Monday, June 23, 2008


by Keshavin Nair

We live in a society that emphasizes rights; the majority, minorities, employers, employees, victims, and criminals all remind us of their rights. Indeed, central to the social, political, and legal fabric of the United States is the Bill of Rights. The codification into law of fundamental human rights is an essential safeguard against the corrupting influences of power and human weakness as manifested in bigotry and prejudice. However, focusing on rights as the basis of conduct and policy is to create a society that is driven by advocacy, leading to a loss of community and reducing the motivation to work for the common good.

Perhaps we can learn from the philosophy of one of the world's greatest teachers of all time. Gandhi's life and teachings represent a different point of view - a focus on responsibilities, not rights. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is best known for leading hundreds of millions of his countrymen in India to independence from one of the greatest empires in history without the use of violence. A new generation of people around the world learned about his life of service, founded on truth and nonviolence, from the Academy Award winning movie bearing his name.

Gandhi spent more than 50 years in active public service and understood the need for legal safeguards to protect fundamental rights. However, he believed that a commitment to personal responsibility, not insistence on rights, should govern conduct and social policy.

H.G. Wells once asked for Gandhi's views on a document Wells had co-authored entitled ARights of Man. Gandhi did not agree with the documents emphasis on rights. He responded with a cable that said, I suggest the right way. “Begin with a charter of Duties of Man and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter.”

Gandhi asked us to remember that if our rights are inalienable, our responsibility is indisputable - given to us by every religion and culture - to treat others as ourselves. He focused on this most fundamental of human responsibilities. If we keep it as our ideal and try to move toward it, we reduce the emphasis on rights and bring personal responsibility to a higher level in guiding our thoughts and actions. In both the political and business arenas, commitment to responsibilities impacts individuals and groups to look for ways to produce benefits for all.

Leadership by Example

We are moving toward a knowledge-based society. In business, the importance of hierarchy is diminishing and there is interaction among all levels in a corporation. In this environment, leadership by example will have to become the dominant mode. It is based on the premise that the leader recognizes and meets his or her responsibilities.

Gandhi always led by example - everything he asked others to do, he did himself. Gandhi did not ask others to give up the practice of discrimination until he himself had lived among those that were discriminated against.

His commitment was to serve the poor and downtrodden - they were his customers. He walked among them, talked with them, understood their needs, lived among them, and ministered to them. His personal commitment was an example to others.

For a business to demonstrate a personal commitment to the customer. Interacting with clients, listening to their concerns, and making decisions based on their desires are some of the manifestations of leadership by example in a customer-focused company. Whether the goal is customer focus, cost reduction, or operational excellence, and regardless of your position - CEO, department head, or first-level supervisor - the principle remains the same: Meet your responsibilities before you ask others to meet theirs.

When leaders set an example, they inspire all of us to live up to our individual duties. The need for supervision is lessened, and there is greater efficiency and productivity.

Changing Roles

The central relationship between the corporation and the employee is employment. Historically, it was the obligation to the employer to offer long-term employment, and in return, the employee demonstrated loyalty. Recently this symmetry has been destroyed. The rates of change in technology, markets, consumer preferences, and geopolitical forces make it almost impossible for the corporation to meet long-term employment commitments. This can result in employee alienation, diminished loyalty and commitment, and lack of performance. Both the corporation and the employee should look toward creating a new set of responsibilities that fit the new environment. Insisting on old rights will only lead to increased alienation.

Corporate leaders have the responsibility to provide, based on their best judgement, truthful information about the future and the range of employment opportunities that are likely to exist. Employees should be given the chance to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare for these opportunities. It is their responsibility to offer value to their employer by learning new skills and taking advantage of new opportunities.

We observe this happening in a variety of businesses. Global companies like GE and Coca-Cola provide opportunities for cross-functional and rotational assignments, giving employees the chance to move to where the work might be in the future. In a technology-driven company like Intel, the CEO has stated his responsibility, offering employees the training and education to be prepared for future job openings.

For the corporation to say to the employees, Amanage your own career, without providing training, or for the employee to demand long-term employment without taking the trouble to acquire knowledge, is to insist on rights without meeting responsibilities. Both the individual and the corporation benefit if there is a focus on responsibilities. There is cooperation and a sense of being in the same boat, resulting in increased motivation and heightened productivity.

