In September 2001 I visited Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Gujurat India. The twin towers had just been attacked. US naval ships were steaming toward the Indian Gulf. War had not yet been declared – it was a moment between breaths as the world scrambled for answers and responses to that horrific attack.
I was working in India at the time, and I felt drawn to the ashram to make sense of what was happening. Gandhi’s message of peace made more sense to me than ever. I was staying nearby at Gujarat Vidyapith, a university dedicated to non violence founded in 1920 by Gandhi. There I spoke to a lot of old Gandhians who were part of the liberation movement in the 1940’s.
It was from them that I heard one of my now favourite Gandhi stories. A woman and her young son had come to the ashram to speak to Gandhi. She complained about her child’s addiction to sugar. “My son won’t stop eating sugar”, she told Gandhi. “Please tell him to stop.” Gandhi listened to her, and then asked her to come back in two weeks.
Two weeks later the woman and her child sat in front of Gandhi. He looked at the boy and said “stop eating sugar”. The mother was perplexed. “Why couldn’t you have told him this 2 weeks ago?” To which he replied, “Madam, two weeks ago I was still eating sugar”.
I love this story! It speaks to me about being honest with yourself, and not telling others to do what you’re not doing yourself. Gandhi could have used his position to command the boy, and the boy would have listened. Yet he took on first giving up sugar himself, and then spoke from this position of understanding and integrity. At an energetic level, Gandhi’s words also had the impact that comes when one lives what one speaks.
Most of life isn’t as binary as giving up sugar*, which has a clear yes I am/no I’m not answer to it. Life occurs in the margins, as we try to be our best possible selves – adorably and imperfectly human. We all sometimes fall short of how we would like to be. We can be mean instead of generous. Blamey and whiney instead of responsible and accountable. Which is why Gandhi’s sugar story is such a good guide. If we keep coming back to leading by example, we find the right action is easier to take.
If you want to be a great team leader, parent, boss, or co-worker, here are some suggestions:
- When you’re telling someone to do something, first check – am I doing this in my own life? It’s always easy to see where others can improve. It’s harder to see when we are doing the same thing! Walk the talk, don’t just talk the talk.
- Don’t use the authority you have to demand behaviours that you yourself don’t do. That’s not leading. Instead, master the behaviour, or at least be transparent in your commitment to get on top of it. No one likes being guided or led by a hypocrite!
- Be honest about what you’re not doing well, and be courageous in taking steps to improve this. Your team, your kids – everyone will only respect you more. Plus, it gives others the role modeling and permission to keep challenging themselves and growing.
It’s fitting to give Gandhi the last word:
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”
*No sugar was consumed in the writing of this newsletter.