Mother Teresa, CEO: Pay Attention to the Janitor

[Editor’s Note: As part of our current book club on Mother Teresa, CEO, we invited a number of faith leaders to a mini-symposia on faith and leadership.  Each participant was asked to comment on one of the eight “Teresa Principles” for practical leadership raised in the book.  Our first post is from the Dr. Mark D. Roberts, Senior Director and Scholar in Residence for Laity Lodge.]

As a participant in the Patheos Book Club, I recently read Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership by Ruma Bose and Lou Faust. This book focuses on eight basic leadership principles derived from Mother Teresa’s work with the Missionaries of Charity, an organization that focuses on caring for the poorest of the poor. The authors, Bose and Faust, believe that these principles can be employed by leaders in a wide variety of settings, to great effect. (Bose knew Mother Teresa and worked in her organization. Faust is Bose’s business mentor.)

In this post, I want to consider Principle 7: “Pay attention to the janitor – Everyone has value.” The authors explain: “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.” It comes as no surprise that the woman you dedicated her life to loving the poorest of the poor valued all people, not just the rich, famous, and powerful.

The authors ask: “How do you make people feel valued?” Their answer, based on Mother Teresa: “Pay attention to them! Acknowledge who they are. Ask them questions. Know their names. If you are a leader in your organization, take the time to remember the names of all the people you meet.” This will pay rich dividends, according to co-author and business leader Lou Faust:

Valuing your stakeholders is rewarded by loyalty, productivity, efficiency, low turnover, trust, community and investor support, and increased sales. Having a workforce of people who care about each other will translate into a great work environment and superior customer service. These in turn will lead to financial success and move you toward realizing your vision.

Thus, here’s the bottom line:

Pay Attention to the Janitor
• Treat each person with respect
• Each of us wants to feel valued
• The title never matters, the person always does.

My Response to Principle 7

As you might expect, my basic response to Principle 7 is positive. It summarizes what I try to do as a leader. More importantly, it reflects one of the most basic elements of my Christian worldview: the dignity of each human being as created in the image of God.

Yet, I don’t think it’s nearly as easy to put Principle 7 into practice as it might at first seem. Why would this be so hard? In part, it reflects our tendency to see people in light of their value to us, rather than their intrinsic value as human beings. When taken to an extreme, this dehumanizes the people in our lives. But I think it’s fairly normal and even defensible for us to see people through the lens of our own needs and interests. If, for example, you are concerned about ideas that I find important, then I’m apt to want to spend more time listening to you than to the person who prattles on about shopping or sports. Or, if you’re someone who might help in my life’s work, then I would want to hang out with you more than with someone else.

I know this can sound callous, even cynical. But, let’s face it. We all have limitations on our time. I can’t take time to listen to the life stories of every person I meet. Neither can you. Nor could Mother Teresa, for that matter. For sixteen years, I served as pastor of a church of about a thousand people. While I tried to be kind to each person in the church and community, I was continually making choices about how much time to spend with people. I frequently disappointed those who wanted more of me than I could share.

In the context of my work at Laity Lodge, I interact regularly with fifty colleagues, hundreds of retreat participants, and thousands of readers of my Daily Reflections and blog. There is no way I can give all of these people the same kind of deep, personal attention. Life requires us to make choices about who will get one minute, who will get five, and who will get an hour of our attention. I know this sounds crass, but it’s a fact of life.

Now, I can surely treat a one-minute person with respect, and I fully agree that I should do so. But if I were to start treating everyone in my life as one-hour people, then I wouldn’t be able to do the things in life I’m called to do. Moreover, the people who most deserve my attention would lose out, people like my staff and my family.

I’ll bet that Mother Teresa knew this and practiced it all the time. Given the number of people who wanted time with her, the number of opportunities she had to meet with influential individuals and groups, not to mention the number of poor people who lived near her, I expect she had to be very selective about whom she met with and how much time they received.

So, while I fully agree that I should “pay attention to the janitor,” at the same time, I need to think carefully about my time usage in light of my priorities and limitations. And, while I agree that “The title never matters, the person always does,” we should not buy into a naïve idealism that envisions a utopia in which everybody treats everybody else in the same way. Sometimes titles help us to navigate our relationships. For example, the title of “wife” applied to Linda Roberts tells me that I should pay lots of attention to her. The title “Director of Laity Lodge” given to Steven Purcell tells me that I should invest much of my time and energy in him, since I am his supervisor. The title “Vice President and Chief Operating Officer” tells me that David Rogers is my boss who deserves an extra measure of my time and respect.

So, yes, we need to “pay attention to the janitor.” But life requires us to make countless choices about how we pay attention to janitors and bosses and clients and spouses and children and friends and colleagues and neighbors and, well, you name it. This fact in no way excuses treating anyone disrespectfully or unkindly. But it does suggest that we will and should learn to be wise about how we value the people in our lives.

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is Senior Director and Scholar in Residence for Laity Lodge, in the Hill Country of Texas outside of San Antonio. Visit his blog here.

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