Feature Article: Integral Leadership: The Case of Mother Teresa

Thierry C. Pauchant and Pierre-Alain Giffard

The reality of Integral Leadership has been exemplified by leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson or Mohandas Gandhi. Mother Teresa is another example on which this article is based. These leaders are perceived today not only as some of the most ethical of the 20 th and 21 st centuries, but also as some of the most efficient, having tackled the deepest scars of our world. These leaders have not only had the capacity to mobilize many followers and to be efficient; they followed themselves their deepest Self and, in the process, helped themselves and others to become more integral.

We are presently studying the Integral Leadership exemplified by Mother Teresa. We will publish our results in a book we call a “leadergraphy”, i.e. a short book written for leaders and leaders-to-be which goes beyond a mere biography. In this book, we describe the integral aspects of her leadership as well as the process and path she has taken to develop herself.   We present below some of our results.

As opposed to many leaders idealized by the business community, Mother Teresa was operating at a spiritual level. This propelled her to create and lead an organization entirely devoted to the love and the service of the poor. Further, she did not want to become herself a leader. She accepted to become one, a serving leader. giving her life and her comfort for the sake of others. “loving until it hurts”, as she liked to say.

In 1946, as she was traveling, she intensely experienced a divine presence, that she called God from her Christian perspective, and felt she was given an “inner command”. She was to leave the comfort of her convent and help the poorest of the poor while living among them:   “It was an order” she declared “to fail it would have been to break faith with God.” Through her faith and obedience to this spiritual calling she achieved what some consider as unachievable for a human being. Colleagues at work saw in her “a mix between a military commander and St. Francis”. For example, when she flew in the war torn West Beirut, a Red Cross officials said, “What stunned everybody was her energy and efficiency.   She saw the problem, felt to her knees, prayed for a few seconds, then she was rattling off a list of the supplies she needed – nappies, plastic pants, chamber pots.”

Differing from many leaders, Mother Teresa’s was simple and humble. She kept no account of the awards heaped upon her: “She accepted them but did so with a profound sense of her own unworthiness and an insistence that she did so only on behalf of the poor.” She was also immensely respectful of others, including their own religion. For example, in all the years she had known her Hindu biographer, Navin Chawla, not once, not even obliquely, did she suggest him a conversion of faith. Her frequent refrain to him was only: “have you begun to pray yet?”   Navin Chawla considers Mother Teresa as one of those rare souls who has transcended all barriers of race, religion, creed and nation:   “She aspires for no kingdom” he said, “no honor, not even salvation or moksha.. (She is) wholly dedicated to the removal of peeda paraayi (the pain of others).” This spirit is quite different from traditional leadership whose goal is often to “win over others”, for the benefice of a group, an organization or a nation.

The way Mother Teresa lead organizations was also quite surprising, going against most current advise in traditional leadership books. For example, she was not afraid of giving up all resources and keep nothing for the future. She was unshakable in her conviction that, as she said, “God provides”.   “Money,” she declared “I never give it a thought.   It always comes.   We do all our work for our Lord.   He must look after us”. Accordingly, she would be attentive to “spiritual signs”. For her, if God did not provide for a given project, it meant that what she was planning to do was not to be, a very different conception of traditional decision-making and strategic planning: “If He wants something done, He must provide us with the means.   If he does not provide us with the means, then it shows that he does not want that particular work. I forget about it.”

Mother Teresa did not get involved in politics as most current leaders do in order to achieve what they want. But she used her influence when it came to promote the respect of human dignity and freedom. For example, when a bill named The Freedom of Religion Bill was proposed by the Indian parliament, an attempt to reinforce a discriminatory legislation, she wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of India: “This new move that is being brought before Parliament under the cover of freedom of religion is false. There is no freedom if a person is not free to choose according to his or her conscience (.). All these years our people have lived together in peace. Now religion is used as a deadly weapon to destroy the love they have for each other, just because some are Christians, some Hindus, some Tribals.”

As a last difference with traditional leadership, 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.

But Mother Teresa was not perfect. She was indeed “one of us”. Her life demonstrates that she had herself to grow, sometimes painfully, in the different dimensions of her life, physical, emotional, intellectual, social, ethical and spiritual. Her life demonstrates that we too could take a similar path towards Integral Leadership. The “leadergraphy” we are working on is not a list of magical recipes. We are conceiving it to be an inspiring book, based on one specific example. We hope it will inspire the men and women working in private and public organizations not to engage themselves in a religious order but to engage themselves in the path of integral development and make a real difference in the world by becoming the best they can be. We are also preparing other “leadergraphies” on other integral leaders.

For more information on this research project:

Spink, Kathryn (1997). Mother Teresa : A Complete Authorized Biography.
HarperSanFrancisco: San Francisco, p. 163.