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Gandhi as Guiding Star: Servant Leadership in Mediation

by Jane B. Garzilli
November 2003 Jane B. Garzilli
When I open a mediation session, I ask each person what he or she hopes to accomplish. This question is important. It tells the parties that in key respects they chart their own course. Their self-determination distinguishes mediation from other forms of dispute resolution. As mediators, we take our cues from the parties. Ultimately, it is their session, not ours. We serve their purposes. We follow their leads.

Yet mediating parties naturally look to us for leadership. They expect us to guide and influence the process in significant ways, to lead them safely through exploration and possible resolution of their conflict. Otherwise, they could just as well negotiate on their own and we could stay home. The idea of "leading" parties through a process characterized by its commitment to party self-determination raises logical red flags, and may even appear inconsistent. At best, it is paradoxical.

In the world outside mediation, effective leaders embody a range of styles. Some rely primarily on personal charisma, others on the exercise of power and authority, and still others on outright coercion. From Moses to Machiavelli to Martin Luther King, approaches to leadership run the gamut. Contexts vary, as do the leadership approaches that accommodate them.

When it comes to leadership in the context of mediation, the array of acceptable approaches narrows. Highly directive leadership regarding substantive issues threatens to usurp the parties' right to self-determine. Heavy-handed "mediator moves" risk imposing solutions on parties whose agreements are supposed to be voluntary. And outright coercion is forbidden by ethical standards of practice. While a charismatic leadership style can be helpful in mediation, the focus needs to stay on the parties. Thus, in fashioning an approach to leadership, a mediator must be selective and make conscious choices.

I personally strive for an approach called servant leadership, personified by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). A servant leader is motivated, not by a desire to control others, but by a desire to help them realize their dignity and power. Gandhi preached non-violence and dedicated his career to the achievement of a better life for the downtrodden.

In his campaign to reform India and gain its independence from Great Britain, Gandhi never proclaimed himself a leader. Though millions followed him, he demurred, "I claim no followers." He avoided office, yet was a master strategist. Recognizing that the British could not be countered with force, he unleashed the power of ordinary people through non-violent resistance. He served as a catalyst and example, providing vision and inspiring hope. He empowered the masses to march to the sea to make salt. In so doing, they demonstrated their capacity for self-governance, and impressed upon history an image more powerful than any conventional show of force.

Much as I like the idea of servant leadership, I confess it's not always easy for me to maintain an attitude of service. At times, I'm tempted to be inappropriately authoritative, even pushy. I want resolution so bad I can taste it. I figure any deal is better than none at all. I want to be successful in bringing the parties to agreement. I want to be heroic. I see things in black and white. When this happens, I try to catch myself. I pause and recall the image of Gandhi. His spirit rekindles my attitude of service and sets me straight.

Servant leadership seems to fit well with mediation. Like Gandhi, we mediators paradoxically lead and follow at the same time. We influence a process for the benefit of the mediating parties, rather than ourselves. We serve as examples, catalysts, and strategists, not as dictators. We offer vision and hope, and empower those we serve. We help disputing parties engage one another and reorder their conflicts voluntarily. We resist the lure towards the unidirectional exercise of power and authority. And when we are inclined towards an approach to leadership at variance with mediation's principles, we check ourselves. For this, Mahatma Gandhi is my guiding star.


An LLM graduate of Pepperdine's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution and a mediator for over 10 years, Jane mediates complex business and partnership legal disputes, as well as interpersonal misunderstandings, conflicts, and legal claims in the workplace. Areas of concentration include entertainment, employment, higher education, and contract. Formerly an attorney and business affairs executive at Disney and at Columbia Pictures, Jane teaches negotiation at Pepperdine's School of Law and trains management and employees about communication and conflict. She specializes in cases with emotional components and cross-cultural considerations.

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