The Salt March: Take not its lessons with a grain of salt
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a nationwide campaign to boycott the inordinate salt tax imposed by the British empire on his countrymen.
He did this by encouraging all Indians to make their own salt and organising massive non-violent protests across India.
The response from the rulers – to imprison Gandhi without trial – was met with an emboldened movement of citizens who grew in numbers.
Renu Saran, in her biography on Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi, Diamond Pocket Books Pvt Ltd, 2014), remarked:
“The poet Mrs. Sarojini Naidu took over and led the 2,500 marchers. As the group reached the 400 policemen and six British officers who were waiting for them, the marchers approached in a column of 25 at a time. The marchers were beaten with clubs, often being hit on their heads and shoulders. The international press watched as the marchers did not even raise their hands to defend themselves. After the first 25 marchers were beaten to the ground, another column of 25 would approach and be beaten, until all 2,500 had marched forward and been pummelled.”
This amazing occasion of courage and principle begs the questions: “Were the marchers afraid of being beaten without cause?”, and if they indeed were, “How did they overcome their fears, especially when they knew they were walking into their inevitable outcome?”
Leaders encounter, on a daily basis, incredible fears that they need to overcome.
How do they do it, and how do they inspire others to do the same?
Here are three ways leaders can overcome their fears:
1. They desensitise themselves to their fears
Have you realised that, with age and experience, some fears seem to lessen while others evaporate entirely?
I recall (with amusement and slight annoyance!) my past childhood fear of panicking about my impending arrest every time I heard the police siren, simply because someone once told me that “the police are coming to get you” when I was young!
How did this acute, naïve fear decrease? After a few times, I learnt that I wasn’t the one being arrested!
Because most fears are inherently irrational and because the foundation of every fear is anxiety of the unknown, experience and exposure can illuminate the darkness that is our uncertainty, helping us realise that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Psychologists employ the exposure therapy, a technique in which patients are exposed to their objects of fear and experiences in a safe environment, in order to help them manage their fears.
Overcoming our leadership fears is no different.
I have met many leaders who began their leadership journeys afraid of their daily challenges, but who eventually overcame their fears through gradual exposure and by taking little steps.
At Teach For Malaysia, highly-talented fellows (teachers in high-need schools) are recruited and supported.
They constantly face remarkable challenges in the form of disruptive students, unforgiving schedules and feeling like failures due to the demands of the tasks at hand.
Yet, time and time again, many of these fellows rise above the occasion and step into their classrooms, dragging their feet at times no less, to educate the next generation of Malaysians.
They do this by feeling their fears, but facing them anyway.
2. They face their fears together
One of the most terrifying punishments a prison inmate can ever face is “solitary confinement”, the treatment in which a prisoner is isolated from any human contact, in order to break his/her resolve.
Why is isolation used in both corrective and torturous ways?
I believe this is because fear can creep in so much more when one is alone.
Leaders build and maintain support networks, in facing some of the most fearsome environments.
They assemble and encourage, lending their strengths to each other and covering weaknesses of others until finally, their challenges are neutralised.
In the story of the 2,500 Indian protestors, all the marchers moved in columns of 25, walking towards their inevitable abuse, until finally everyone was beaten to the ground.
They could have easily overpowered the 400 policemen, yet they maintained their principle of non-violence, and strengthened their resolve by facing their fears together.
The news of the brutal beating of the peaceful protestors shocked the world, and eventually contributed to India’s independence.
Yet, if all the marchers had been isolated, one by one, removed from their peers and separated from their convictions, an entirely different story could have unfolded.
3. They cultivate bigger fears
In writing this article, I run the risk of oversimplifying what can often be complex and contextual, for fear is not necessarily a bad thing.
Fear is not always irrational. In fact, leaders who simply ignore their fears are likely to be dangerous to their team because they are out-of-touch with their realities.
There are times when the question is not, “How may I overcome this fear?”, but rather, “How can I manage this fear and put it in the right place?”
The height of leadership is the recognition that we do not live for ourselves, but owe each other our love, effort and time.
It is the recognition that some fears are perfectly valid, while others are more important. Did Gandhi and his followers fear physical and emotional abuse and isolation?
Yes, and rightly so, for to deny this fear would be to be impractical, irresponsible and reckless.
Yet, Gandhi and his followers feared something bigger than themselves and it was this fear that led them to their actions.
They feared further injustice, the prospect of compromising their values and principles, and a future in which their nation lived in subservience to small, wasteful fears.
The secret of overcoming our fears is to put them in the right perspective. As leaders, we must have not so much the absence of fear – but rather, the right fears.
Abel Cheah is manager of regions at Teach For Malaysia and is the co-founder of LIFEschool. He believes that courageous leadership involves the cultivation of the right fears, rather than the absence of fear. Drop him a line or two in the comment box below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 21 February 2015