The seventh edict for living on my postcard from the Nobel Peace Centre is inspired by Mother Teresa, who said:
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun who dedicated her life to humanitarian actions involving caring for and educating the poor and sick around the world, including the inhabitants of the slums of Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. She personified the ethic of selfless service for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979 and was later canonised by the Catholic Church as St Teresa of Calcutta in 2016.
It’s an interesting idea to act without leaders and I’ve been thinking about what the term ‘leader’ means. Dictionary definitions include: guides, winners, those who break new ground, physically and academically, commanding authorities in a military or battle context, those with influence, i.e, in relation to ideology, religion or other kinds of group, such as political parties, or quite literally those whose role is to go first, e.g. an orchestral conductor. A leader doesn’t necessarily have the title of leader but it is clear from their effect upon others that they hold this role.
The entomological root of the word leader comes from the Anglo Saxon word lode, which in its true sense means ‘course’, a way, route or journey. The word ‘lodestar’ or ‘loadstar’ refers to the polar star, i.e. the star that, throughout recorded history, has guided voyagers and explorers. Leaders are generally associated with guiding, inspiring and directing others in the journey or process towards some defined goal or objective and a certain cultural fixation and romanticism is attached to the role and qualities of a leader.
The following is attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC): “While the advisors of a great leader should be as cold as ice, the leader himself should have fire, a spark of divine madness.” Throughout the football season commentators and pundits voice pretty much the same view of managers and team captains. Political leaders can also described in this way or reviled for not possessing the ideal characteristics.
However, this idealised view of leaders and the importance attributed to their personal qualities is not shared by all. When William Morris, the 19th century poet, designer craftsman and social activist wrote: “no man is good enough to be another man’s master” he was alluding to the fact that men in power cannot be entrusted with unconditional control of other human beings and maybe he is hinting at the inevitable self interest and potential for corruption also? In fact, taking this argument a little further makes me think of the narratives of the abolitionist movement and civil rights in general. Leaders, no matter how heroic and inspired, who challenge the free will and voice of individuals in any way nearly always get found out in time.
Mother Teresa’s urge for individuals to take action and do this ‘person to person’ makes great sense to me. After all, whilst leaders can engage in rhetoric about action and they can certainly inspire what and how action is taken, only individuals, either alone or as part of a group, can actually take action. The choices people make about their actions are fundamental to their sense of control and relative freedom and therefore play an important part in their psychological health and wellbeing. Ideally people in the 21st century and beyond would engage in reasoned, informed and critical thinking and in this way equip themselves with good internal leadership in order to actively navigate their own way through the complex modern world. Education, discussion and real connection with others in one’s own immediate life are most likely to support action that matters, is responsible and makes a difference.