The Gandhi Formula: An Interview with Hitendra Wadhwa, PhD

The Gandhi Formula: An Interview with Hitendra Wadhwa, PhD

How to Be Everything All at Once

A renowned Columbia Business School professor explains how all success derives from the Inner Core.

H​​itendra Wadhwa, PhD, is a renowned Columbia Business School professor and the founder of the Mentora Institute, which provides leadership training to organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to social enterprises and educational institutions.

In his new book, Inner Mastery, Outer Impact, Dr. Wadhwa shows how all success, both inner and outer, arises from one place: our Inner Core. He focuses on how we can activate the core energies of purpose, wisdom, growth, love, and self-realization to create our framework for success in life and leadership.

You’re obviously drawn to mathematics—you have a PhD from MIT—but you seem equally drawn to spirituality. What’s the connection?

I think all of us have a hunger for truth, a curiosity to understand things at the deepest level. Mathematics for me has been a pathway to truth—and so has spirituality. I find a lot in common between these two pathways.

Mathematics is a pursuit of perfection and beauty, where you look for symmetry and patterns and connections across entities. Mathematics is also the pursuit of precision. Ultimately, it reduces things down to what are called axioms, the core, essential, inviolable, timeless truths.

Spirituality to me is the same pursuit of perfection and precision. It’s the same search for patterns and beauty and connections in the Universe, to understand the simplest core essentials of what life and existence are about. Of course, it’s pursued through a different medium. In mathematics, it’s the intellect. In spirituality, it’s the discovery and awakening of spirit.

When did this search begin for you?

From a very early age. I can’t really date it because my memories of my single-digit years are vague and incomplete. I think I always loved mathematics, and I have very tangible memories of being with my family at one of Yogananda’s ashrams in India when I was ten years old. We visited the monks and I talked with them. I think by then I was also tapping into my father’s spiritual bookshelf.

Your career took off after you earned your PhD. You became a consultant for McKinsey and then launched a startup in Silicon Valley. Yet you were also experiencing a feeling of something missing.

In my teens, I felt a practical need to split my inner spiritual world from the outer material world that I was operating in. The reason was very simple: My outer world was full of the usual trappings—being competitive and seeking to make my way to the top, striving to earn respect and applause, and so on. It was not purely out of vanity. There was a fair amount of inner joy in accomplishment and excellence, and I was drawing actively on spirituality and faith to help me understand the world and to guide my practical, everyday conduct, like how to overcome resistance and failures and setbacks. But at the same time, I was putting on pause the time, dedication, attention, and effort that my inner work needed to materialize into something meaningful.

With hindsight, I see that the reason I deferred my deeper, inner spiritual pursuits was because of a fundamental insecurity: I believed that if I put one hour into contemplation, there would be one hour less to spend on all the outer things that I really wanted to achieve next and next and next. I thought that dedicating time to inner pursuits would cost me on the outside.

The result was that by the time I was in my early 30s, I felt a dryness of spirit. I felt like I was always postponing my ultimate goal. Then my startup Paramark got acquired and I extricated myself from the spell of Silicon Valley. That created an opportunity for me to reconnect with academia and teaching. I found the space to reconnect with my spiritual roots as well. I traveled back to India, to the same ashram that I had been to first when I was 10 years old, and re-engaged with some of the monks there. My inner voice became more salient.

Ultimately, I just had to tell myself that the inner stuff does comes first. And then I took a leap of faith that the universe would create opportunities: that what was meant for me would come to me if I started to fully dedicate myself to my spiritual practice.

This core belief had long been part of my DNA, but I hadn’t fully implemented it until that moment.

You then started teaching leadership at Columbia Business School. How did that class evolve?

When I came to Columbia, I didn’t just want to teach a traditional business class. I wanted to create something original, something that would have a deeper kind of impact for our students, something that was true to me. That quest in turn brought my mathematical and spiritual journeys into alignment. And yet, it took me 15 years to create and evolve my framework for leadership.

The core ideas on which it’s founded are not new. I started with fundamental spiritual principles like gratitude, hope, compassion, a sense of selfless purpose, a disciplined commitment to one’s growth, and a regulation of one’s emotions. As you know, there’s an enormous body of work from our timeless spiritual traditions as well as from the latest science on these topics. I had access to all of that as I dove into my personal practice and developed my course.

