Influential Past Teachers

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

by Don Jacobson: 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–andshould–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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