BOOK REVIEW: "Mother Teresa, CEO"

When you think back on the life of Mother Teresa, the first words that come to mind might be “Saint of Calcutta’s Slums” or “Caregiver to the Poorest of the Poor,” but, I suspect, that your first association with Mother Teresa is not “Chief Executive Officer” or “CEO.” Nevertheless, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, in their recent book Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership mount a case for us to consider what lessons we may be able to learn by viewing Mother Teresa’s life through the lens of a twenty-first century corporate administrator.

Perhaps most obviously, Mother Teresa — now technically the “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” following her 2003 posthumous beatification by Pope John Paul II (a step on the way toward her likely eventual canonization and official sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church) — was a “CEO” in the sense that she did run a worldwide Roman Catholic religious order: the “Missionaries of Charity,” which she founded in 1948. The authors provocatively (and correctly!) note that this organization, founded by a lowly Albanian nun “conducts operations in over one hundred countries; has a loyal full-time workforce of four thousand; has over one million volunteer team members; is one of the most recognized brands in the world; and has raised and deployed billions of dollars in capital” (ix). In total, Bose and Faust extrapolate eight leadership principals that can be culled from Mother Teresa’s leadership style, but I have been tasked in this book review to concentrate on the eighth and final principle: “Use the Power of Silence.”

As I read this final chapter, I was reminded of a quote from the Philokalia, a Christian spiritual classic in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in which Saint Hesychios wrote that, “If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be. If during your struggle you are as still in your soul as is the spider, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit” (166). Perhaps envisioning Mother Teresa as a spider is counterintuitive, but is this image any more counterintuitive than picturing Mother Teresa — of the humble white and blue sari — as a corporate suit? The invitation of this book is to consider the ways that these counterintuitive angles can allow us to see in ways to which we had previously been blind. Indeed, both spiders and CEOs can be notoriously calculating and blood-thirsty — but just as CEOs at their best can be ethical and inspiring leaders, spiders can reveal to us how patience, stillness, and silence can result in achieving our desired goals. The spider stays strategically still until the the best possible point to make its move. Similarly the efficacious power of silence in Mother Teresa’s life allowed her to hear God’s voice (instead of her own voice or the voice of the world) at a few pivotal, life-altering points — resulting in life-choices that counterintuitively garnered the world’s attention to her small acts of loving-kindness to the least among us. Likewise, the life-changing voice that can paradoxically ‘speak from inner silence’ is precisely the point of the author’s final chapter. (Of course, I must in the same breath qualify that Mother Teresa’s relationship with silence was decidedly complex and complicated.)

Importantly for authenticity, the authors attest to the power of silence, not only in Mother Teresa’s life, but also in their own lives for “quieting in the mind . . . to recognize that many of the answers I need lie within me” (96-7). In a world that too often tells individuals to question their self-worth, to constantly re-evaluate their best judgment, and to always be looking to keep up with their neighbor, silence for Mother Teresa and for us can be a powerful tool for learning to trust your inner voice, your inner judgement, and your inner teacher. In this final chapter, the authors point toward what may be the scariest, riskiest, and ultimately most powerful lessons we can learn from “Mother Teresa, CEO”: as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 46:10, “Be Still and Know that I Am God.”

(For more information on the book, including excerpts, interviews, and other reviews, visit the Patheos Book Club.)

About Carl Gregg
  • Tim Zebo

    If this website has any credibility, Mother Teresa would be the last person you’d want to pick as a role model. She’s likely one of the most UNETHICAL “CEO’s” on the Planet:
    “I worked as a volunteer in one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Calcutta, India for a period of two months at the end of 2008. It was during this time that I was shocked to discover the horrific and negligent manner in which this charity operates and the direct contradiction of the public’s general understanding of their work.
    After further investigation and research, I realized that all of the events I had witnessed amounted to nothing more than a systematic human rights violation and a financial scam of monumental and criminal proportions.”
    For more see: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/the-missionaries-of-charity/

    • Carl Gregg

      Easy there, Tim. I checked out the site to which you linked, but I would have to do a LOT more research from peer-reviewed sources before coming to any final conclusion — although I will grant that others (perhaps most famously Christopher Hitchens — see, for example, http://slate.me/qLyYR0) have done takedowns of Mother Teresa. Also I should add that I typically review the books Patheos chooses to feature in its Book Club, and I will readily admit that I do not have any idea what criteria they use to choose books. It does get me to read books I would in all likelihood not otherwise read, which I see as a good thing for the most part in our increasingly ghettoized world in which folks either watch Fox/Faux News or MSNBC and never the twain shall meet. All that being said, I’m willing to agree that there are some major problems with holding up Mother Teresa as a model, but I’m far from convinced that she was one of the most unethical CEO’s on the planet — because there’s some pretty stiff competition out there of some incredibly corrupt CEOs.


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