I organized my first Personal Leadership and Success class in 2007 along three things that I initially called pillars: purpose, wisdom, and growth. That first class was more about inner mastery. My view at the time was that the more inner work you do, the more you will show up in the world in a way that draws the right people, creates the right influence, and has the right impact.

Back then, I wasn’t teaching the outer skills needed to lead, the messy stuff around influencing and trust-building and feedback and difficult conversations. Other professors were doing that and I didn’t think I had the background. But one day the head of strategy of a global conglomerate came up to me and said, “Hitendra, we want you to teach outer leadership, not just inner!” I give her all the credit for the shift. I came to realize, over time, that the inner and outer were part of the same process. The inner guides the outer, and the outer guides the inner.

Over time, the three pillars became five—purpose, wisdom, growth, love, and self-realization—and they changed from being pillars, which have a sense of rigidity, to being energies that we can generate and fluidly direct all the time from within. My students learn how to ground themselves in and express these five energies that arise from their Inner Core.

The Secret to Being Your Best!

How can you bring out your best? What is your “best”? One way to approach the question is by compiling a list of qualities that you should master—qualities that experts will tell you are critical to success in life and work, qualities that successful people exhibit. Here are some that are often cited.


The world is changing fast, and you must change with it. And be tenacious too! Have the grit to keep fighting the good fight.


When you project warmth and energy and enthusiasm, you draw people toward you. And be an introvert as well! Listen mindfully, empathize with others, and understand them.


Innovate, embrace failure, step out of your comfort zone. Don’t stay stuck in the same groove. And be a risk manager too! Do not bet the farm. Anticipate problems and be prepared for them.


Take giant leaps and have your head in the skies. And be pragmatic too! Plant your feet firmly on the ground even as you look forward.


Don’t let hesitancy or paralysis prevent you from taking timely action. And be patient as well!

You can’t pluck the fruit without first sowing the seeds and watering the plant.


We live in a hyper- networked world. Even as you focus on building your personal brand, always be reaching out to others, gathering information and ideas from those inside as well as outside your personal circles. And disconnect too! Practice solitude and reflection—that’s what the great ones do.

This isn’t even a complete list, for we could keep going on and on. To put it simply, to succeed in our fast- paced, ever-changing, uncertain, and complicated world, you need to be everything—and the complete opposite. The right behavior totally depends on the situation you are in.

The idea of being everything and the complete opposite may sound inauthentic and unachievable. And yet I have found that those who have left a luminous mark on history have practiced this seeming contradiction, changing their behavior from moment to moment, embracing complexity and paradox, holding opposites in balance within themselves.

Excerpted from Inner Mastery, Outer Impact: How Your Five Core Energies Hold the Key to Success by Hitendra Wadhwa. Published in June by Hachette. Copyright © 2022 by Hitendra Wadhwa.

What do you mean by Inner Core?

On the spiritual path, we talk about your soul or spirit. For a professional audience, I have translated this into the more secular term, your Inner Core.

Your Inner Core is the space within you from where your best self arises. When you are there, you operate beyond ego, attachments, and insecurities.

Students and executives really resonate with this idea: discovering your Inner Core, sculpting your Inner Core, anchoring in your Inner Core, expressing your Inner Core. I noticed the metaphor worked very well with audiences, so I started to ground everything that I was doing in this single notion.

At your core, I’ve found, you have these five core energies we spoke about—purpose, wisdom, growth, love, and self-realization. These core energies are infectious, so when you learn to activate them in yourself, others around you will get stirred as well. That is why when people were in Gandhi’s presence, they felt very calm. In Mother Teresa’s presence, very compassionate. In Steve Jobs’s presence, very creative. In Churchill’s presence, very courageous. In Mandela’s presence, very conciliatory. These people’s inner mastery engendered outer impact.

So the one fundamental axiom of leadership is this. Translate your quest for success into one simple goal: to learn to operate from your Inner Core in all you do.

How is this different from previous models of leadership?

