Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Servant Leadership Exemplified

When considering contemporary religious organizations, perhaps no other well know individual exemplified the concepts of servant leadership more so than Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity.  As a respected leader in the organization for more than 40 years, Mother Teresa led thousands of fellow ministry staff while also giving guidance to innumerable numbers of faithful around the world, (Clucas, 1988). Widely recognized for her humility, charity, courage, and compassion for the poor and powerless, Mother Teresa’s influence continues to inspire commitment to serving the less fortunate today.
Mother Teresa’s calling to a religious vocation developed at a young age.  While she was growing up in Macedonia, she began reading the stories of missionaries who traveled to other countries to care for the needy.  At the age of 12, she decided to devote her life to the service of others, the first of many decisions which highlight Mother Teresa’s lifelong tendency to care for other people more than she cared for herself, (a key, recurring theme within servant leadership). Her altruism and leading-by-doing approach to humanitarian causes worked to generate momentum towards the shared vision of her followers.
As discussed by Smith, Montagno, & Kusmenko (2004), a servant leadership approach can be particularly effective within organizations with a charitable focus.  When examining the relationship between context and the efficacy of different leadership approaches, the authors explain that, “…not-for profit, volunteer, and religious organizations often operate in a more static environment and attract employees who seek opportunities for personal growth, nurturing, and healing.”  In working to expand the ministry to reach more than 100 countries, Mother Teresa’s followers achieved personal growth as they saw their shared vision realized through their efforts on an individual level.  I believe that her cause and her followers benefitted enormously from Mother Teresa’s servant leadership approach and her continual reassurance that challenges, no matter how insurmountable, could not hold back the ministry’s work.  As of 2007, Mother Teresa’s followers in the Missionaries of Charity numbered more than 5000, operating more than 600 missions, schools, clinics, and shelters, all around the world, (Vatican News, 2007).
It seems useful to also consider Mother Teresa’s leadership style as aligning with what Choi would describe as being charismatic.  Choi (2006) explains that, “Charismatic leaders empower their followers by enhancing their perceptions of self-efficacy and their confidence in their ability to overcome obstacles …by functioning as a role model.”  While serving as a role model to her fellow missionaries, the examples of self-sacrifice demonstrated by Mother Teresa were numerous and well documented.  Whether giving away her own sandals to a homeless woman, or fasting for several days to raise awareness of the living conditions in Indian slums, her focus remained on her work, not her own advancement, (Clucas, 1988).  Furthermore, most have described her as being incredibly genuine and able to move people to act with only a few words, another attribute which Choi associates with charisma.  He states that, “…most charismatic leaders…often rely on various rhetorical techniques such as metaphors, analogy, and stories to inculcate ideas into the followers’ minds, so that their message would have a profound impact...” One example that comes to mind of Mother Teresa’s ability to move the public to action with the simplest of words, is her assertion that “peace beings with a smile,” – a simple, yet powerful idea with universal relevance.
It’s clear that Mother Teresa recognized that many looked up to her as a source of inspiration during her life time.  With this admiration came unwanted attention, which she preferred to direct outward into her work.  Instead of accepting credit for the accomplishments of her mission, it seems that her primary objective as a leader was to serve those in need, regardless of her position. Sendjaya & Sarros (2002) describe the servant leader as, “…not the person who promotes himself or herself, but the promoter of others.”  In her role with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa was able to effectively function as both servant and leader, a skill which likely resulted from her infectious optimism and ability to connect with people from all walks of life.

Additional Works Cited:
Burns, J. (1997, March 9). Followers Struggle to Fill Mother Teresa’s Sandals. The New York Times
    Retrieved Online: teresa-s-sandals.html?ref=teresa_mother

Clucas, J., World Leaders Past and Present. (1988, May). Soulful Tributes Retrieved Online:

Mother Teresa of Calcutta. (2002, December). The Vatican News Retrieved Online:

Questions to consider:
1)      Do you see Mother Teresa’s approach to leadership as being situational?  Why or why not?
2)      How can leaders in for-profit organizations apply self-sacrificing concepts demonstrated by charitable
         and religious organization leaders?
3)      Is it always possible to be both a servant and a leader? 

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