Mother Teresa: The Efficiency of Self-Sacrifice

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week, the Vatican celebrated 25 years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy.
It featured the announcement of the beatification of Mother Teresa
— or, as a local television news anchorgirl misread the Teleprompter,
her "beautification." (This gaffe was more than matched
by NBC’s Brian Williams’ announcement — live from Rome! —
on Sunday morning’s "Today Show," that stories regarding
her miracles are under investigation by the Pentagon. Anyway,
I hope this was a gaffe. I think he meant "the Vatican.")

is a prelude to being canonized. In order to be canonized by the
Roman Catholic Church — posthumously declared a saint by
the Pope — a person must have performed at least two miracles
posthumously. I have no idea
whether Mother Teresa ever performed a miracle. I know this much:
when I wrote to her in 1991 about the availability of information
in the United States about practical ways for local Protestant
congregations to adopt her organization’s charitable techniques,
she wrote back. She wrote a letter on a manual typewriter, and
she signed it. No secretary wrote it, I suspect. For anyone running
an organization as large as the Missionaries of Charity to type
a letter to a Protestant bordered on the miraculous. This experience
confirmed what Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in 1988 about her.

about Mother Teresa, as I often do, and realizing that by all
odds she will one day be canonized, I try to sort out the various
characteristics in her of a saint. First of all, contrary to
what might be supposed, otherworldliness is not one of them.
Mother Teresa is very firmly settled here on earth, in time
and in mortality, and her judgments relating thereto have proved
to be quite remarkably shrewd and perceptive. Her practicality
never ceases to amaze me. Thus, she is now responsible for some
two hundred and forty houses in different parts of the world,
including some in places like Yemen and Zagreb, which present
peculiar hazards. The headquarters of a business of comparable
size and distribution would occupy a whole skyscraper, filled
with managerial staff, computers, secretaries, tape machines
and teleprinters tapping away.

Teresa manages without any of this plant and paraphernalia,
dealing with her correspondence in her own hand, usually late
at night, and traveling about the world in the most economically
way possible. (Confessions
of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim
, pp. 135—36).

One report
last weekend said that at the time of her death in 1997, she was
overseeing almost 700 centers of her Missionaries of Charity,
which were operating in over one hundred countries. Her order
has 5,000 nuns. How on earth did she supervise anything this big,
with only a manual typewriter, while traveling and raising millions
of dollars a year? (Please don’t tell me that "it was probably
a portable typewriter.") When someone can do this, she doesn’t
need to perform miracles.

I no more
understand how Mother Teresa ran such a huge international organization
from Calcutta than Malcolm Muggeridge did. It was her calling:
the most important thing she could do in which she was most difficult
to replace. It was also her gift. She, unlike most of us, was
able to match her gift, her calling, and her occupation. When
someone achieves this unique combination of talent and opportunity,
a person can accomplish a great deal.


We hear the
phrase, "What can one person do?" The answer depends
on the person and the opportunities available to that person.

In a recent
interview of Peter Drucker, the management guru, Drucker made
an important point. While she raised millions of dollars, Mother
Teresa’s most valuable contribution was something else: creating
a greater sense of compassion, especially in India
. The money
she raised, compared to the needs at hand, was minimal, he said.
But by captivating people’s hearts and minds, she multiplied total
giving. Drucker was correct.

She served
as a representative agent — of God, she always said. Her
example challenged others. Surely, it challenged the 5,000 women
she recruited. In a generation in which her Church could no longer
recruit the tens of thousands of nuns who had joined in generations
past, her order has always had a waiting list of candidates. In
a generation of nuns who insisted on abandoning the traditional
long black habits in preference for more fashionable attire, her
order merely changed the colors to blue and white.

The Missionaries
of Charity grew out of her vision and leadership. The appeal of
the organization was based on the idea of poverty and service.
This dual appeal has been successful in recruiting committed women
and committed donors.

In the late
1940’s, Communist organizer Douglas Hyde defected to the Roman
Catholic Church. In 1956, Notre Dame University Press published
his classic little book on how Communists in Great Britain recruited
and trained its members in the 1940’s. The book is titled Dedication
and Leadership
. His point was simple: with a great vision
that calls for great sacrifice, you can recruit the best and the
brightest. Lower your sights and your requirements, and you will
not attract them.

He made it
clear that the Communist Party of Great Britain was never intended
to be a mass movement organization. It could not become such a
movement and still maintain its level of commitment among its

In the mid-1980’s,
I came across Hyde’s manual, "Dedication and Leadership Techniques."
It was a long transcript of a seminar that Hyde had given to Catholic
priests. The topic was how the Church could adapt some of the
Communists’ mobilization techniques. I wrote to Hyde and asked
permission to reprint the manual. He refused to allow this. He
offered this reason: the Communists had lost both their vision
and their commitment. He said that his manual would give a false

was saying much the same thing in the mid-1980’s. Within half
a decade, the Berlin wall came down. In 1991, the Soviet Union

The Catholic
Church has always recognized that the degree of dedication and
leadership possessed by a Douglas Hyde or a Mother Teresa is in
very short supply. The Church has been organized to reflect this:
celibacy for nuns and priests, as well as separate orders of priests
— regular (monastics) and secular (parish) — plus the
Vatican’s hierarchy. The Church is run by a man who basically
cannot resign, no matter how frail he becomes.

