What makes a great leader? How do great leaders realize the grandest of dreams in alignment with the greater good? Dreams as grand as, for example, freeing a country from the oppressive rule of the most powerful military on earth? Looking to some of history’s greatest leaders, a surprising simple answer appears. Nearly a century ago in India, the unlikely answer to the question of great leadership was make salt, but first, meditate. Meditate a lot.
India’s campaign for independence had reached a critical juncture in 1929. Nearly 200 years of extractive economic policies enforced through the increasingly oppressive military, legal and monetary might of the British Crown had left much of India suffering. Essentially powerless, the Indian National Congress realized that demand through peaceful protest was their only real option. Asking Mahatma Gandhi to conceive and organize their first act of civil disobedience, Gandhi’s response wasn’t exactly what the congress had hoped for: “I don’t know, I’ll have to meditate on it.” A devout yogi, Gandhi withdrew to the ashram to meditate.
The situation was as tense as it was desperate, and the Indian Congress was eager to act. Gandhi however, would not be rushed. His response remained unchanged for over six weeks: “I don’t know, I’m still meditating on it. I haven’t heard it.” When Gandhi finally emerged from his ashram, he began organizing a march to the sea, where he intended to pick up salt. An essential preservative and nutrient in the heat of the tropics where sodium and potassium are quickly lost to daily perspiration, the Salt Act of 1882 had bestowed a monopoly on the collection of salt to the British, yielding a tremendous profit. Once free and plentiful along India’s coastlines, salt became unaffordable for most Indians, and collecting it a criminal offense.
How picking up salt could possibly support the campaign for India’s freedom was however far from clear. The Indian congress was incredulous, the British establishment unconcerned, and public commentary was unkind. “It is difficult not to laugh, and we imagine that will be the mood of most thinking Indians” a prominent newspaper wrote of Gandhi’s choice. Seventy-eight followers began the march to the sea with Ghandi. Many more joined along the way. Twenty four days later Gandhi reached the sea, bent down, and picked up salt.
Ghandi’s single, deceptively simple action sparked waves of civil disobedience across India, and Gandhi became his nation’s number one criminal. Countless Indians followed his example, picking up salt and receiving swift, brutal beatings for doing so. 80,000 Indians were soon jailed along with Gandhi for simple acts of disobedience. Their prisons and law enforcement overwhelmed, unjust laws routinely ignored, and the world’s attention firmly on India’s quest for independence, the British began to lose control over their golden goose and the crown jewel of their empire.
Often regarded as the spark that ignited a revolution, and a tipping point that eventually shattered colonial rule across the planet, Gandhi’s genius is hard to dismiss. One has to wonder, what was going through Gandhi’s mind during those six weeks he spent meditating while the rest of India waited impatiently for him to act. What did he eventually hear? Conventional wisdom might suggest that Gandhi was thinking at his ashram, logically working through various courses of action, weighing the pros and cons, and assessing risks and benefits.
Gandhi’s plan to pick up salt and inspire thousands of Indians to endure beatings and jail was however hardly logical, or the product of logical thinking. From the outside, his plan appeared illogical to the point of ridiculousness. In hindsight, thanks to half a century of scientific discovery, we can infer what may have been going on (and not going on) in Gandhi’s mind at his ashram. If Gandhi was a skilled mediator, and by most accounts suggest he certainly was, he wasn’t thinking at his ashram. In fact, he spent those historic weeks at his ashram intentionally not thinking. He was certainly a great thinker, and maybe very lucky. He may have logically thought through and carefully planned all the steps required to eventually free India from British rule. From what we know of Gandhi and his dedication to yogic practices, he probably wasn’t thinking, calculating or strategizing. Something far more extraordinary may have been happening in his mind.
In all likelihood, Gandhi spent those six weeks at his ashram accessing what is now known as a theta state of awareness where ordinary thinking stops. He was not thinking at all in a conventional sense when he eventually “heard” the answer he sought. He may not have logically decided the what the best path to India’s independence was so much realized or envisioned a radically creative, highly illogical path to solution. Considering the strange and remarkable experiences we now know occur in dreamlike theta states of consciousness, the uncanny, sometimes illogical yet ultimately ingenious choices of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King deserve to be reexamined in a whole new light.
As a member of the clergy, Martin Luther King’s enduring words, partially improvised in the moment during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, may betray his familiarity with the power of dream like theta states of consciousness, states that can be induced through periods extended prayer and contemplation Reverend King undoubtedly engaged in. Decades in prison made Nelson Mandela no stranger to meditative states, and provided ample time for him to dream a new formative dream for South Africa.
Though untrained in mediation techniques, Mandela was disciplined and committed to his meditation practice while in prison, relating that during meditation “You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life, but the tenth attempt may reap rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner that keeps on trying.” Blending his meditation practice with his mission to end apartheid, his astounding success in eventually uniting, healing and transforming South Africa speaks volumes.
Beginning tasks and projects with a clear vision, then proactively acting to make that vision happen has become standard practice for modern business leaders. The power and importance of developing and holding a formative vision so vivid and clear that it takes on a life of its own, inspiring and guiding everyone involved in its realization has perhaps however been greatly underestimated. The question of how to create such a vision has barely considered, much less how to lead a group or team through the development of such a vision, or how employees can be “tuned into” such a vision so that their actions automatically and effortlessly unfold in alignment with a guiding vision.
Developing and holding a guiding vision that takes on a life of its own creates the foundation for flow and synergy. Everyone tuned into the vision intuitively understands what needs to happen and how they can proactively support its realization. Without an inspiring vision, everyone is left aimless, blindly executing orders, or worse, squabbling over every decision. Considering the examples of three men considered to be among history’s greatest leaders, and what we can now infer was happening in their minds as they developed their visions for their paths forward, we can now say that investesting time in intentional theta states of awareness is the key to realizing or developing a clear, ingenious, inspiring foundational vision that takes on a life of its own.
If it took Mahatma Gandhi six weeks in a theta state of awareness to realize India’s path to independence, and Nelson Mandela thirty years to realize South Africa’s salvation, then the time we invest in pondering our paths, problems and challenges without analytically thinking about them deserves some consideration, and the question of whether the time makes the man, or the man makes the time takes on a whole new meaning. Thanks to modern neuroscience and positive psychology, we now understand that meditative practices are not the only way, much less the quickest or most effective way into visionary theta states of awareness.
The variety of methods for inducing theta states of awareness now widely available and in use is mind boggling. Theta experiences are also now also known to occur in bursts in flow states. Flow can of course be induced through simple pursuits once thought of as purely pleasurable such as running, surfing, hiking, or music, as well as through deep engagement in meaningful work. You don’t need to be an expert an meditator to access the power of theta, or spend weeks in meditation, but a basic understanding of how to get to theta, navigate while you’re there, and glean actionable insights from this amazing state is undoubtedly a fundamental component of outstanding modern leadership.