’s has been consistently reducing and the current average tenure is less than 5 years. No doubt, many a time it is not the CEO but the Board which determines the tenure of the CEO, however it is not uncommon for CEO’s to also indulge in job hopping ( sometimes internally and sometimes externally) every 3 – 4 years leaving behind an unfinished agenda. Persistence of efforts is needed for change to be successful. It is the passionate belief in one’s Vision coupled with persistence which will help Change become possible.

4. Collaboration : When Mahatma Gandhi returned to India, there were various freedom fighting ideologies which existed. Different political leaders were leading the freedom struggle on different planks, both within and outside the Indian National Congress. The Mahatma played the role of a collaborator, getting everyone to join forces and ideas. He played the role of getting people together at the leadership level and also with the masses. The Dandi March is witness to his collaboration of skills of getting together people at a grass root level.

CEO’s have to appreciate that when they are driving a change agenda, they too will have teams and team members with different view points. The CEO needs to play the role of a Collaborator and get people and their ideas together. Too often we find that CEO’s seek concurrence of their change plans, based on their power and authority. They forget that power and authority may get the buy in of the mind, but not of the heart – and real change happens when the heart buys into the change plan.

Therefore in conclusion, there is a lot for CEO’s to learn from the style of Mahatma Gandhi when they are attempting to transform their organization. And as Mahatma Gandhi said “ …be the Change you want to see in the World”, our corporate CEO’s would do well to reflect on this whilst embarking on their Change initiatives. 

Shabbir Merchant