Gandhi was charismatic & a transformational leader

The Gandhian thought of peace, non-violence, mediation is key to solving myriad problems

According to Gary Yukl (2010), Professor Emeritus at the University at Albany, New York, “Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives”.

To put it simply, leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. A leader is the inspiration. He/she is the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and skills that make others want to follow his/her direction.


Further, as Bernard Morris Bass, the American Psychologist, (1985, 1996), said the leader transforms and motivates followers by making them more aware of the importance of task outcomes, inducing them to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the organisation or team, and activating their higher order needs.

Transformational leadership increases follower motivation and performance. The extent to which a leader is transformational, is measured in terms of his influence on the followers. The followers of such a leader feel trust, admiration, loyalty and respect for the leader and because of these qualities of the transformational leader they (people) are willing to work harder than originally expected.

These outcomes occur because the transformational leader offers followers something more than just working for self-gain. These transformational leaders provide followers with an inspiring mission and vision and provide them (people) an identity.

The transformational leader creates positive change in the followers and induces people to be aware of what they feel and, in the process, define their values so meaningfully, thereby moving people for purposeful action. In this leadership style, the leader also enhances the motivation, performance and morale of her/his follower group.

Gandhi’s charisma

Mahatma Gandhi was not a born leader but he certainly had the traits of one. He was a simple man, leading a simple life, but strongly believed in and practiced the values of unity, equality, truth, non-violence, justice and honesty.

His values and personality were instrumental in fighting the might of the British. He was patient but persistent, as he knew it was no simple task attaining India’s independence. While he was defiant, resistant, daring and provocative at times, he always remained calm, caring, humble and polite. He exhibited distinct characteristics, qualities and the behaviour of not just a charismatic but a transformational leader.

India was suffering from the atrocities of British rule for decades, causing widespread distress. People were desperate to end the suffering but were unable to find a solution. Gandhi provided the vision of ‘Independent India’, and led various movements from the front.

German sociologist Max Weber (1947) said charismatic leaders are more likely to face crisis. In Gandhi’s case, India’s social crisis provided him with the perfect stage to rise from amongst the masses and lead India to independence. But the methods that Gandhi used were highly unconventional. He fought the British using the methodology of truth, non-violence, non-cooperation and peaceful resistance, rather than using violent means. These unconventional means of protest impressed and inspired his followers, who saw him as extraordinary and charismatic.

Principle of sacrifice

Yukl further states that leaders are more likely to be viewed as charismatic if they make self-sacrifices, take personal risks and incur high costs to achieve the vision they espouse.

Gandhi made personal sacrifices and took risks. He undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fast-unto-death. Here it is worth referring to one such instance. On September 16, 1932, Gandhi began a hunger strike against the British government’s proposal to separate India’s electorate by caste. He undertook this fast even while lodged in the Yerwada Jail near erstwhile Bombay. The British were about to undermine his entire programme of reform by offering the ‘untouchable’ castes, a separate electorate from other Hindus, in a revised constitution for a period of 70 years.

Gandhi believed this would permanently and unfairly divide India’s social classes. He began the fast to express his anguish against the continued the oppression against the Harijans. Supporting his cause, the Bard of Bengal, Noble Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who gave him the title of Mahatma, was one of the people who supported Gandhi’s decision saying, “It is worth sacrificing precious life for the sake of India’s unity and her integrity.”

The public outcry was spontaneous with expressions of love and grief as millions of people offered prayers and fasted and demanded complete removal of all social and religious handicaps of the lower classes.

Gandhi’s principle of trust

Leadership expert Kurt T. Dirks and Donald L Ferrin (2002), Professor of Organizational Behaviour & Human Resources Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University said transformational leadership is highly correlated with trust in the leader.

Gandhi was highly trusted by his followers, given the fact that he was not motivated to free India for personal self-interest, but for the betterment and concern of the people. He drew vast admiration due to his noble intentions, high moral values and ethical standards.

Gandhi was not the commander of armies, nor a ruler of vast lands. He could not boast of any scientific achievement or artistic gift. Yet men, governments, dignitaries from all over the world who want peace, are looking up to his principles of truth and nonviolence through which he led his country to freedom.

