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Mother Teresa: A Timeless Model for Authentic Leadership
Mother Teresa’s leadership and authentic character shaped her into one of the highest-profile representatives of historical servant leadership. Dedicating her life to the service of the poorest, Mother Teresa became a saint in 2016. No stranger to criticism during her life, she proved that resilience, compassion, selflessness, humility, and optimism are all necessary ingredients of effective, people-focused leadership.
“A life not lived for others is not a life.” – Mother Teresa.
Born in 1910 in Skopje, current-day North Macedonia, Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, became the embodiment of servant leadership by dedicating her life to helping the poorest of the poor.
Mother Teresa is a model of servant leadership.
Mother Teresa’s life and achievements are the perfect examples of the impact dedicated servant leadership can have on society and world history. She proved that humility, compassion, and faith, coupled with a hands-on approach, inclusivity, and commitment to social justice, can make a true difference where it matters the most.
Mother Teresa’s leadership continues to be a model for intelligent, servant leaders everywhere, decades after she died in 1997.
Understanding Mother Teresa
Having lost her father at the tender age of 8, Mother Teresa became fascinated by stories of missionaries in Bengal. By age 12, she had made up her mind about committing to a religious life and becoming a missionary in India.
To fulfill her goal, at the age of 18, she moved to Rathfarnham, Ireland, joining the Sisters of Loreto at the local Loreto Abbey to learn English. She never saw her mother and sister again.
Having arrived in India in 1929 she learned Bengali in Darjeeling and took her first religious wows in 1931. She left the local convent in 1946, intending to dedicate her life to serving India’s downtrodden in the name of Jesus. She founded her Missionaries of Charity in 1950.
For her lifelong battle against poverty and distress, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
The Catholic Church canonized her in 2016, recognizing her as a miracle-maker, despite controversy surrounding some of her miracles and attitudes toward poverty.
Mother Teresa’s leadership and accomplishments didn’t shelter her from criticism. Despite her work against poverty and the numerous state honors she received, her perception in India and around the world was not uniformly positive.
Some voices, including that of Calcutta mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, claim her work hardly impacted the poor of the city. British author Christopher Hitchens called her a friend of poverty rather than a friend of the poor, in a 2003 article.
Controversy aside, Mother Teresa’s historical leadership is an example of servant leadership replete with the qualities and traits intelligent leadership values and promotes. Some of the traits that shaped her leadership were:
Selflessness and compassion
- Commitment to justice
- Respect for all
- The willingness to adopt a hands-on approach
The same leadership traits define what we call today intelligent leadership and what we hold to be the most effective form of leadership.
Authenticity and Character
The key to the authenticity of Mother Teresa’s leadership is alignment. Her actions aligned perfectly with her beliefs, allowing her to stay true to her leadership principles throughout her life.
The key qualities of her leadership character were compassion, humility, devotion to a higher power, courage, optimism, and a non-judgmental attitude that allowed her to interact seamlessly with those she served.
Having set up a school in the heart of Calcutta, Mother Teresa realized there were sick and dying people in the streets of the slums needing hands-on assistance. She left the safety of the convent to pick up the sick and provide a place for the dying where they could depart this world with dignity. Her goal was to make a difference, one person at a time.
Her character and authenticity helped her achieve that goal. People can sense leadership authenticity and character. These two elements are indispensable prerequisites of trust, the hard currency of intelligent, effective leadership.
Personal Growth and Continuous Improvement
Her commitment to her cause required Mother Teresa to embrace personal growth despite having no access to formal leadership training programs. Nonetheless, she experienced learning, spiritual development, and adaptability as integral parts of the daily realities of her life.
She ensured personal growth by:
- Cultivating her virtues. Mother Teresa appreciated compassion, love, and humility as her strengths and focused intentionally on developing these virtues.
- Encouraging and empowering others. Mother Teresa started a Catholic Order at a time when Orders were shrinking. The Missionaries of Charity now has over 4,500 nuns in 133 countries. She inspired others to follow in her footsteps. According to a sister who worked with her, she took an active role in guiding and encouraging novitiates.