The Broader Social Context

There are pragmatic reasons for all of us to focus on our responsibilities rather than our rights. A society driven by the former promotes service, tolerance, compromise, and progress, whereas a society driven by the latter is preoccupied with acquisition, confrontation, and advocacy. When we fail to meet our responsibilities to others, they are forced to insist on their rights.

The founders of the Unites States were not accountable to women by denying them the right to vote, nor did they meet their duties to African Americans by allowing slavery. Until recently, we did not meet our obligations to those with physical disabilities. Each of these groups had to struggle for its rights and get them made into law, and these struggles strained the fabric of society. If we meet our responsibility to treat others as ourselves, the fabric of society need not be damaged in the effort to achieve rights.

Gandhi took the concept one step further. He insisted that those being denied their rights also had to meet their responsibilities. Opponents were entitled to be treated as he would like to be treated - with courtesy and respect.

Even in the most intense phases of the struggles against the British, Gandhi was always respectful and courteous to the British as individuals. He sent then-Princess Elizabeth a wedding present - a tablecloth fashioned from yarn he had personally spun. He never forgot the human relationship in the political struggle. In today’s political environment, we see an escalation of personal attacks at all levels, creating a climate of animosity and distrust and making it difficult to work for the common good.

In the formation of social policy, debate often takes place on the basis of the rights of individuals and groups. This creates a climate of confrontation. Gandhi always believed in helping the less fortunate. This was a responsibility based on his fundamental belief that one should treat others as oneself. However, he insisted that those who needed assistance were obligated to help themselves.

This is illustrated in his approach to helping poor tenant farmers. He encouraged families to spin and weave cloth when they were not working in the fields. Doing work was their duty. He asked the rest of Indian society to live up to its end by giving up the more refined mill-made cloth and wearing the coarser hand-woven, hand-spun cloth made by the farmers as a way of helping them raise their economic status. Both parties were fulfilling their responsibilities; none were insisting on their rights.

Focusing on responsibilities removes the mind-set of giving something without return and of taking something without making a contribution. Both these attitudes are detrimental to the human spirit and create a society that is neither productive nor caring. The concept of meeting obligations because it is the right thing to do seems to be declining. We need to reverse this trend. When we direct our attention to our responsibilities, we are forced to look inward and ask what contribution can we make to create something better.

When Gandhi was asked about his message, he responded, my life is my message. This is true for each one of us - whether we like it or not - our life is our message. Meeting our responsibilities should be a way of life, not of gaining rewards. It should have its foundation in the family, where parents and elders are an example for their children, the leaders of the future.

Looking at the world through the lens of personal responsibility creates a landscape of hard work, high standards, commitment to service, and compassion. These values are as applicable to business and the public sector as they are to our personal lives.

Dr. Keshavin Nair is a management consultant, public speaker, and author of "A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi" and "Beyond Winning: The Handbook for the Leadership Revolution."


Yancey said...

Yancey at you can learn basic employee rights

Hello Mr. Keshavin Nair, in reading your post ‘A Clue From Gandhi”, I was intrigued by your premise of personal responsibility. However, as a person of diversity I have to say your conclusions are predictably skewed. For example in your opening the word “majority” is mentioned. That is fascinating because the “majority” in America rarely if ever uses that term to describe itself racially, ethically, politically, economically or socially. But it does use it when it is convenient to make a point of moral superiority hiding behind a religious veil.

You state that “focusing on rights as the basis of conduct and policy is to create a society that is driven by advocacy, leading to a loss of community and reducing the motivation to work for the common good.” That premise would be true but for one important fact, this country was not founded on a sense of true community nor was that the intent. As evidenced by fact that most or all of the “founding fathers believed that hypocrisy was the order of the day.

Even the Bill of Rights was conceived in hypocrisy. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal”. Yet these men were raco-terrorists as well as the rest of the “majority”. The very ones signing that document were keeping millions of humans in chains back at the homestead. With legal freedom to rape, pillage, maim and castrate at will. You speak of Gandhi leading millions in a Indian struggle for independence from Britain’s invasion occupation, yet made no mention this countries greatest champion for non violent independence from America’s tyranny.