John Paul
II is no fool. He speaks many languages. He was trained in philosophy.
He grew up under Nazi tyranny and then Communist tyranny. He was
physically vigorous. He knows how terrible he now appears, yet
he cannot bring himself to retreat into isolation, where he could
hide his infirmities from the public. He and the Dali Lama are
not able to retire. The rest of us can. He remains on his post.
The rest of us can gracefully retire.

One person
can accomplish a great deal. Dedication, leadership, and persistence
count for a great deal. We see this in a handful of people who
possess these characteristics. There are more of them out there
than the media cover. But there are fewer of them out there than
the $19.95 self-help books indicate. Not everyone can become a
millionaire. Not everyone should.

There are
no books on "Canonization for Dummies," nor should there
be. But there is no doubt that everyone can strive to be more
like leaders who adopt self-sacrifice as their way of life. I
once saw a forgettable movie in which Stockard Channing uttered
this memorable line: "I always wanted to be somewhere in
between Mother Teresa and Imelda Marcos." Better to model
ourselves by the former than the latter.


Genius helps,
but it’s not crucial. What matters most is sticking to the task,
or as I like to say, sticking to your knitting. Doing the best
job you can do, day after day, always attempting to improve your
performance, whether or not you get a raise, is the key to efficiency.
In your niche in the division of labor, you strive to improve
your mastery of whatever it is you have been assigned. You produce
more with a fixed supply of resources. This is possible because
your ability is not in fixed supply. It can be improved up until
the day that either age or Alzheimer’s gets you.

John Paul
II and Ronald Reagan, more than any other two people, brought
down the Soviet Union. The former now suffers from old age; the
latter suffers from Alzheimer’s. They were both comparatively
old men in 1991, when the USSR went belly-up. I was once told
by a specialist in foreign policy and national defense, Angelo
Codevilla, that in the first few years of Reagan’s Presidency,
the video sequences of Reagan on horseback or chopping wood at
his California ranch undermined the self-confidence of the doddering
leaders of the Soviet Union. I don’t doubt it. Gorbachev, a much
younger man than either Reagan or the old guard, came into power
in 1985, but it was too late for the Soviet system to recover.
Gorbachev came begging, hat in hand, to Western banks and governments,
beginning in 1988.

In 1988,
Gorbachev also made a visit to the Vatican to commemorate the
1000-year anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. One thing
is certain: Stalin would not have made such a journey. That was
when I concluded that the Communists’ rule was just about over
in the USSR.

Nobody ever
figured out how Reagan did it, not even conservatives who seemed
to be close to him in the White House. He kept his cards close
to his vest. He took naps, refused to micro-manage, and gave humorous
yet inspiring speeches. This didn’t seem like much at the time.
It was more than his predecessors or his successors accomplished.
He refused to back down. He told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin
wall. In 1989, the Berlin wall came down.

He was efficient.
How do we know? Because he achieved his goal: to undermine the
USSR and end the Cold War. George Bush in 1989 inherited a done

leaders have different styles, as do entrepreneurs and managers.
But these three features are common to most of them: a clear goal
regarding future results that are outside their own self-interest
("the vision thing," as Bush described it, but never
possessed), an unwavering determination to achieve that goal,
and the ability to gain the support of others in carrying out
the goal. The leader must make use of the division of labor. He
cannot achieve much by himself.

The more
determined the support of one’s followers, the more likely the
targeted outcome. The free market makes use of personal self-interest
in mobilizing people. It does so through the price system. But
there is more to economic success than low prices. There has to
be a shared vision.

The best
case study I have ever read on this phenomenon was written by
a theologian, although readers of his book would never guess this.
The author is R. C. Sproul. The book is titled, Stronger
Than Steel
(1980). It is the story of a middle manager
who was handed the responsibility of saving a near-bankrupt steel-fabricating
firm. The firm had no credit line to tap. It was in the midst
of a strike. Its quality controls were poor. Its reputation was
poor. It had only a few days before it would close its doors.
The man was able to save the company by persuading managers and
workers to start treating each other decently, as men on the same
sinking ship. With no infusion of monetary capital, this infusion
of personal capital — a willingness to cooperate — was
sufficient to make the firm profitable within a year.

The pressures
of the free market — profit and loss — make themselves
felt. The market pressures employees to cooperate with each other
if they want to become successful. Leadership styles differ, but
market pressures stay the same: serve consumers well or else go
out of business.

organizations do not feel market pressures directly. Managers
must serve donors rather than consumers, usually by articulating
the vision of specific donors and by mobilizing resources to implement
that vision. This is what Mother Teresa did. While she has had
a few detractors, most notably the atheist-socialist-materialist
Christopher Hitchens
Missionary Position
, 1995), her work drew the best efforts
of a small army of women and the donations of a larger army of

main complaints are these: (1) her shelters do not provide full
medical care, with physicians, nurses, and diagnostic equipment;
(2) her care-givers encourage the dying to convert to Christianity;
(3) she has an agenda: serving the Roman Catholic Church; (4)
she raises a lot of money. This takes him 96 pages to explain.

The fact
is, we are all dependent on the money and the commitment of others.
The division of labor keeps us alive. Success depends on it.


People ask
me what is the secret of success. I tell them: "You have
to serve someone." Bob Dylan wrote a song about this two
decades ago. That doesn’t mean that the principle isn’t true.

If you want
to be closer to Mother Teresa than to Imelda Marcos, then serve
self-sacrificially. If you do, the money will come. Don’t worry
about sainthood. We need dedicated servants more than we need

22, 2003

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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