At a time when the public and the media are examining the moral compass of politicians and other public leaders, for example through the lobbying revelations of the current government, it is helpful to reflect upon what today’s political leaders can learn from leaders of the past. One such, although surprising, choice of leader to reflect upon is Mother Teresa. She is an interesting choice as she contradicts many of the common traits of today’s political leaders.
Firstly, Mother Teresa was known for her actions rather than for herself as an individual. This is compared to today’s climate where often significant emphasis is placed on the personality of leaders. It was Mother Teresa’s empathy for the poor that first inspired her to begin her journey towards leadership and continued to motivate her throughout her life. She was a strong role model for her followers as she continued to do the same work, helping the poor, despite gaining a significant global public profile. For example, she raffled off a limousine that was donated to her in order to fund a centre for the poor and continued to wear a simple sari and sandals when addressing world leaders. Her approach was to live a life of poverty herself so she could empathise with those whom she was serving. In her diaries, she wrote about how walking until her legs ached when looking for a home allowed her to empathise with how the poor felt. Whilst politicians regularly like to give the impression that they are rooted in the communities they serve, Mother Teresa challenges them to genuinely empathise with those who will be impacted by the policies they enact
Secondly, Mother Teresa did not aspire to be a leader but became one as a consequence of followers joining her in her mission of improving the lives of the poor. Again, this is the opposite of many leaders in today’s society in which being a leader is often the overarching motivation itself. What made her a leader, by accident rather than design, was her clear and compelling vision of eliminating poverty from the world. Very quickly after beginning her work in Calcutta, people joined her and donated towards her vision due to the persuasive nature of Mother Teresa’s actions. This led to her work being scaled-up across India and then globally. Mother Teresa’s enthusiasm inspired followers and instilled in them a confidence that her vision was worth working towards. Mobilising action in followers via inspiration rather than compliance is an important characteristic for today’s politician to reflect upon in achieving change through an appropriate balance between legislation and action of people’s own choice.
Thirdly, Mother Teresa reminds leaders of the value of community in working towards a common aim. It was the building of communities that allowed Mother Teresa’s work to grow at pace from tending to the poor on the streets of Calcutta by herself to communities being established in nearly every country of the world. This allowed Mother Teresa’s mission of eliminating poverty to be delivered at scale and its delivery approach to be adapted to many different contexts. The increasing globalised world and the value of community demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, should encourage politicians that it is through an increasingly ‘communal’ not ‘individualised’ society that a more prosperous and equitable society will be achieved.
Fourthly, Mother Teresa encourages leaders to be bold in challenging norms. Examples of Mother Teresa’s counterculture behaviours included establishing communities in countries where religious gatherings were illegal, such as in Cuba and the former Soviet Union, and opening her first centre for AIDs patients in New York a city at the time where people with HIV were severely ostracised. These examples should encourage politicians that being a leader does not have to be popularity contest but instead leaders should be prepared to be bold and think radically where needed in achieving their vision. Whilst this is easier said than done for politicians whose future is always reliant on being elected in the near future, Mother Teresa does provide helpful encouragement to politicians that the electorate can often respect the bold actions of politicians even if they don’t always agree with them.
There are some key lessons for political leaders that can be drawn from Mother Teresa’s leadership. Firstly, it challenges politicians, and indeed all leaders, to be remembered for their actions rather than for their persona. Whilst this is challenging in today’s personality-focused society, Mother Teresa models how having empathy with those you serve can keep the focus on your actions and not on yourself. Secondly, Mother Teresa encourages politicians to focus on having a compelling vision that inspires people rather than placing their efforts on how to get people to ‘follow the rules’. Thirdly, the fact that Mother Teresa’s work achieved global scale through communities, reminds policy makers of the value of community in achieving change. Finally, and perhaps the most difficult lesson to implement, Mother Teresa inspires politicians to be bold and challenge norms even when it’s not popular. Overall, Mother Teresa’s leadership demonstrates to politicians, and indeed all of us, that a different style of leadership can still achieve significant change.
Kieran Cooke works in public policy, focusing on improving outcome for young people
Photo credit: Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons