Understanding Leaders of Social Movements and The Persuasion Strategies Employed By Them: A Comparison Between Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi By Maral Cavner

Understanding Leaders of Social Movements and The Persuasion Strategies Employed By Them: A Comparison Between Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi

By Maral Cavner

Despite our best efforts to avoid it, in life conflict is inevitable. As the renowned scholars of social movement and persuasion theory, Charles Stewart, Craig Smith, and Robert Denton explain, “Conflict over moral, religious, social, political, and economic values fuel social movements” (Stewart, Smith, & Denton 2012). So, the “fuel” for social movements is conflict, which seems unavoidable in our lives. Thus, it seems logical to come to the realization that social movements are here to stay. As a result of this fact of life, one would be wise to learn about and understand the ways in which conflict is expressed in society, a primary way being through social movements.

To begin it is important to understand the term “social movement” itself and what it does and does not encompass. What actually is a social movement? If my fellow COM 566/660 classmates and I began using the hashtag “EveryoneShouldTakeCOM566/660” does doing so qualify us as starting and participating in a social movement? Likely not. What about if the entire student body of Missouri State University started using the same hashtag? This makes it more likely with respect to the size of the grouping of the social movement (its scope), but the nagging question of whether or not hashtagging equates with a social movement remains. After all, if we can hashtag anything is what is hashtagged all that significant? Thus, it is clear that a concrete definition or set of characteristics can be useful in understanding what is and is not a social movement. According to Stewart, Smith, and Denton there are six requirements for a social movement to be a social movement: it must be an organized collectivity, un-institutionalized, have scope, promotes change to social norms, encounters opposition, and, finally, exists when persuasion is pervasive in the movement (Dudash-Buskirk, Jan. 2015).

The first requirement or characteristic of Stewart, Smith, and Denton’s with respect to social movements is that an organized collectivity exists. While this requirement is fairly self-explanatory, this requirement designated that the group (or membership) must be organized in some shape or fashion. The second characteristic of a social movement according to Stewart, Smith, and Denton is that a social movement must be un-institutionalized. In other words, the movement must not be a part of a larger institution, usually that institution being the government. The third requirement of a social movement according to Stewart, Smith, and Denton is that a social movement must have scope. A social movement must have mass influence and be large in both size and impact. Fourth, according to Stewart, Smith, and Denton, a social movement must promote change in social norms. These changes to social norms could be reformative in nature (with regards to a policy that currently exists), revolutionary in nature (seeking to replace current ways of thinking), resistance based in nature (seeking to maintain the status quo), or restorative in nature (seeking to return to a previous way of life). The fifth characteristic of a social movement identified by Stewart, Smith, and Denton is that it encounters opposition. As Dr. Dudash-Buskirk of Missouri State University explained this requirement, “A social movement is not a social movement if there is nothing to oppose” (Dudash-Buskirk, Jan. 2015). The final requirement of a social movement according to Stewart, Smith, and Denton is that persuasion must be pervasive in the movement. In other words, if the time comes where everyone has been persuaded or no longer needs persuading then the occurrence is no longer a social movement. After all, “we gauge social movements by how people respond” (Dudash-Buskirk, Jan. 2015).

Equally important to being able to understand what a social movement really is (and is not) is the ability to understand the makeup of the individuals within positions of leadership within the social movement itself. In lectures conducted by Dr. Dudash-Buskirk in our Persuasion and Social Movements class she explained that there are three primary types of leadership or styles of leadership that one can employ: democratic, laissez faire, and authoritarian (Dudash-Buskirk, Jan. 2015). The most desirable and ideal type of leader is a democratic leader given their equitable outlook with regards to the success of the movement and the more emotional components including how well liked or disliked one (in a position of leadership) is. A democratic leader is “concerned about the task getting done, group identity, and group satisfaction,” and would rank highly on both the personality and task dimensions of leadership (Dudash-Buskirk, Jan. 2015). While this is the most desirable type of leader in that their wishes for group identity, group satisfaction, and completion of the task done are equally balanced when dealing with a membership that is large enough to be representative of a social movement there will rarely be complete agreement amongst everyone and, as a result of this fact of life, sacrifices to any one of these values and goals (group identity, group satisfaction, and completing the task) may very well need to be made in order for the social movement to not be in permanent stalemate. Making the decision about which value or aspect to prioritize is certainly not an easy or uncomplicated decision and is one that very easily could become polarizing within the membership of the social movement.

