Mother Teresa: The Efficiency of Self-Sacrifice

Last 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.”)

Beatification 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.

Thinking 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.

Mother 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 members.

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 impression.

Solzhenitsyn 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 fell.

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 deal.

Political 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.

Non-profit 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 (The Missionary Position, 1995), her work drew the best efforts of a small army of women and the donations of a larger army of well-wishers.

Hitchens’ 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 miracles.

October 22, 2003

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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