They both used creative symbolism to propel their causes into the spotlight – Mahatma Gandhi with his spinning wheel and simple clothing, Sir Richard Branson with balloon flights and other challenges. But what if they met – would they have got on?
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is regarded in India as the Father of the Nation, leading the campaign for freedom from British rule, and Sir Richard Branson (1950-) is the British founder of the Virgin business empire, also known for humanitarian activism.
The quietly spoken Gandhi opens the discussion by reminding Branson: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Gandhi explains what this means for business: “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises; he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Branson is nodding and interjects: “No company can train its front-end people to handle every situation, but you can strive to create an environment in which they feel at ease doing as they would be done by.”
As Gandhi continues with the cotton spinning wheel, Branson enthuses: “…it is necessary to give other people the space to thrive, to catch people doing something right, rather than getting things wrong.”
Gandhi is vigorous in agreement: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
But what about choosing the right approach to life? Gandhi sets the scene with: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Branson, the enthusiast, responds: “Look for people who take their roles seriously and lead from the front, but who are not slow to see the lighter side of life.”
In response to Gandhi’s quizzical look, Branson continues: “A company should genuinely be a family, who achieve together, grow together and laugh together.”
Gandhi reminds his colleague that even in families, disputes can occur and anger can arise. He points out: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” As Branson nods in agreement, Gandhi continues: “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.”
Branson wants to discuss creativity, leading with: “No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice, so as a leader you should always be listening. Be visible, note down what you hear and you’ll be surprised how much you learn.”
Gandhi responds with wisdom: “The golden rule is to test everything in the light of reason and experience, no matter from where it comes.”
And leadership? Again, from Branson: “Nobody respects a leader who doesn’t know how to get his hands dirty and innovate personally.” This point of character was so important to Gandhi: “If you have no character to lose, people will have no faith in you”.
Gandhi warms to the theme: “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” Branson can barely restrain his thoughts: “Having a personality of caring about people is important,” he says. “You can’t be a good leader unless you generally like people. That is how you bring out the best in them.” But Gandhi wants to move from big picture to the individual, reminding Branson to: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
Reflecting on this point, Branson highlights the importance of being proud of what you do: “If you make something you are proud of, that filters down to your staff, as well as your customers.” But Gandhi is more impressed with action than words: “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” He reminds Branson that tolerance is a key human value, explaining that he has “…a tolerance for all faiths”.
Glancing at his enthusiastic visitor, Gandhi cannot resist stirring the pot: “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed” and explains the real source of a happy life: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Branson relishes this shift in the conversation and expands on business in the community: “Take a look around at your community and you will likely see problems that need to be fixed – from reversing environmental degradation to creating local jobs. As an entrepreneur or business leader, you have a role to play in solving those problems.”
Inspired by the great man, Branson sets out a vision: “Coca-Cola sells 1.7 billion drinks every day, from Paris to Mumbai. If a fraction of those consumers were inspired to do something good each time they drank a Coke, the company really would be teaching the world to sing.”
Gandhi almost shudders at the mention of the fizzy western drink, removes his round glasses and his parting words linger in the mind of Branson as he flies home:
“The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.”
This article first appeared in THE HINDU in 2013