Leadership models: Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs

Leadership models: Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs

I had the opportunity recently to present a talk on Leadership at a seminar at our university. The attendees were about 60 graduate students. I began my talk with a wide-ranging view of leadership, including my own lessons on leadership (posted on this blog), Steven Covey’s 4-role model of leadership, among other perspectives. Included in my presentation were two case studies of Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs. These were worthy case studies as one was about socio-spiritual leadership, and the other one was about technological-organizational leadership. The case studies were of comparable quality, and were full of colorful images. A fellow presenter later observed that the attendees were much more alert and engaged when I spoke about Steve Jobs. This happened at a school where we focus a lot on spirituality and morality, based on Vedas and consciousness.

I wonder why Jobs was the more attractive message to the multicultural graduate students? One simple explanation could be that most of these young people use Apple products such as Macs and iPhones and are interested in all things Apple. Another reason could be that a majority of participants in the seminar were computer science students and therefore technology leadership would be of greater appeal to them. Yet another explanation could be that Jobs is a contemporary figure who died only a few years ago, while Gandhi died way back in 1948. Yet another reason could be that this talk was held in the US, to an audience who might care more about American icons rather than the distant ones from Asia. Most students had already seen his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.

There are any similarities between the leadership models of Gandhi and Jobs. Both were transformative leaders of planetary scale: stubborn individuals who bent the existing reality to their dreams and purposes and achieved great results. Both had strong spiritual underpinnings: Gandhi was a believer in universal brotherhood, and Jobs was influenced by Zen. Both were adventurous, creative and lived on the edge: incessantly innovating and keeping their opponents on tenterhooks. Both played two major transformative innings each: Gandhi won his moral leadership spurs working for Indians in South Africa, and then moved to India to achieve India’s freedom from the British Empire; Jobs made history with the design of personal computers (Apple-II and Macintosh), and then helped Apple achieve even greater success with the iPod/iTunes music ecosystem and the iPhone/Apps computing-communication ecosystem. Finally, both died unconventionally, one to an assasin’s bullet and the other to cancer.

I think that Gandhi’s leadership model is very relevant even today (or else I won’t have bothered to present it). Gandhi worked towards universal goals such as freedom and human dignity using innovative paths such as truth, non-violence and self-reliance. These goals and paths were worthy of emulation by Martin Luther King Jr. In the US, and by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Aung San Suu Kyi in Mynamar, and many more.

The concept of freedom may have different meaning today. There are wealth inequities and technological colonization in the world today. The French economist Thomas Picketty has analyzed the causes of wealth inequities, and made a strong case for a ‘global income tax’ for global growth and happiness. Mohammad Yunus has innovated with micro-finance. On the technology side, Elon Musk is revolutionizing transportation with electric cars and inexpensive space travel. Google and Facebook and Amazon are also transforming the world. There is room for a new kind of a leadership today, beyond Gandhi and Jobs.

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