A second type of leadership is the laissez faire style of leadership. A laissez faire type of leader is one that is concerned with group satisfaction and unity (the group staying together). A laissez faire leader would rank highly with regards to their personality, but less so with regards to their task oriented nature or ability given their great desire for universal group satisfaction, which is almost always impossible to completely obtain due to the differing opinions one would naturally find within a significant amount of individuals. While everyone on some level desires to be well-liked, this is nearly an impossible feat, one that could very easily stand in the way of a laissez faire type of leader, albeit likely not for reasons, the forward progress of the social movement and the achievement of its goals.

The third primary type of leader is an authoritarian leader, one who is very task oriented, but (much) less focused on the group and the opinions of others with regards themselves or their decision-making on behalf of the movement. This type of leader would be more polarizing than either the democratic or laissez faire leader, but would have the advantage over the other two in terms of decisions being made at a quicker rate. However, the clear drawback of this faster decision-making made by an authoritarian leader is that the decisions made might not always be representative of the wishes of the majority of the membership of the social movement. Clearly each style of leadership has its own advantages, but also comes with significant disadvantages in terms of likelihood of success in one or more of their values and goals too.

According to Dr. Dudash-Buskirk leaders become leaders of social movements in three primary ways: through charisma, prophecy, and a pragmatic ability to do so (Dudash-Buskirk, Feb. 2015). The first way a leader of a social movement becomes a leader, by being charismatic, seems simple enough, but is an incredibly important aspect to any and all social movements. The leader of a social movement, particularly the leader who acts in a spokesperson type role, becomes representative and symbolic of the movement itself. As an example of this, consider Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the movement these individuals participated in, which are each synonymous with one another. If a leader is not charismatic and able to use words and actions to inspire others’ devotion to their cause (social movement) then the movement’s chances of success both in terms of gaining and retaining membership and overall achievement of goals are greatly decreased.

Secondly, an individual can become a social movement leader through prophecy. While examples of prophetic leaders are often found in religion, take Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad as notable examples, they are not confined to religious groups exclusively. A standout example of a social movement leader whose ability to lead came (at least partly) through prophecy is Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Dr. King advocated for change and prophesized about what was to come most notably in his “I have a dream speech” delivered to a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. This speech inspired hundreds of thousands of individuals, both present and absent, to stand up for basic human rights, whether they themselves were personally subjected to discrimination or not. Dr. King’s speech is easily and by far one of the most recognizable speeches given to this date and is a clear example of the power and influence a prophetic style of leadership can wield over a nation.

The third way one becomes a social movement leader, by pragmatically being in the position to do so, is based on the realities of life: a person who has the resources, most notably of which are time and monetary stability and/or affluence, which allow them to devote themselves to the social movement. We were lucky enough to get to see and interact with a clear-cut example of a pragmatic social leader in class, Mr. Ryan Johnson, who, despite his protestations about everyone being able to do what he is doing, clearly had more time than most average people do to devote his resources (mainly his time and money) to the cause. While all of these characteristics of social movement leaders: charisma, prophetic ability, and pragmatic ability are useful in their own regard, if all are found within one person the chances of them being a successful social movement leader, which has undeniable ties to the overall success of the social movement itself, are greatly increased. This type of leader is rare find, but certainly worth the search.

Now that we have a greater understanding of social movements themselves, the leaders that help social movements begin and grow in the hopeful achievement of their goals, and their leadership styles which aid or stand in the way of the achievement of these goals I believe applying this information to notable social movements is useful in terms of deepening one’s understanding of the movement, leaders, and other ingredients within it. For this reason I decided to analyze the leaders of two prominent social movements, each from comparable times in our world, by applying the information we learned in our Persuasion and Social Movements class to Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi.

Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician who was the leader of the Nazi Party. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and Fuhrer (leader) of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945. While his official titles were “chancellor” and “Fuhrer” in all purposes Hitler was a dictator of Nazi Germany, living and acting as one. Hitler’s style of leadership would thus be considered authoritarian. He was incredibly task oriented, despite the obvious moral boundaries he crossed in his pursuit of his goals for Germany: the elimination of Jewish people and the establishment of a new world order to right the (perceived) wrongs that emerged after the conclusion of World War I. Hitler was incredibly task oriented, but his consideration of group satisfaction and his own personality’s approval were certainly not chief in his mind resulting in him ranking highly on the task oriented scale, but low on the personality side of the scale, thus making him a clear example of an authoritarian leader.

When considering how Adolf Hitler became the leader and dictator of the Nazi Party in Germany it becomes apparent that the three primary ways one becomes a leader that Dr. Dudash-Buskirk highlighted are each very valid conclusions. Adolf Hitler, while clearly a flawed human being with a very poor moral compass, was, for a time, a very successful leader of the Nazi Party in Germany in large part because he was charismatic, prophetic, and pragmatically able to lead the movement. While some individuals have claimed that Hitler was not nearly as charismatic or impressive behind closed doors, his charisma in front of a large audience was notably impressive and inspiring to a significant amount of people. A member of the Hitler Youth, Alfons Heck explained Hitler’s charisma by saying that in a reaction of one of Hitler’s speeches, “We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that bordered on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil! From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul” (Sisson, 2014). While Hitler never gave a speech as clearly prophetic as Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech, in his desire to establish a new world order there were undeniably prophetic elements about the “better” world to come. This desire on the part of Hitler and the Nazi party to establish a new world order, one that was as equally horrific as it was revolutionary, sought to replace current ways of thinking and doing, thus making this social movement spearheaded by Hitler revolutionary in nature. Lastly, Adolf Hitler was pragmatically able to lead the Nazi Party in Germany. Hitler was a decorated World War I veteran and thus in a position of influence and power that allowed him the ability to promote his (horrible) agendas and gain the resources to continue to do so through his ever-increasing popularity in the 1920s and 1930s.

Standing in stark contrast to Adolf Hitler, but acting within a similar time period, is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was, and remains in memory, the world-renowned leader of the Indian Independence Movement in formerly British ruled India. Gandhi differentiated himself from Hitler in a variety of important ways, but chiefly among them is Gandhi’s employment of nonviolent civil disobedience, which set the precedent that other social movement leaders, notably Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, would later adopt as their own and adhere to. Gandhi was concerned with completion of the task and goals at hand, group identity, and satisfaction and thus ranks highly on both the personality and task scales of measurement typifying a democratic leader. Gandhi was famously known for his modest style of living, unlike Hitler, participated in the plight of his people through his harrowing fasts as a means of solidarity with the membership of his social group as well as a means of (nonviolent) social protest, thus highlighting his concerns about equitable treatment, group satisfaction, and the accomplishment of the goals of the movement which he represented.

In an area of similarity between himself and Hitler, Gandhi became a social movement leader for very related reasons. Gandhi, like Hitler, was a charismatic and inspiring speaker, but in a much more humble, but not less impassioned manner of doing so. As the author Sara Lloyd-Hughes, who has written extensively on Gandhi’s public speaking put it,

People followed him, even when they did not see his point or grasp its significance. Examples of this are easy to find. Gandhi addressed a public meeting on the sands of the river Kathjori in Cuttack, and he spoke in Hindi (rather Hindustani, as he called it). Thousands attended the meeting, it is reported, and it is unlikely that the whole audience understood what he was saying. He reached his audience with passion and even though his was the voice of quiet certainty, it reverberated loudly in the hearts of his audiences (Lloyd, 2013).

Gandhi also possessed prophetic-like qualities, prophesizing about what was to come, both with regards to the people his cause represented and himself. A clear example of this is found in Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech, delivered in August of 1942. In this speech Gandhi spoke of the ability and trust that a higher power had placed in him and the work he and his fellow group members were doing, as well as what tragedies would occur were they to not use their given talents for the betterment of their society.

