Source of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Quote, ‘You Must be the Change’

Mahatma Gandhi on Change

Today, (30-Jan-08,) is the 60th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. A few months after India secured her independence from Britain, an extremist shot Gandhi point-blank after a prayer meeting at the Birla House in Delhi. Richard Attenborough’s much-admired motion picture ‘Gandhi’ narrates this event twice: once at the start of the movie illustrating the assassin walking towards Gandhi and a second time at the end of the movie depicting Gandhi walking out from the prayer meeting and facing the assassin.

A Quote, a Fable

One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most popular quotations is, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Here is a widely believed — although unverified — story of the origin of this quotation.

During the 1930s, a young boy had become obsessed with eating sugar. His mother failed to convince him to kick the habit. She decided to take him to Gandhi. The Mahatma (Great Soul) was highly revered across the country — perhaps his instruction could convince her son to cut back on sugar.

At Gandhi’s ashram (hermitage,) the mother recounted her difficulty and requested Gandhi to direct her son. Gandhi deliberated for a minute and replied, “Please come back after a week. I will talk to your son.”

The mother and her son revisited Gandhi the following week. Gandhi smiled at the boy and directed him, “You must stop eating sugar.” The boy admitted, “Forgive me, bapu (father.) I will follow your advice.”

The mother was puzzled. She enquired, “Bapu, you could have asked my son to stop eating sugar when we visited you last week. Why did you ask us to come back this week?” Gandhi answered, “Ben (Sister,) last week, I, too, was eating a lot of sugar. … You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Effective Leaders ‘Walk the Talk’

Consider the following case. Ian joined a financial services company and assumed leadership of a group of analysts. In his first staff meeting, he declared, “Our people are our greatest asset.” He asserted that his primary objective as the manager of the organization was to keep them engaged, motivated and happy.

When one of Ian’s employees returned to work after a three-month maternity leave (she had had her first child,) Ian never enquired her about her child or her experiences. Becoming a mother was the most significant event of her life to date. The day she returned to work, Ian assigned her critical projects and demanded her full attention to these projects. Clearly, Ian’s behavior was incongruent with his stated mission of appreciating his people.

As the above example illustrates, frequently, leaders announce personal and organizational values and goals but fail to act on their words — their behaviors do not match their stated missions. Defining values and goals is often rather easy — conforming and getting others to conform to these initiatives is challenging. Leaders quickly lose their credibility by failing to ‘walk the talk.’

Call for Action

Audit yourself. At home or work, write down your objectives. Reflect on your actions. Analyze your behaviors. Do your actions uphold your objectives? Gather feedback from your people. Ask what you can do to achieve your objectives. Ask how you can walk your talk.

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