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4 Things Gandhi Can Teach Us About Transformational Change

2017 August 6
by Greg Satell

On December 31st, 1929 the Indian National Congress, the foremost nationalist group on the subcontinent, issued a Declaration of Purna Swaraj, or complete independence from British rule. It also announced a campaign of civil disobedience, but no one had any idea what form it should take. That task fell to Mohandas Gandhi.

The Mahatma returned to his ashram to contemplate next steps. He needed to come up with something that would unite the Indian people, but not get them so riled up that it would lead to violence. After weeks of meditation, he emerged with an answer that impressed no one. In fact, it seemed like a joke. He would march for salt.

Yet it turned out to be a stroke of genius that would invigorate the movement for Indian independence like nothing else could and break the British hold on power in the country. In doing so, Gandhi proved himself to be not only a potent spiritual leader, but also a master strategist. Today, there’s still a lot we can learn from Gandhi about making change happen.

1. You Need To Identify A Fundamental Problem

For nearly half a century, activism on the subcontinent had been dominated by the Indian National Congress. Established in 1885, it was made up of well-educated elites who were largely out of touch with the majority of the Indian people. Minority populations, such as Muslims, Sikhs and untouchables were also poorly represented.

To create a popular movement, Gandhi understood that he needed to reach the masses and the the issues that the Congress traditionally advocated for would not have resonance. “How could leaders in Bond Street suits or Bombay coats and trousers reach the peasants hearts: how could English-speaking orators touch their minds?” he asked.

The tax on salt, which included a ban on its manufacture by regular citizens, was something that affected everyone, but the burden fell disproportionately on the poor. It was also profoundly unjust. So much so that the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had denounced it the previous year. Finally, it was easy for the masses to participate. All you had to do was boil some seawater.

In much the same way, Steve Jobs identified the need to have “a thousand songs in your pocket” as a fundamental desire and built the iPod around it. Elon Musk didn’t set out just to build a car with Tesla, but to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” Great innovators do not merely respond to grievances or customer wish lists, they identify fundamental problems and solve them.

2.Beware Of Your Early Adopters

The Salt March wasn’t Gandhi’s first foray into civil disobedience in India. A decade before, in response to the repressive Rowlatt Act he called for mass work stoppages and boycotts. Initially, these were successful, but they soon devolved into violence. Gandhi called it his Himalayan miscalculation.

Many entrepreneurs fall into the same trap. As start-up guru Steve Blank explained in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, when you start out you build for the few, not the many. It is these first, “visionary customers” that help you gain traction. Without these passionate advocates, you will never get a business off the ground.

Yet to scale, you need to go beyond these early adopters and start catering to mainstream customers who often have very different needs than your first customers. They tend to be more focused on convenience and service than pure functionality. So if you want your business to grow, you need to meet those new requirements.

That doesn’t mean that you abandon those early, passionate customers, but it does mean that you can’t put your future in their hands. To make a true impact on the world, you need to be able to appeal to the mainstream.

3.You Will Be Defined Not Only By Successes, But Also Setbacks

Gandhi’s vision encompassed far more than just Indian independence, he wanted to create a unified Indian nation from the patchwork of religions, languages, sects and castes that made up the subcontinent. That was one of the the things that made the Salt March so successful, it was an issue that affected everybody, not just Hindu nationalists.

However, despite his efforts, tensions between Muslims and Hindus deepened over time and, when independence was granted in 1948, the subcontinent was split into two countries, India and Pakistan. War between the two nations has broken out three times since then and border skirmishes still occur.

Yet what people remember most are Gandhi’s successes, because that’s what really changed the world. If Gandhi had never existed, there still would be animosity between Hindus and Muslims, but it is doubtful that the transition from British to native rule would have happened without far more violence and strife.

In much the same way, great innovators like Amazon and Google have had more than their share of failures, such as the Fire phone and Google Glass, but these seem relatively minor in light of how both companies have made our lives better in significant ways.

4. You Need To Innovate Yourself First

Gandhi was not always the saintly figure we remember today. In his younger years, he was a bit of a dandy, sporting fashionable clothes and trying hard to play the role of an elite colonial lawyer. He also had a nasty temper and left his father’s deathbed to go have sex with his wife. The latter incident haunted him the rest of his life.

Yet he understood that if he wanted to change the world, he first needed to sublimate his personal desires to those of his cause. He eschewed western dress, began fasting, took a vow of celibacy and became the icon we know today. He also asked his followers not just to rise up against their oppressors, but to spin their own cloth and overcome prejudice and discrimination within their own culture.

In much the same way, Whitney Johnson points out that to disrupt the marketplace, we first must learn how to disrupt ourselves. In her TED talk, Emmy award winning journalist Lu Ann Cahn explains how pushing ourselves to do new things not only gives us new experiences, but changes our brains in ways that makes us more creative and dynamic.

And that is probably Gandhi’s greatest lesson. It is never enough to simply want to disrupt things as they are. We also must recognize the role we play in reinforcing the status quo and break out of our comfort zones. If we ever hope to change the world we first must transform ourselves.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

One Response leave one →
  1. August 7, 2017

    Gandhi has always been an inspiration to me. His words have been a guide as I journey in this world. This is one great post. Thanks for sharing.

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