There is little doubt that Gandhi was a positive charismatic and that he had a ‘socialised power orientation’. According to Gary Yukl (2010), leaders with socialized power orientation exhibit the following characteristics, as did Gandhi:

  • Strong self-control
  • Motivated to satisfy the need for power in socially acceptable ways
  • More emotionally mature
  • Exercise power for the benefit of others
  • Hesitant about using power in a manipulative manner
  • Less egoistic and defensive
  • Accumulate fewer material possessions
  • Have a longer-range view

Transformational leaders appeal to higher values like liberty, justice, peace and equality. Gandhi, throughout his life, lived for such causes, and fought his entire life to stand by them. His transformational leadership encouraged his followers to transcend their own self-interest and fight in unity.

Champion of LMX Theory

The Leader–Member-Exchange (LMX) theory suggests that leaders and followers develop unique relationships based on their social exchanges, and the quality of these exchanges within an organisation can influence employee outcomes (George B Graen (Professor of Psychology at University of Minnesota, US) & Mary Uhl-Bien, Professor at United States, 1995; R C Liden et al., 1997). The key principle of LMX theory is that leaders develop different types of exchange relationships with their followers and the quality of the relationship that is developed alters the impact on outcomes of this leader and member exchange.

Gandhi developed and shared a high-exchange relationship with his subordinates, followers and other leaders. This relationship grew stronger over time, resulting in a high degree of mutual dependence, loyalty, trust, respect, support and affection, which is today’s parlance in management and leadership is known as the LMX (Leader-Member Exchange) Theory.

Level 5 leader

American Researcher and Management expert Jim Collins (2005) states that a ‘Level 5 Leader’ is someone who has genuine personal humility blended with intense professional will. Gandhi exhibited distinct characteristics of such a leader. He was extremely humble and modest and lived a life on the principle of simple living and high thinking.

Gandhi wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, which was woven from yarn spun by hand using a charkha, that he strongly advocated and used during the freedom struggle as a symbol of self-reliance and built the confidence of the masses to spin their own cloth and disown foreign products. He was humble and appreciative, and never hesitated in accepting his follies for which he undertook hard penance. However, he was also extremely persistent in his resolve to gain India’s independence. Despite facing various challenges and setbacks in the pursuit of independence, he stood firm in his resolve toward the cause of freedom.


A critical success for Gandhi was the support he got across the nation and in the international community. A significant part of this was due to his extraordinary persistence once he had articulated his vision and his methods. His determination in following through on what he preached was often at cost to his own well-being – may have ultimately cost him his life. His persistence in following non-violence is best epitomized by his march to Dandi to protest against the tax on a day-to-day usable item/product such as salt.

Gandhi’s persistence also permeated into his operational abilities in that he was a structured and methodical leader. In 1921, following his elevation to a senior Congress Party position, his reorganisation of the party into logically hierarchical committees is a case in point as is his operationalizing of the party’s ideology into clear steps for followers to follow, Moore points.

Gandhi led his followers greatly by example, and being humble; by living in poor conditions, just like millions of people in India. They could relate to him, and this inspired them to give their best effort in order to make a difference.

Mahatma Gandhi has been a role model and source of inspiration for many generations. His unconventional means to fight injustice have earned him high admiration and respect worldwide. He led from the front to attain India’s independence and influenced millions of followers across the globe to fight for a moral and just cause. He epitomised a life, based on moral conduct, and showed its strength to the world. While laying the foundation for democracy in India, he also showed how unity and humanity can fight the strongest of forces.

Gandhi’s transformational leadership in working together with a group of people, to make a difference, has left a legacy of that change, the flame of which is spreading far and wide.

The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, envisioned a world that would evolve towards peace and harmony, a world where different religions, cultures, and peoples of the world would live together with mutual respect and tolerance, rather than in suspicion and hatred.

In a century marked by two world wars, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, Gandhi emerged as a powerful antithesis to man’s cruelty. He became the voice of sanity and a beacon of hope for peace-minded and tolerant individuals everywhere.

The continuances of his legacy through various efforts to bring about a transformation and thoughts, ideas and action, is a clear signal that the society is fortifying a mode of belief, concretizing a cherished set of ideals and subjective/societal investments.

As we observe the 75th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 2023, the Gandhian thought of peace, nonviolence, mediation, etc., is key to solving myriad problems worldwide and is also being acknowledged. His doctrine of non-violent protests, through his weapons of truth and love to achieve political and social progress has been largely influential to leaders across the world.

And it will keep growing.

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