11 April 2020
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How did Mother Teresa get away with sticking it to the politically correct?

Someone I know was lamenting that she wasn’t being afforded the respect she thought she was entitled to and it made me think of Mother Teresa and the vindictive, tribal world of Twitter. Yep, it made me wonder if that champion/saviour of lepers in India, Mother Teresa, would have survived the ‘twittersphere’ and its rush to judge.

On a related matter, one of the greatest disappointments of the modern world is that too many people get leadership roles because they look good, they’re not age-challenged, they’re males and fit some formula that the decision-makers think are important to the customers, voters or viewers they’re trying to attract.

It’s no accident that older males in the media seem to have a longer use-by date than mature women, at least in Australia. The Yanks seem to be mindful of the value of women who have been at the corporate, or media, coalface for some time but locally, lots of news services seem to have a hankering for younger attractive females.

I have no real problem with that because it’s swings and roundabouts. The winners of today were the losers of yesteryear, though there are undoubtedly some women who got the rough end of the pineapple when they were younger 20 or 30 years ago and are enduring it again as more mature players in the workforce.

As I’ve said, I have no axe to grind with any one group that’s doing well out of the inequities of business life but I do have a problem with the criteria too many people in power use to choose one person over another.

Ultimately, society is made up of a whole team of leaders from managers, to teachers, to politicians, to media influencers.

And leadership is all about influence. That’s why many ventures fail to live up to their potential, because the wrong influencers get selected by people who should have known better but, in truth, they’ve been influenced by second rate leaders.

This brings me to my Mother Teresa and a story I was told by John Maxwell, who wrote one of my favourite books The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

When I MC’d John around Australia a few years back this one liner really struck me: “Leadership is influence.  Nothing more, nothing less.” And he proved it with this extraordinary story about the Nobel prize winning Mother Teresa.

He always asked the audience: “Can you put two people side by side and automatically tell which one is a better leader? Does a leader always look powerful, demanding or charismatic? And how do you measure the effectiveness of a leader?”

He noted that if we measure leadership on this influence basis “that frail little woman from Calcutta may be among the best leaders to have ever lived.”

Mother Teresa dedicated her life to serving the poor and at the same time was a tremendous leader due to the amazing amount of influence she had on others.

Mother Teresa’s impact reached far beyond the lives she personally touched. People from all walks of life and from nations around the world respected her. When she spoke, people listened.

In his book, John cites the work of author and former presidential speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who wrote about a speech Mother Teresa gave at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. This is what she recalled:

“The Washington establishment was there, plus a few thousand born-again Christians, orthodox Catholics, and Jews.  Mother Teresa spoke of God, of love, of families. She said we must love one another and care for one another. There were great purrs of agreement.

But as the speech continued, it became more pointed. She spoke of unhappy parents in old people’s homes who are “hurt because they are forgotten.” She asked, “Are we willing to give until it hurts in order to be with our families, or do we put our own interests first?”

The baby boomers in the audience began to shift in their seats. And she continued. “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” she said, and told them why, in uncompromising terms.  For about 1.3 seconds there was silence, then applause swept the room. But not everyone clapped; the President and First Lady [Bill and Hillary Clinton], the Vice President and Mrs. Gore looked like seated statues at Madame Tussaud’s, moving not a muscle. Mother Teresa didn’t stop there either. When she was finished, there was almost no one she hadn’t offended.”

John reckons that “anyone else would have been booed, jeered, or stormed out”.

“The media would have persecuted the speaker for her opinion and social media would have blown up with disapproval and labelled her “narrow-mindeded” and “old fashioned”.

But this was not just any speaker. This was Mother Teresa. Because she was so respected and her influence reached across the globe, everyone listened to what this frail little lady from Calcutta had to say, even though many of them vehemently disagreed with it.

Why did she get away with views that many modern day opinion makers would disagree with? Maxwell says: “She was a real leader who lived and led by her example. She knew the power of influence.”

I’m not so sure Mother Teresa would have got off so lightly in the new-age world of Twitter because this digital disrupting business has turned a lot of people into 140-character commentators. However, this story has to make most of us think about how important influence is, and how it should not be doled out to the wrong people, who have a limited capacity to make businesses, families and lives better.

The Kennedy clan in the USA made this line of George Bernard Shaw’s famous but it’s worth cannot be challenged: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

I dream of a day when more people are assessed on their talent, their ability to influence and lead, which offers a whole lot more for businesses and society than selecting people on how they look, whether that be through infirmity, sex, age or race.

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