How To Scale Like Gandhi

Posted by Rahul Brown on Sep 14, 2015
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It was the morning of what history would record as possibly the largest and most significant act of civil disobedience in history -- the Salt March. As the unelected leader of hundreds of millions of people, the eyes of the world were on Mahatma Gandhi as foreign journalists joined dozens of inmates of the Sabarmati Ashram from where he was set to depart on the 241-mile walk to the sea in defiance of an unjust and oppressive law. He had openly declared his intent to disobey with great love, and proclaimed that he would never return to his beloved Ashram until India was free. The stakes couldn’t have been higher and the air was filled with quiet but eager anticipation.

Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s personal secretary, entered his small room with another associate a few minutes before 6am when morning prayers were scheduled to begin, only to be stunned to discover an empty room. Gandhi was punctual and routine-driven to a tee, so this set off a panic. Had the Mahatma changed his mind? Was there a late night arrest that snatched away their dear leader as he slept? What would they tell the ashramites, and the journalists just a few yards outside of those walls?

As they were running through options, Gandhi appears at the door. Confused by his unexpected absence, they asked where he had gone. What he told them was the key to his remarkable resonance and the unifying power that lead to his emergence as a pivotal leader and father of the nation.

Gandhi explained that there was a five year old girl nearby who was very ill. Given his vow to never return to the ashram until India was free, he knew he may never see her again. So before departure, he went to visit, comfort, and bid her farewell.

Nobody would have known if he left without saying goodbye to a little nameless girl, yet on the eve of such a major event, Gandhi was focused on the small--even microscopic or invisible. His great love was constantly expressed in small ways moment to moment. And in fact everyone around him was drawn in, connected, and inspired by a continually flowing stream of small acts of kindness and love. The large scale movement was built one selfless generous act at a time, collectively holding people in a generative web that continually elicited each individual’s highest possibility for the authentic needs of any given moment. When people are engaged in this way, an organic emergence dynamically coalesces and dissolves as needed such that the size of the response is naturally in step with the size and duration of the situation at hand. Gandhi wasn’t actually trying to scale anything, he was trying to perfect himself and dive deeper into a space of total integrity and authenticity. This was the great secret of his power, and it could only be achieved moment to moment, one small act at a time.

The idea of focusing on the small, or even moving toward self-perfection, seems counterintuitive or even counterproductive in our modern context. We’re constantly looking for the algorithm, secret sauce, leverage, or hack that is the basis for exponential growth and tremendous scale. The rationale and urgency seems sound: we live in a world where anyone who has their eyes open sees crumbling institutions, structures and systems. We’re headed off a cliff and need urgent change now. The modern mantra says, “Go Big or Go Home” and that seems to fit with the size of our problems.

We’re also in a world where we’ve got amazing tools and technologies like the internet and social media that are built for exponential global scale. Why not use money, power, fame, legislation, or other technological leverage to create change at scale?

The simple answer is because it doesn’t work. The predictive model of social change says we should aim for the answer and then work backwards to plan and execute each constituent part of the vision. Yet when achieving our ends becomes the primary goal, we invariably compromise on the means to arrive there, esp. in the face of complexity and adversity, and end up with mediocre results that ultimately lead to the collapse of the original vision. Its like trying to design and orchestrate the perfect snow storm, while forgetting that its made of countless tiny snowflakes. If you cannot even create the beauty and perfection in the microcosm of each unique snowflake, your snowstorm will be slush by the time it hits the ground. Alignment of the means with the ends is the only way to authentically walk the path of delivering perfection. Our big egos inflated by a mind seduced by power in its various forms blinds us from this simple truth.

Turns out that focusing on the small and being the change places us at the intersection of inner and outer transformation. Its the marriage of the telescope and the microscope, letting us see the promised land in the distance and the stumbling blocks on the road ahead within our very being. Deepening one’s personal integrity to be in alignment with an underlying value is the fuel that authentically powers each outer step we take in the world toward manifestation of that value at scale. Conversely, without deepening our personal integrity, we deplete fuel til we’re eventually running on empty and others too can smell the stagnant fumes of hypocrisy in our words and actions.

When faced with systemic injustice and complex interlocking crises at a global scale, the question naturally arises around whether such an approach will deliver the change we seek in our lifetimes. My sense is that the answer is a paradox: in the process of changing ourselves, our perspective will shift and the world will both appear different, and have shifted toward the ideal in the microcosm of our example.

The magic and alchemy is summed up in one phrase: Change Yourself, Change The World.

Epilogue: As a result of the Salt March, thousands of people were severely beaten and bloodied by the British. Over 60,000 people were jailed. Almost 250 unarmed Pashtuns were massacred. And no legislation was ever changed as a result of the salt satyagraha. While many around him wondered if it was an effective action, Gandhi himself never lost clarity that salt satyagraha was a success because it met brutality and injustice with ahimsa. How many of us could see the surface level facts and still have the courage and clarity to declare victory because the means and the ends were aligned?

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Comments (5)

  • Radha Ivaturi wrote ...

    Dear Rahul, thank you for these profund observations. The examples of the snow flake and the snow storm, intersection of telescope and microscope are just brilliant. This has given me renewed energy to focus on the small for me.
    I used this as a passage to discuss at the dinner table with my family(our daily micro Awakin circle :-) I was so pleasantly surprised by the reflections of my 15, 8 and 7 years old kids. Deep gratitude for enriching our lives thus.

  • Rahul Brown wrote ...

    So delighted the post served your mini Awakin :-). Would love to hear what the kids said if its in flow.

  • Radha Ivaturi wrote ...

    Dear Rahul, I started this mini Awakin circle experiment at the dinner table few weeks ago to recreate what I experience in the Awakin circle at SantaClara, in a small way. Since then every day has been a surpise for me!
    Shiva, my 7 year old said that, "It is interesting how changing small things can ultimately help make big change and was taken in by the punch line,change yourself change the world"
    Shrimayi my 8 year old , was touched by how Gandhi took the time to care for this young girl eventhough he was so busy and she really liked the fact that he stood up for his country. Also asked questions about what taking a "vow means "
    Shyama, my teenager, noted that Gandhiji lived the life true to his vaues and seeing him others were inspired to do the same and slowly that scaled into the whole independence movement of India and felt that living true to your vaues can have a bigger impact .
    My husband resonated with this-"Deepening one’s personal integrity to be in alignment with an underlying value is the fuel that authentically powers each outer step we take in the world toward manifestation of that value at scale" He spoke about his values and how wants to return to a simple way of living from what now seems very complex .
    Shrimayi said, "Just think how it go to be complex from simple and then take back those steps. If you ask me , start with the gadgets!"
    We also raised a question, "what is the single snowflake in our lives we want to focus on now?
    Thank you again for these rich ideas...

  • Anuj Kumar wrote ...

    Wow Radha! this is just amazing :) what is that snowflake? I am in awe of what came out authentically from this mini awakin and thankful that you can have such conversations with your family. Would have to learn from you the skill to hold space for such conversation with kids where authenticity can flow from their heart without distractions.

  • Harpreet Sandhu wrote ...

    Thank you Rahul.... so weel put.
    And Radha... You have some incredible children.