Leadership, Management and Gandhi


Right from my first day at Business School, I have been conditioned to believe that I should not ever aim to be a manager – I should aim to be a leader, an entrepreneur, anything but a manager. What my professors preached to me was reinforced by my bosses at work, and the books I read. And I have faithfully tried to pass along this message to the people who came after me. I have a feeling that most of you – if not all – have a similar story to tell. As I think about it – it is actually hard to draw a clear line between across leadership and management. So take what follows with a pound of salt – not just the proverbial grain.

Any way, in December I resigned from IBM, and took a break before joining SAP. In that break, I watched several movies – one of which was “Gandhi” . When that movie originally came out, I was in primary school I think. And I have watched it at least 50 times. But I have not seen it since I started working. And this time it shook my belief systems quite a bit. Although it was not a planned activity, I also had read a lot about India’s independence movement before I watched the movie. By the time my vacation neared its end, I was firmaly convinced that it is way better to be a leader AND manager, as opposed to just being a leader alone.

When it comes to leadership, Gandhi played in a league that many of us could not even dream about. He influenced and unified a diverse set of millions of people with no formal authority to win India’s independence. And he succeeded and influenced many other leaders – like MLK, Mandela et al. Formidable to say the least. If anything, Gandhi did not take a liking to “management” as we know it, and it did yield exceptional results. India did get rid of British rule, and on friendly terms with Britain.

However, the lack of respect for management did come at a significant price. He definitely had his favorites – like Nehru. Gandhi went out of his way to make sure that Nehru was seen as the foremost leader even when others had better support from the electorate. Subash Chandra Bose walked away from the post of President of Congress – which he won fair and square – because Gandhi wanted Pattabhi Seetaramaiah to be president. Later, Sardar Patel stood down and let Nehru have the Congress President’s job, and the Prime Ministership because Gandhi wanted it that way. This was the whole root cause of Nehru dynasty ruling over India even today.

There was a short term price too – that was significant. Gandhi did not prepare the country for partition and independence. This resulted in widespread loss of life and property. It is not that Gandhi did not know for a while that Jinnah was serious about siding with British for an independent Pakistan. But he let it linger till the last minute. But his inspirational style leadership did not manage to prevent partition. Eventually – it was Gandhi’s leadership ( including his threat to the country that he will fast to death ) and Patel’s managerial abilities that stopped the violence post independence.

Nehru was probably a mix of a manager and a leader – but probably could not find a successful balance between the two. Patel found a better balance than Nehru in my opinion. Patel used his managerial abilities to integrate the various states into one India – except for Jammu and Kashmir, and he could not do that because of Nehru’s inability to decide what is good for the country.

Of course there is a lot more that can be said on leadership vs management in the context of Indian independence movement. I have a few take aways from the movie and the history lessons, to apply to my life in corporate world.

1. Leadership is required to set direction : Gandhi did not start the independence movement. Congress Party was already founded before he even came back to India. But till he came back, there was barely any direction or mass movement to gain independence. Nehru, Patel and others were all already active in the movement and were better managers than leaders. But their impact was felt mostly after Gandhi set the direction.

2. Management is a bigger weapon in crisis prevention : Amply proven by how Sardar Patel integrating the states quickly, and Nehru promoting the 5 year plans. Not everything went smoothly, but things got done – and clearly would not have happened with Gandhi’s type of leadership alone.

3. Disaster recovery needs leadership and management both : as proven clearly by Gandhi’s leadership and Nehru/Patel acting as solid administrators post partition when the country needed both. One or the other clearly would have been less effective.

4. For continuous improvement – leadership is needed to move to next level, and management is needed to keep things running till the new stuff takes hold and becomes the “new normal”.

So in short, if I aim for leadership alone and loathe management – I probably will just be the guy holding a hammer looking for nails everywhere I look. And things will take forever to accomplish. If I aim for management alone – best case, I will at best get to keep things running – maybe with some incremental improvements, but not an awful lot more. So clearly I need to aim for a good balance between leadership and management. But it is a hard balance to strike – so may be the solution is not to strike a balance in me, but rather try to strike a balance across a whole team. I need to think about that .

Well there is one more thing I am taking away – the need to take more vacations and watch more movies and read more movies 🙂


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

17 thoughts on “Leadership, Management and Gandhi

  1. Hi admin, i must say you have very interesting content here.
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  2. Hi Vijay, I started reading the article and I found a mistake it is Sardar Patel not Sardard Patel. your articles are always well thought of,Also yesterday I watched a program on CNN IBN, Gandhi Before India, It gave a new insight all together.


  3. Unfair to blame Nehru for creating the dynasty rule. If you follow his regime clearly, he always trusted series of leaders to take up the job ahead of Indira. He pushed the case strongly for Morarji and Shastri. It was Indira who could be held responsible for the nepotism that exists in India today. She did everything in her capacity to groom Sanjay as the potential leader but his death presented the opportunity to Rajiv. Also as far as the prime ministership is concerned, Nehru did use his clout within the party to grab the post but in his defense, he was arguably the most apt person for the job. Patel had an impeccable knowledge of the complexities and diversities within the country and hence could have been home minister at best whereas Nehru was more of a world leader which is what a head of the state should be.


  4. Great analogy Vijay! Just watched Gandhi again last night, and your insight is right on. Gandhi led through his commitment to making things right and his willingness to put himself at existential risk in the face of great power. But it was his visionary leadership combined with a close group in his circle that were able to manage through some of the realities that ultimately brought workable change.



  5. Spot on. I do not know Indian history that well, but “leader/manager” discussion is universal. I remember too during student times that it was fancy to praise “leadership” over “management”. Life taught though that without management things turn into chaos.


  6. Hi Vijay – Good read. In today’s corporate world, I’m not sure if good leadership could be demonstrated without a formal authority though (e.g. being in senior management or top echelon), especially if they are transformational and broad based, IMO. It would be interesting to read use cases of individual contributors exhibiting effective across-the-board leadership in an organization.

    And yes, you should watch more movies – especially Bollywood types; I’d be curious to learn any insights in the context of corporate management 🙂


  7. Genuine leadership is of only one type – supportive. It leads people, it doesn’t drive them. It involves them, and doesn’t coerce them. It never loses sight of the most important principle governing any project involving human beings – that people are more important than things. I believe Gandhi did the same thing. He drive people and did not force people except in few occasions.

    People in positions of leadership need to see their roles not as ‘big shots’, but as artists whose medium is the dynamics of human cooperation.

    I do believe that Gandhi’s management nirvana is ” self accountability”. He started first with himself with Swarajya Palana movement and then drive the whole nation.


    1. Thanks Anne – I am still struggling on whether any one person can balance it well . I do think it is possible to balance it across a small team, but not sure if it will be enough . Need to think more


  8. Good Analysis on our leaders. You can also consider the case of Arvind Kejriwal, who knew he was good at management but lacked leadership quality because of which he pulled Anna Hazare. (My personal observations).

    Also, on more movies – watch “Harishchandrachi Factory” depicting the struggle of Dadasaheb Phalke in making Raja Harishchandra in 1913: India’s first feature film, the birth of Indian cinema.

    Best Wishes for your new job & Wish you a Happy new Year!


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