Principles of leadership from Mother Teresa

This post about Mother Teresa from May 2014 could hardly draw a starker contrast to last week’s post on maintaining sanity in the face of daily barrages of lying and deception from the highest levels of the American government.

What Mother Teresa can teach school leaders

Knowing my interest in leadership, a friend gave me Mother Teresa, CEO, whose authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, extract 8 principles from Mother Teresa’s work:

1. Dream it simple, say it strong.

“Mother Teresa is one of those humans who had a simple dream that profoundly changed our world. Her dream was helping the poorest of the poor. She began with that vision, then developed a clear plan for making it come true. Everything Mother Teresa did in her life stemmed from defining her vision and aligning and rallying all of her resources and supporters to her goal….

“‘Saying it strong speaks to the constant need for a leader to consistently speak with passion and conviction about her vision for her organization. She also must act in ways aligned with that vision.”

2. To get to the angels, deal with the devil.

“Leaders need to know where to draw their lines. Sometimes you have to compromise. You need to have the courage to decide which compromises are acceptable and which are not. You will not always make the right choices and you will get criticized for them. Mother Teresa was criticized about many of her choices. Her response was to stand by her beliefs and focus on getting her job done.”

3. Wait! Then pick your moment. 

“A balance between action and reflection is critical to keep focused during the emotional ups and downs of leadership. When reflecting, ask yourself if you’re moving toward your vision, laying the groundwork to ensure you are ready once the time is right.”

4. Embrace the power of doubt.

“Doubt isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith. Obstacles are a daily part of life. You can have faith that something good is going to happen, but doubt how you were ever going to get there. When we embark on journeys into the unknown, it is important to acknowledge and process our feelings of doubt. Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your beliefs and free you from that fear.”

5. Discover the joy of discipline.

“In leadership, as in life, discipline is about doing…. Discipline is about the long-term benefit. There is no shortcut or miracle pill. It takes effort and willpower to succeed at business and in life. Procrastination is the enemy of discipline. Mother Teresa believed that if you took care of your small responsibilities, life would reward you with bigger responsibilities.”

6. Communicate in a language people understand.

“Many people approach communication as a matter of consistency, clarity, and presentation style.… Mother Teresa took the opposite approach. To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking.… She used this information to adapt her language, naturally but intentionally, to that of other people, while paying close attention to their responses. Did they understand what she was really saying? Were they open to her words and intentions? Did she need to stop and listen some more?”

7. Pay attention to the janitor.

“One reason Mother Teresa touched people so deeply was that she made them feel heard and valued. She understood that at the most basic level, we all want to feel valued in what we do, whether by our families, our friends, or our colleagues….

“How do you make people feel valued? Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names.”

8. Use the power of silence.

“For a leader, applying the power of silence means clearing your mind and listening to your inner voice. Silence of the mind – stopping your mind – is critical.…

“To silence your mind, begin by eliminating all distractions. If you are in your office, close the door and turn off all devices that would be distracting, such as your cell phone.…

“If you take time to silence your mind regularly, your mind will find the answers you need for every aspect of your life.”

“You don’t have to be a saint to benefit from Mother Teresa’s leadership principles…,” Bose and Faust conclude. “Start today by picking one principle that resonates with you. Implement it and begin to change how you lead your life or your organization. It will make a difference.”

Which of these principles resonates most with you? 

7 Responses to “Principles of leadership from Mother Teresa”


  1. 1 Robert Jackson March 20, 2019 at 5:55 am

    Thanks so much for these, Dennis. They are all very important and excellent reminders to us as leaders. I like, “Pay Attention to the Janitor.” It oozes of the importance of building relationships and leadership is about three things – relationships, relationships, relationships.

  2. 2 Giselle Martin-Kniep March 20, 2019 at 7:12 am

    This is a welcomed and very needed post. Great principles to abide by.

  3. 3 Corrie Gicante March 20, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Thank you Dennis for providing this important and timely post.

  4. 4 jimmi77 March 20, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Very much worth reading and absorbing!

  5. 5 rickrepicky March 21, 2019 at 8:05 am

    Great tips, as always – especially like #1 (focus on mission/vision), # 2 (listen to faculty voices and adjust based on where they are now – does not mean abandon your mission/vision – just means it may take some time to get there) & 8 (we all need quiet time to reflect – the drive to work might be better than the office).

  6. 6 Dennis Sparks March 24, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    My appreciation to all of you for your supportive comments!


  1. 1 From Out There Somewhere – Outtakes Trackback on March 31, 2019 at 7:43 pm

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