Occasions like the present do not occur in everybody’s and but rarely in anybody’s life. I want you to know and feel that there is nothing but purest Ahimsa in all that I am saying and doing today. The draft resolution of the Working Committee is based on Ahimsa, the contemplated struggle similarly has its roots in Ahimsa. If, therefore, there is any among you who has lost faith in Ahimsa or is wearied of it, let him not vote for this resolution. Let me explain my position clearly. God has vouchsafed to me a priceless gift in the weapon of Ahimsa. I and my Ahimsa are on our trail today. If in the present crisis, when the earth is being scorched by the flames of Himsa and crying for deliverance, I failed to make use of the God given talent, God will not forgive me and I shall be judged un-wrongly of the great gift. I must act now. I may not hesitate and merely look on… In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all (The Quit India Speech, 2002).

Thirdly, and similarly to Hitler, Gandhi also pragmatically was able to step into a role of leadership in the social movement. Gandhi was trained as a barrister in his younger years and spent twenty-one years in South Africa working as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders during which time he developed his ethics, political views, and leadership skills. Later, he served in the Indian National Congress. Despite his extensive education and work, Gandhi was also subjected to a great deal of discrimination and thus was personally impacted by the nature and laws of the society in which he lived. His life history made his evolution into the preeminent leader of the Indian Independence Movement very natural, as his time and energy were already so devoted to and intertwined with the cause. His extensive skill set and network of contacts from his many years in the political arena, coupled with his ability to completely relate to the plight of others suffering under the conditions of the time, made Gandhi a natural choice for the leader of the Indian Independence Movement.

In class we discussed the importance of a social movement leader being able to passionately and convincingly communicate their movement’s ideals to the public, both in order to recruit members and retain the current membership. A central way that leaders of social movements, including Hitler and Gandhi, within a social movement awaken and persuade the public is through the use of language strategies. In our Persuasion and Social Movements class we focused on three primary language strategies: identification, polarization, and power. The first language strategy, identification, aims to get individuals to identify with your movement. The more one is to identify with a movement, the more likely one is to be persuaded by the movement and its cause themselves. Both Hitler and Gandhi employed the identification language strategy in their oratory. In Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech he makes the distinct effort to appeal to people’s basic desire for free will and to be their own master, a very basic and human thing to identify with and indicative of Gandhi’s prowess in the use of inclusive language strategies.

Ours is not a drive for power, but purely a non-violent fight for India’s independence. In a violent struggle, a successful general has been often known to effect a military coup and to set up a dictatorship. But under the Congress scheme of things, essentially non-violent as it is, there can be no room for dictatorship. A non-violent soldier of freedom will covet nothing for himself, he fights only for the freedom of his country (The Quit India Speech, 2002).

Hitler also used his oratory in an attempt to get people to identify with his social movement’s cause, however, his identification strategy was fundamentally based on an exclusionary component, taken to the point of demonizing every single Jewish person in existence. Thus Hitler’s language strategy of identification and polarization are analogous to one another.

The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people…the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew (Hitler, 2015).

A third kind of language strategy is power. When evaluating a social movement one would be in error to neglect to consider who had the power, rights, and/or authority of the language during that time period. After all, the statement, “who controls language has power” rings true in every case. (Dudash-Buskirk, Feb. 2015). A significant aspect to who has the power of the language is based upon who has the platform from which they can craft language to their advantage and bring it forth for the public that has given an individual that platform to consume. Both Hitler and Gandhi respectively had millions of followers, giving them a significant amount of power and influence with which to elevate their cause and their ideals.

Despite somewhat similar circumstances in how they became social movement leaders and the shared ability to posses a platform from which to shape the use of language for their cause, Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi are representative of two very different social leaders. Despite their similarities in terms of shared language strategies, the key question of what is the difference between these two prominent social leaders from the 1900s remains. The answer: the end to which Hitler and Gandhi used their abilities, circumstances, and strategies related to a conflict of the time period. One actively encouraged the use of violence against innocents, while the other refused to partake in it, despite being personally subjected to it himself. One promoted a message of violence and hate, while the other preached a message of tolerance and understanding, even when it was not reciprocated. One used his abilities, circumstances, and strategies for evil and discriminatory reasons and for his own personal gain, while the other used them for the benefit of all persons. In the Chinese language the character for the word “conflict” is made up of two different symbols: one that indicates danger whereas the other indicates opportunity. While social movements are not without either danger or opportunity, Mahatma Gandhi, unlike Adolf Hitler, took the opportunity to make strides towards a more equitable, kind, and understanding world for all people. We can only hope that more people will chose to do the same.


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