Martin Luther King was one cog in a network of men and women who understood all to well the “personal responsibility” you speak of. Your premise Mr. Nair agrees with the “majority” that unresolved issues should mean unresolved. That fully 200 years of physical terrorist enslavement of millions of people should just be “gotten over”. Imagine being denied freedom of movement, basic reading, writing, arithmetical skills for 200 years. Imagine being denied the opportunity to own property or acquire wealth and build social, political and economic dynasties for fully 200 years.

Imagine even when you were allowed to own property as soon as became profitable having laws enacted to take even that from you. Imagine having wholesale theft of inventions and patents legally and unlawfully stolen. Yes with many created in the “majorities” workplace. The “majority” has had full rein to create, exploit, build and take at will for over 500 years. Where is the personal responsibility on the part of the majority to reconcile that. To say that the focus should not be on rights giving the unresolved legacy of slavery and the ongoing racially divisive attitudes of the “majority” only creates a more divisive environment both in the workplace and society as a whole.

You state that “he believed that a commitment to personal responsibility, not insistence on rights, should govern conduct and social policy” in reference to Gandhi. For sure Gandhi was raised up by GOD ALMIGHTY to speak true and expose error. For that time and for that place, India he was voice of change. But, the fundamental difference in that culture versus this one is the fact that millions of people had their culture ripped from them in an illegal kidnapping called the middle passage.

The American culture has always been about division, exclusion, bias and inequity. This is true of society and of course the workplace. Your premise assumes that everyone is predisposed to do the right thing as employers to employees. Nothing could be further from the truth. EEOC statistics show that as always race discrimination or harassment is by far the number complaint year in and year out. You say “In both the political and business arenas, commitment to responsibilities impacts individuals and groups to look for ways to produce benefits for all”. That would be true but for the fact the overwhelming “majority” has always looked for ways to DENY benefits for all in society and the workplace.

Think about this, correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t the industrialized nations in Europe and Japan predominantly union oriented versus the U.S. being predominantly “at will” in employment. My theory is this Europe and Japan have low percentages of diversity compared with America. By rabidly clinging to the at will employment doctrine, the “majority” has greater control over who controls the wealth and power in business and society. I believe corporate America’s demonizing of the Employee Free Choice Act is evidence of that.

I believe if this act ever gets signed into law it will effectively mean the end of at will employment as is presently practiced. You make a lot of valid points in your article but, you must understand that imputing Gandhi and his and others struggle for change in India to the American experience in and out of the workplace is like the proverbial square peg in the round hole.

Anonymous said...

As you will note, Mr. Nair is only quoted here but is not the author of the post so will not very likely ever see your comment.
Slavery was and continues to be beyond horrible this is true; however, some of your arguments are not true to history. Many people suffered many of the atrocities you mention here, including my own ancestors. While the founding fathers were not perfect, many were against slavery and they did create a document that was incompatible with slavery and was incredibly influential in its eventual abolishment in the United States.

Anonymous said...

Ironically you provide a good example of what Mr. Nair and ultimately, Gandhi, were talking about. You seem to have an adequate education, though you lack some understanding of history and current affairs.
Slavery has existed around the world for thousands of years. It existed in the Americas before any white people arrived. It existed in Africa before any white people arrived and most Africans sold into slavery were captured and sold by other Africans. Do not think that I am trying to say that Europeans were innocent, they certainly were not, it existed in Europe at least as far back as recorded history. These things went on for MANY hundreds of years.
I agree with what has been said that the constitution was a document that could not abide slavery for long; however, there have been and continue to be atrocities in the United States. Though illegal, it exists today in the United States with every color of people participating as owners.
The United States, as the rest of the world has had plenty of atrocities perpetrated on others of less power for various reasons. For decades, you could find all over the Northeast, signs that said “Irish Need Not Apply.” Germans and Lithuanians were denied rights and robbed of property. Mormons were raped and murdered and driven from their property with the governor of Missouri even issuing an extermination order (partly because of their opposition to slavery.) Catholics have been discriminated against and some Christians feel that yoke of bigotry today. Many Chinese were held in actual slavery and thousands of others who were not, were held in virtual slavery. As they ventured out on their own, if they were in small numbers and if they did well, they had a good chance of being robbed and murdered. I can go on and on; however, this country has provided opportunity and the ideals of something better.
For those who accept responsibility and make the most of their possibilities it is for the most part, a land of opportunity, for those who do not, they may wallow in victim-hood, dependance, and perhaps an ongoing and type of virtual slavery.