One Person at a Time: The Leadership Genius of Mother Teresa

(This article is my latest addition at GovLeaders.org)

“Do small things with great love.”
– Mother Teresa

A few years ago, while on business in Kolkata (the Indian megalopolis formerly known as Calcutta), a few colleagues and I had the privilege of meeting with some of the senior religious Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the group founded by Mother Teresa in 1950. We had asked to speak with some of the Sisters about Mother Teresa’s leadership. Renowned for her tireless efforts to help the poorest of the poor, the fact that Mother Teresa had established a thriving Order in the Catholic Church at a time when most Orders were shrinking seemed to be proof positive of extraordinary leadership.

We met at Mother House, which had served as the home and headquarters for Mother Teresa for nearly 50 years. (She is still there; Mother Teresa’s remains rest in a stone tomb in a modest chapel on the second floor.) We sat around a simple wooden table with Sister Prema, the current Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. A large handwritten Mission Statement of the Order stood out as the only non-religious item on the wall.

Sister Prema described a number of Mother Teresa’s leadership practices. For example, she told us that Mother Teresa had played an active role in the orientation of new novitiates and always made an effort to get to know each of her people’s strengths and needs. Always focused on others, Mother Teresa was also a great listener and focused a great deal on helping others grow. And, of course, Mother Teresa tirelessly modeled the caring, selfless dedication to the poor that she hoped others would emulate.

Then one of my colleagues asked The Question. Prior to our visit to Mother House, we had spent the morning struggling to come up with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) for our team, so my colleague asked Sister Prema if Mother Teresa “had set any big, audacious goals, like eliminating poverty.”

Sister Prema responded:

“Oh no. Mother Teresa was completely focused on helping one person at a time.”

One person at a time?! Wait, let me get this straight… Mother Teresa had dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor in a city that had millions of people living in the most extreme poverty imaginable, and her goal was to help just one person at a time?

To a group of government managers who were accustomed to thinking in terms of big programs, Mother Teresa’s approach didn’t sound very efficient. When my colleagues and I were discussing it later in the day, it struck us that, given the extent of the poverty that surrounded Mother Teresa in Calcutta, the idea of focusing on one desperately sick and/or poor person at a time was a goal so daunting–so audacious–that it was overwhelming just to think about it.

Then it hit me. Mother Teresa was on to something. Many politicians, government agencies and NGOs have devised big, systemic plans to address major societal problems like poverty, drug abuse, illiteracy, or crime. Coming up with a big idea is the easy part, however. The hard part is the execution at the front lines. Are the people who deliver the services at the local level making the right decisions? Do they treat each customer with respect and dignity? Do they approach their work with a laser-like focus on their agency’s mission?*

One of Mother Teresa’s great strengths was her relentless focus on the core mission of her organization: helping the poorest of the poor. She spent much of her own time helping individuals in extreme need. Her personal example still serves as the model for the Missionaries of Charity.

Now, as a dyed-in-the wool systems thinker, I’m not about to assert that we should do away with big systemic plans to address societal problems. Every government agency has such plans, and they often make a difference. But when our agencies don’t achieve the desired results, it’s often because we have failed to give enough attention to getting it right at the front lines. When we fail, we fail one customer at a time-line.

What This Means for Growing Leaders
Every government agency has at least some pockets of excellence. The distinguishing characteristic of those work units is usually that they have outstanding leadership.

In contrast, when we get disappointing results, it is often because first-line supervisors have failed to help their people feel connected to the mission or to get them the tools and training they need to get the job done.

Of course, responsibility for results doesn’t rest solely with first-line managers; it goes all the way up the line. If first-line supervisors are not effective, it may be because more senior leaders failed to select the right people for leadership roles, failed to help them learn to lead, failed to provide them feedback, or failed to measure performance in a way that inspires employees to improve operations.

In preparing leaders for the public service it’s important to remember that there are no short-cuts. Every supervisor needs training, mentoring, coaching and feedback. They also need varied and challenging experiences that will push them out of their comfort zone and provide the perspective needed to deal with many of the challenges they will face as leaders. At the systemic level, an agency can create incentives for learning to lead and it can provide the appropriate training and support. Government agencies can–and should–do these things.

But a systemic approach is not enough when it comes to growing leaders. Individual supervisors must make the commitment required to learn to lead effectively. And individual senior leaders must carve out time to mentor their more junior colleagues. Because when all is said and done, leaders learn to lead–you guessed it–one person at a time.

* I do not mean to imply that Mother Teresa’s focus was on organizational excellence. The Missionaries of Charity have come under criticism at times for poor bookkeeping and for not providing a more professionalized standard of medical treatment. What Mother Teresa did do was impossibly difficult, however: she helped each of her desperately poor/sick charges feel loved and respected.

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Sharon Scarr

Excellent article! Mother Teresa was an amazing person…and wise leader. One person helps one person who then hopefully helps another. It’s an effective way to tackle problems and issues. Too often we come up with grandiose goals and objectives, with the intent on ‘fixing’ the problem at hand, and are then frustrated when it doesn’t work. Baby steps and goals is the way to go!

Sam Allgood

In this she was doing an excellent job of modeling the Master … ‘and He appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out’.

