May 16, 2005 8:28 am
As dean of the Tuck School of Business part of my job is to make sure that we develop future business leaders. To do that needs a sense of what makes a good leader, and experience shows us that there is no single attribute common to all great leaders.
If I were to create the perfect leader, I’d blend a variety of qualities. I’d include the vision of Thomas Jefferson, the practical creativity of Steve Jobs, the mastery of knowledge of Alan Greenspan, the tenacity of Charles de Gaulle, the focus of Bill Gates, the inspirational abilities of Winston Churchill, the steadfastness of Pope John Paul II and the courage of Martin Luther King. And I’d assign one other quality as well, one that is often overlooked in discussions of leadership. The quality is selflessness, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who better personified it than Mother Teresa.
Starting with no money but inspired by divine providence, which, granted, not every business leader can expect to have on their side, Mother Teresa dedicated her life to alleviating suffering among the poor in the slums of Calcutta. She built the Missionaries of Charity, whose work today, seven years after her death, extends to every continent and most countries. Her selflessness was evident as she gathered the resources she needed to make the Missionaries of Charity succeed.
What stands out for me in looking at what she accomplished was her sense of purpose, her belief in her mission, and her absolute devotion to her cause and to the organisation she created. She had a vision of how to help the poor, and everything else in her life was secondary to fulfilling that vision. Her persona, her cause and her organisation were seamless and free of contradiction - in the language of business, she became the brand.
Whether you saw her on the streets of Calcutta or talking with world leaders at the United Nations or being interviewed by Oprah, you knew what she stood for and why she was there - to find ways to do her work better. Her ability to set aside personal concerns and make a commitment to a cause has much to teach those who aspire to leadership today.
For the most part, the better leaders of business understand the value of selflessness and practise it in running their companies. With families and other commitments, their devotion to their organisations may not be as all-encompassing as Mother Teresa’s, and their causes might not be so lofty, but the best leaders share a kind of comprehensive compulsiveness that puts the health of their organisations first.
Some come by this naturally and some through experience. At Tuck, we teach it. Our culture emphasises team learning, which helps shift the focus from what’s good for the individual to what’s good for the group. It’s great experience for learning to put the mission of an organisation ahead of your personal agenda.
In a twisted sort of way, even the well publicised corporate scandals of recent years reinforce the value of selflessness in running an organisation. It’s common to point to corporate greed as the root cause of these scandals but it wasn’t that simple.
The people running these organisations didn’t simply break the rules out of a need for personal financial gain - they already had more money than they could spend.
Rather, what we see in these scandals are perversions of the ideal of putting the company first. The companies were in trouble, and their leaders used extreme means - lying, distorting, fabricating records - that they felt were justified because they were “helping” the companies survive.
Wanting your company to survive is a worthy goal, but pursuing that while disregarding things like truth, transparency, or the wellbeing of those you employ violates important absolute standards that a well-run company must uphold.
One lesson from these scandals might be that a sense of the larger good is important. We shouldn’t draw too many parallels between running a Fortune 500 company and dedicating your life to eradicating poverty, but it is far easier to make a selfless commitment to an organisation if you genuinely feel that what it does is important for society.
A well run company creates jobs, strengthens communities and improves the economy, and these are among the best things you can do for individuals in society. None of us can be Mother Teresa but we can choose our commitments based on things more important than personal wealth or prestige.
I have no way of knowing whether Mother Teresa, had she been differently inclined, would have been an effective leader of a company such as, say, Microsoft. But if you look at the man behind Microsoft, you find similarities between his approach and hers. You see an organisation launched out of a strong conviction - in this case about the importance of democratising information. You find a leader who was deeply and personally identified with the company’s mission. And you find a man who, I believe, has pursued that mission with a passion that goes well beyond a desire for personal reward - though, certainly, his rewards have been substantial.
Bill Gates may not be Mother Teresa, but in him you see another manifestation of selflessness, which, though it is not the only thing that makes a great leader, is certainly one of the most important.
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