Sunday, July 4, 2004
R M Lala

Ethics is defined as ‘the whole field of moral science concerning human conduct.’

I have had the privilege of meeting many distinguished people – some of whose lives are covered in my book, A Touch of Greatness – Encounters with the Eminent. When I look at the 26 lives written about, I look for the qualities they have in common. I found in all of them the quality of ethical leadership and almost all of them stand out for their love of their fellow human beings, for their humility and humaneness.

Dr. Banoobai Coyajee was the Director of a large hospital in Pune. She found streams of people coming from the villages with minor complaints. She took over Government Primary Centers and started a couple of rural hospitals for minor ailments, especially for women and children. Next she started a program of income generation for the women. At the age of 80, she said, “You can have all the wealth and health in the world, but unless you do something for another person, you cannot be happy.”

Another attribute of most of these personalities, is their ability to stand up for their convictions. Azim Premji refused to give a bribe for a power substation for a vanaspati plant, which guzzled power. He battled for 20 months, but would not give a bribe, and finally got it at great expense to himself.

An ethical leader has the courage to stand alone if need be and move on his/her convictions. Vinoba Bhave went on his padyatra ‘begging with love’ for surplus land to give to farmers who had none. In 20 years he distributed more land than all State Governments of India put together.

Mother Teresa left her comfortable life in a convent in Kolkata and the first person she picked up was a woman literally in the gutter with maggots in her wound. She cleansed the wound as she had training in nursing. First one of her students joined, then two, three and four. When she died, she had almost 100 centers around the world.

Significantly, both Vinobhaji and Mother Teresa found their sustenance in turning to a power higher than their own. Mother Teresa used to say that apart from her morning and evening prayers, she was so busy, she had no time to say normal prayers, but any moment she could snatch, she would shoot out a small prayer to God! “I trust you, I love you, I believe in you”.

Ethical leaders are not born, but make themselves. They often learn from their mistakes as Emperor Asoka did after the battle of Kalinga seeing the cost of his ambition. The Buddha inspired Asoka and because of him East Asia, SriLanka, Tibet and China were introduced to Buddhism.

Martin Luther King said, “Christ inspired me and Gandhi provided me the method.” His house was bombed twice. He was imprisoned twelve times, but the conviction grew in him that even if he was the only Negro espousing non-violence, he would still stand firm. His assassination was the start of fresh civil legislation to benefit the black man and transformed the social fabric of America.

A century earlier when Abraham Lincoln was asked towards the end of the Civil War, “Now Mr. President, how will you treat the Southerners?” Lincoln replied, “As if they never went to war.” The issues he was dealing with, he knew, were too important for pettiness and revenge.

We all can’t be Lincolns or Mother Teresas or Gandhis, but we can emulate some of these qualities to our own benefit, and more important, to those around us.

Russi M. Lala
Writer, Mumbai