Eric Benson

Wonderful post, Don! You neatly captured the power of serving one person at a time with great purpose to achieve the fulfillment of what is likely a much larger purpose. You also touched on a passion of mine: Supervision. I am a champion of Self-Supervision as a means of growing individuals and organizations. I believe a Self-Supervised person is much more likely to become the Happy-Being they were always meant to be and that in turn positions them for great success in the workplace. Thanks for sharing, Don 🙂

Ian Lucas

Whilst I respect the premise of your article (that leadership needs to be developed from a small base, towards a larger one), the choice of Mother Theresa is unfortunate. Your small-print footnote/caveat says it all. Many would argue that she did more personal harm than good to those unfortunate enough to be entrusted to her “care”. God was the excuse for lack of proper medical care.

I think that Mother Theresa’s story sends a leadership message that says “Make sure that the best available services are being provided, with the financial resources available, regardless of whether they are in-house or outsourced”. People will respect and follow this leader, assuming that he/she is fair and ethical.

Alegra Hassan

Great post. So glad to see someone remembering the work Mother Teresa and to bring out her leadership value. Most people don’t realize how inportant and necessary strong leadership is for non-profits. There are some wonderful nuggets you can learn from your local pastor or YWCA or soup kitchen. Someone has to run the business side as well as stay gentle enough to help the needs of people. Great piece.

Dale M. Posthumus

Ian, I think you miss the point. Although it would be nice to always have the “best available” resources, it is often the case, especially for government, that the financial resoures are not there to provide the best. So, agencies must make do with the next best thing. Mother Theresa knew, in part that some health care is better than no health care. How many people would have suffered while she was fund raising to build a Fairfax INOVA in Kolkata, instead of providing what little they had? God was not her excuse to provide poor health care, but her reason for providing as much as she could to people who had nothing. I believe the real lesson here is don’t get overwhelmed by the size of a problem. Usually, the better approach is to take it one step at a time, do what you can and work toward something better.

Chris Ritter

@Ian Lucas – I respectfully disagree with you that Don’s choice of Mother Theresa is unfortunate and that his “footnote/caveat says it all.” Many might argue – as you say – that Mother Theresa did more harm than good. But they’d be wrong. She has been rightly criticized for lacking medical professionalism, not using of pain killers and for encouraging a spiritual philosophy on suffering in her homes for the dying.

But consider the alternatives in the former Calcutta – especially seventy years ago when Mother Theresa was getting started. The severe poverty, illness and violence at that time created hopelessness so strong that parents felt they had no choice but to leave their newborns in piles to die in the streets.

Colin Powell was fond of quoting Napoleon who once said “leaders are dealers in hope.” Mother Theresa was such a leader – serving up hope, love and compassion – one person at a time. Few would say Mother Theresa was the perfect leader – just as Powell, Bonaparte and countless leaders through the ages all have their flaws. So Don’s footnote encapsulated those flaws nicely – but it doesn’t “say it all” by any means.

The consensus is overwhelming that Mother Theresa stands as one of the most powerful examples of servant leadership in recent history. Together with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. – and a list of other historical figures that is far too short – I have hope that Mother Theresa inspired generations of new leaders through her amazing and tireless example.

Ian Lucas

@Chris Ritter – If Don has chosen Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or one of many other “Leaders”, I’d be fine with it. When people talk of an “overwhelming consensus” on any topic as being indicative of its fundamental rightness, some of us instinctively bristle with skepticism, as so, so many examples have been shown to be very worthy of such contrarian treatment.

Perhaps you’ll let me provide a quote from Christopher Hitchens’ book about Mother Theresa:

Bear in mind that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so, and indeed to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection. Mother Teresa (who herself, it should be noted, has checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age) once gave this game away in a filmed interview. She described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told this terminal patient: ‘ You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.’ Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer’s reply: ‘Then please tell him to stop kissing me.’

There are many people in the direst need and pain who have had cause to wish, in their own extremity, that Mother Teresa was less free with her own metaphysical caresses and a little more attentive to actual suffering.

My point was not to say that Mother Theresa didn’t believe that she was doing good works, but rather that her example should not be blindly followed by today’s leaders, and those that do follow her example must be similarly subject to close inspection, not unexamined adulation. In the Government context, today’s “leaders” often get fooled by their support base into believing that they can do it all, and better than everyone else. Government needs leaders who realize that first and foremost they are Employees, paid to deliver services as effectively as possible.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Ian – I think I can put a bit of this debate to rest. I cannot speak for the situation in Calcutta or other Missionaries of Charity facilities around the world, but I do have firsthand experience working at Mother’s Teresa’s “Gift of Peace” group home in Washington, DC. My experience in that facility was that it was humble but sufficient, and what it lacked in quality of physical appearance, it made up for in the love and dedication of the full-time missionaries and part-time volunteers who worked there. I would not say, at least in this instance, that their care or medical attention was subpar…but it was not extravagant either.

On another note, the point of the blog post is probably less up for debate: we’d all do better to be fully present with the people we encounter every day…and seek to serve them first…vs. serving ourselves as the primary outcome of our endeavors.