- Learning from experience. Her direct engagement with the people she helped allowed her to accrue insights that shaped how she approached her mission.
- Learning from critique. In the face of the criticism she received during her lifetime about her approach to fighting poverty and the quality of care in the Missionaries of Charity facilities, she remained willing to engage with her critics.
Mother Teresa’s path of personal growth took her through life-altering moments of self-reflection that helped her strengthen her resolve and defeat doubt.
One such moment occurred in 1946 during a train journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling. This moment of revelation, to which she later referred as “the call within a call,” inspired her to make it her life’s mission and purpose to help the downtrodden.
Her battles with “spiritual darkness” and her eventual triumph over this personal crisis strengthened her resolve, allowing her to achieve clarity of purpose and faith.
Like today’s leaders, Mother Teresa used introspection to grow and improve. As a leadership coaching professional, I can fully appreciate the impact and value of this exercise. I see self-awareness and introspection as two of the cornerstones of effective leadership development.
Lessons for Today’s Business Leaders
Mother Teresa’s leadership principles revolve around serving others. As an archetypal servant leader, she desired to serve others, seeing it as the purpose of her life and leadership.
Servant leadership is a particularly effective form of leadership.
Servant leadership is a peculiar approach to leadership, focusing on putting others first, gaining their trust, and inspiring and empowering people.
Always adhering to the core principles of servant leadership, Mother Teresa:
- Focused on identifying and meeting the needs of others
- Offered physical as well as emotional and spiritual support
- Stayed humble despite the multitude of accolades she had earned over the years
- Focused on developing others through education, healthcare, and other development-focused initiatives
- Extended her services to everyone, regardless of social status
- Led by example, offering support for the dying and caring for the sick herself
Mother Teresa’s leadership integrity has been an inspiration for generations of leaders and leadership coaching professionals, including yours truly. Her consistency in thought and action and the perfect alignment of her values and actions are overflowing sources of positive leadership references for those looking to exercise leadership through service.
Applying Mother Teresa’s Wisdom
Mother Teresa’s lessons in leadership integrity transcend time and space. They are like the basic tenets of servant leadership: forever valid and effective. It is relatively straightforward to translate these lessons to modern, intelligent leadership.
Here’s what leaders can do to incorporate Mother Teresa’s wisdom into their leadership:
- Putting people first. True leaders value people more than titles and material possessions. They respect everyone and understand the value of individual contributions to the organizational cause.
- Serving with compassion. Through their compassion and genuine interest in people, intelligent leaders build positive work environments, organizational cultures, and meaningful relationships.
- Practicing resilience. The ability to absorb setbacks and derive lessons from them is a sign of leadership maturity. Resilience enables leaders to persevere and inspire their followers.
- Embracing humility. Humility allows leaders to recognize their limitations and value others for their contributions. Humble leaders create open, learning-oriented organizational cultures where collaboration thrives.
- Listening actively. Like Mother Teresa, intelligent leaders are sensitive to the pains and needs of their followers. They are curious about the aspirations and concerns of their team members, fostering a sense of belonging and loyalty.
It is never too late to embark on a journey of authentic leadership and intelligent leadership-aligned personal growth. Leadership authenticity creates better organizational cultures and more productive workforces.
With her ability to influence and inspire others through words and action, Mother Teresa has set an enduring example of servant, humanitarian leadership. Her unwavering character and inspirational path to personal growth have made her an icon of authentic leadership.
Focusing on authentic leadership is the only way to attain meaningful personal growth as a leader. People sense authenticity and respond to it. An authentic leadership character is the foundation of solid, inspirational leadership traits and abilities.
Applying the leadership principles that Mother Teresa embodies is akin to applying the principles of servant leadership. Servant leadership can ensure that your organization will survive and thrive in the future, irrespective of the challenges it must face.