One of the finest leaders the world has experienced in the last century is Mother Teresa. This short, frail and unassuming nun chose to make it her life’s work to care for people unable to care for themselves: the sick, the homeless, the outcasts, and the forgotten. Over the course of her life, she worked tirelessly to promote this singular cause. Committed to bringing hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, and dignity to the dying, her resolve in being a light in the lives of those experiencing the darkest of moments is perhaps best captured in this brief story of the time she visited Australia.
Shortly after her arrival in the island nation she traveled to a small Aboriginal reservation where she encountered an extremely poor elderly man. As things would have it, this man suffered from mental illness and as a result, was completely ignored by the people of the small village who did not understand what was wrong with him. As Mother Teresa visited with the destitute man she quickly saw that the only thing dirtier than his clothing was his tiny home, which apparently had not been cleaned in years.
Overwhelmed with compassion the elderly nun implored the man to let her clean his house, wash his clothes, and make his bed. He answered, “I’m okay like this. Let it be.”
But she persisted, telling him “you will be still better of you allow me to do this for you.”
The man finally agreed and Mother Teresa went about cleaning his house and washing his clothes. In the midst of her cleaning she discovered a beautiful old lamp, covered with dust. One can only imagine how many years it had been since it had been lit.
She asked the old man, “Don’t you light your lamp? Don’t you ever use it?”
He quickly answered, “No. No one comes to see me. I have no need to light it. Who would I light it for?”
Mother Teresa quickly responded, “Would you light it every night if one of us would come visit you?”
“Of course,” he replied.
From that day forward sisters from Mother Teresa’s order visited the man ever day.
They routinely cleaned his lamp, as well as his home, and lit the lamp every evening.
Several years after returning to India Mother Teresa received a message from the old man that simply said, “Thank you. The light you brought into my life continues to still shine.”
Anyone familiar with the story of this common nun turned modern day saint, Mother Teresa recognizes she never chose to shine the spotlight on herself. She had no personal need for recognition. Despite the world taking notice of all she was accomplishing serving the poorest of the poor, as evidenced by her being awarded the 1976 Noble Peace Prize, she always turned any attention she received into an opportunity to promote her cause. She willfully set aside the very human tendencies to seek the spotlight and bask in the glow of being singled out for a job well done. Instead, she humbly chose to make being a light to others the hallmark of her life.
The notion that light is life-giving is nothing new to any of us. In fact, from our earliest days in school we are taught that living organisms are naturally drawn to light, as evidenced by plants naturally leaning toward the window. Science actually has a name for this phenomenon. It’s called, The Heliotropic Effect.
This effect is defined as the tendency in all living systems to move toward that which gives life and away from that which depletes life—toward positive energy and away from negative energy. Because all living systems have an inclination toward the positive—for example, people remember and learn positive information faster and more accurately than negative information, perhaps it should be no surprise that human brains are activated more by positivity than by negativity. As Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan reminds us, “leaders that capitalize on the positive, similarly tend to produce life-giving, flourishing outcomes in organizations.”
In a world that seems to value people more for how they look, who they know, what they drive or where they live, people are hungry for leaders willing to transcend superficiality and celebrate originality. We yearn for leaders willing to judge less and serve more. Just as we are desperate for leaders who understand shining the light of positivity can do more to elevate performance, enhance engagement and contribute to creating a healthy culture than virtually anything else. What can you do to be a light to others today? Consider asking yourself:
- Am I doing all I can to express gratitude and appreciation each day to those around me?
- How often and how consistently am I encouraging others to do the same?
- Is there something I can be doing to more effectively build an environment where blunders and mistakes are forgiven and grudges are not held?
- How can I demonstrate and encourage the expression of compassion to those around me?
- How can I encourage more acknowledgment and celebration of successes, both large and small?
As the inspiring and enduring example of noble-laureate Mother Teresa reminds us, the most successful leaders in history choose not to absorb the light but rather, reflect it. They demonstrate through their actions that true satisfaction stems from willfully deflecting the desire to accumulate accolades for ourselves and instead, humbly embracing opportunities to fulfill the legitimate needs of those around us. For in choosing to be a source of positive energy wherever we may be called to serve, we enable those around us to tap into a special reservoir of strength. A reservoir that encourages, empowers and ideally inspires others to become all they are capable of becoming.
Remember, you don’t have to be a saint to add tangible value in the world. All you need to do is be on the lookout for opportunities to be a light in someone’s life so their own light can burn bright enough for the entire world to see.
Why not get started immediately?