Most previous models have attempted to dissect leadership into a bunch of qualities or competencies. The Holy Grail was to identify the seven or eight or ten magical qualities necessary to be a great leader in whatever the conditions were of that era—to drive innovation, or collaboration, or globalization, or crisis management, etc. Experts were creating a cocktail of qualities for the ideal leader for a given situation and expecting that people learn each of those qualities as a separate and distinct skill.

Over the last ten years, my group at the Mentora Institute has examined more than 1,000 pivotal leadership speeches, meetings, and conversations, frame by frame. In analyzing key “moments of truth” in those conversations, we observed leaders frequently engaging in big shifts in behavior, often within five or ten seconds. One moment they were assertive, the next moment agreeable. One moment visionary, the other moment, pragmatic. We saw this again and again and again. At first, I said, “Hitendra, just give up on this question. It makes no sense because a great leader has to be everything—and the complete opposite.”

Eventually I realized that’s exactly what every great leader is! Nobody else was talking about it. You just can’t teach a few separate skill sets and expect to be a complete leader. Nature has conspired to create a world where we are being asked to do whatever is right for the moment, without being restricted by our habits or personality. That was, for us, a real breakthrough.

The other breakthrough we arrived at when we analyzed these magical moments of truth—the moments when people get inspired and transformed and become more resilient and collaborative—is that we found that in all great acts of leadership, a countable number of simple actions were being used. Different leaders were mixing and matching these same actions, these same Lego blocks, again and again and again.

Am I Operating From My Inner Core?

Am I …

  • Committed to my Purpose? (Purpose)
  • Calm and receptive to the truth? (Wisdom)
  • Curious and open to learnings that help me further activate and express my Core? (Growth)
  • Connected with all who cross my path, and all I serve? (Love)
  • Centered in my tranquil and joyful spirit within? (Self-Realization)
  • And am I doing my best to help others operate from their Inner Core as well, by assisting them in being committed, calm, curious, connected, and centered?


For example?

Nelson Mandela had a pivotal conversation with a general from the South African apartheid-era army. The general was against the nation’s transition to democracy and threatened to wage a guerilla war in the country. Mandela’s first response was an action we call “disarm,” where he found something to agree about with the general.

He said, “You’re right. You are so much better armed than us. You’re so much better trained than us. We will never win against you.” Mandela’s next action was what we call “fusing opposites.” Mandela said, “At the same time, there are too many of us for you to defeat. And the international pressure will always be on you. So, you, too, will never be able to win.” Mandela’s next action was an appeal to the general’s values. Mandela asked, “What will it be like for your people, with all the international pressure on you and us still fighting the fight? Is that what you want?”

That conversation helped change the course of apartheid. When you look at such pivotal moments of leadership, whether it’s a conversation, a speech, or a meeting, you’ll find combinations of the same 25 or so actions being used again and again.

And this Lego building block model can be taught. For example, by learning ten simple actions, two for each of your five core energies, you have 65,000 possible behaviors or action-paths available to you. Learning 15 actions yields more than 500,000 behaviors. And 25 actions yields more than 8,000,000! Five Core Energies and 25 actions—five per energy—is all it takes, in effect, to be nearly everything and the complete opposite.

We can train ordinary people to be extraordinary leaders by grounding them in these five energies and teaching them to use a few simple actions. You aren’t given a fixed checklist to follow; you decide for yourself, moment by moment, which action to use next as conditions unfold.

That’s lovely.

It’s funny because it’s as if truth was being hidden from me all these years. Until I came up with my formula, I hadn’t come across some of these precepts, or hadn’t paid attention to them. But once I got there, I started to find them all around me, like in Lao Tzu’s writings and in the teachings of my own spiritual teacher, Yogananda. These teachers were saying things like, “Look, from the outside life will require you at times to transcend your personality and habits and skills. What the right, virtuous conduct is depends on the situation. But from the inside, life is inviting you to play a very steady game, to be anchored in your core.”

It has finally all come together for me in the last two or three years. It’s like the mathematics of leadership. The model is now looking very complete and beautiful, connected and simple, universal and personal at the same time. I was telling my wife the other day that I think I can finally die in peace. I feel like I’ve done one worthwhile thing in my life. [laughs]

Discover how emotional intelligence positively impacts success.

Hitendra Wadhwa

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