Mother Teresa: How do we understand and apply her models of “saintly” leadership?

Mother Teresa was a spiritual leader, a mythic figure in the charity world. As she’s canonized for sainthood in September, it seemed like a good time to review some assessments of her leadership.

Mother_Teresa_01Leading change, “one person at a time….”

Don Jacobson writes that leading one person at a time might seem like a difficult approach, but it might be a leadership wake-up call. “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.”

aholylife_circleLeading integrally, with simple (but not easy) spiritual beliefs at the heart of her relationships…

Kathryn Spink notes in Integral Leadership Review, that “Mother Teresa was not only about “doing”. She founded her order first on the depth of contemplation. As opposed to focus on the future, she insisted that actions needed to be grounded in the present moment and be filled with love. She considered lack of love and charity as this world’s greatest evil. Her beliefs were simple, almost limpid, revolving around a unique principle: loving God and others. Communion and obedience to this Principle gave her the ambition and faith to do something, in fact anything she could, for the poorest of the poorest and lead an organization that answered the most pressing human needs.”

She has inspired a five best leadership lesson list, as have many famous folks, a bit of a stretch (see #3) but still inspiring…. names five leadership lessons we learn from Mother Teresa.
ht_mary_ellen_mark_2_kb_150526-11. Clearly identify your mission. There is no doubt for what Mother Teresa stood for. Knowing what your ultimate goal is and making it as simple as possible helps guide your organization.
2. Know when to draw the line. Mother Teresa was criticized for the choices she made, but her goal was always to stand by her beliefs and get the job done.
3. Get the timing right. Mother Teresa waited 20 years to start the Missionaries of Christ in Calcutta.
4. Embrace doubt. Mother Teresa had doubts and expressed them, but believed that constantly questioning your purpose and reevaluating your mission are crucial to developing as a leader.
5. Follow your call to action. Mother Teresa knew what her life’s calling was. Figure out what role you play and then play it well.

Tired of the leadership canon canonizing the canonized? The Economist compared Mother Teresa to Lady Gaga. As a spiritual celebrity, she’s the angel — Gaga’s the monster, but both of them came into leadership through hard work and stand in celebrity presence with a personal story, a sense of purpose, and a strong group narrative for fans/followers.

Our field, gotta love it! Mother Teresa, pray for us sinners, now and in the hours of our leadership….



  1. Interesting perspective applying concepts of leadership to perhaps fooling and misguiding gullible and needy. A great PR job. Have you read/saw C Hitchens’ view on what ‘Mother Theresa’s’ leadership really means to the poor?


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