Gandhi challenges our assumption: why can’t you be quiet and strong? We live with a value system that can be called the Masculine Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight, preferring action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. According to this ideal, a strong leader favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. It is a style that values quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making. The master-of-the-universe types are promoted over the gracious and soft-spoken types. The Feminine personality type displaying sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness is now a second-class personality trait.
But Gandhi showed the effectiveness of this leadership style. He did not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it of Abraham Lincoln, “offend by superiority.” He tended to listen more than talk, to think before speaking, to dislike conflict. Raising his voice and pounding the table was unnecessary. He was tough and the same time never lost his decorum. Being mild-mannered, he could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. We tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be. He once said, ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.‘
He was more interested in listening and gathering information than in asserting his opinion or dominating a conversation. He wasn’t concerned with getting credit or even with being in charge; he simply assigned work to those who could perform it best. This meant delegating some of his most interesting, meaningful, and important tasks — work that other leaders would have kept for themselves. The leaders under the masculine ideal, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way. Gandhi said:
I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. . . We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow.
Susan Cain says in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, 'From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.’ Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas. Appearance is not reality. Gandhi was, according to his autobiography, a constitutionally shy and quiet man. He learned over time to manage his shyness, but he never really overcame it. He couldn’t speak extemporaneously; he avoided making speeches whenever possible.
A friend of Gandhi said that in Johannesburg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A student who listened to him when he shared a stage with Savarkar in London in 1909 said that he seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.
While launching an agitation, he believed in systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) 'rushing into confrontation.' Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision.
But this passivity did not mean that he could be pushed around. An illustration of this point happened early in his life. As a young man he decided to travel to England to study law, against the wishes of the leaders of his Modh Bania subcaste. But he disregarded the order saying “I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.” He was excommunicated — a judgment that remained in force even when he returned from England. The community was divided over how to handle him. One camp embraced him; the other cast him out. Another man would protest for readmission. But he couldn’t see the point. He knew that fighting would only generate retaliation.
The result of this compliance was that the subcaste not only stopped bothering him, but its members — including those who had excommunicated him — helped in his later political work, without expecting anything in return. Gandhi wrote later, “that all these good things are due to my non-resistance. Had I agitated for being admitted to the caste, had I attempted to divide it into more camps, had I provoked the castemen, they would surely have retaliated, and instead of steering clear of the storm, I should, on arrival from England, have found myself in a whirlpool of agitation.”
This pattern — the decision to accept what another man would challenge — occurred again and again in Gandhi’s life. His friends and well-wishers would be upset saying that he was weak, that he should have stood up for his beliefs. But Gandhi felt that he had learned “to appreciate the beauty of compromise.” Gandhi’s passivity was not weakness at all. It meant focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way. Restraint, Gandhi believed, was one of his greatest assets. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone.
It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.
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