What I learned from Mother Teresa

I met Mother Teresa just once. It was a brief but memorable encounter: she shook my hand, and I recall her thanking me, presumably for some of the charity work we’d been doing. But it stuck with me – after all, how often do you shake hands with a modern-day saint?

Giving back has always been a priority in my life. I’ve been involved with non-profit and philanthropic work for more than 30 years now, as both a corporate leader and an on-the-ground volunteer. Meeting Mother Teresa, however, prompted me to reflect on how we should give – not just in formal volunteer initiatives, but as part of our everyday work and life. After observing how she interacted with me and others, I came up with three values that now act as my “North Star” in business, philanthropy, and life all round:

Humility matters because it puts you in your rightful place – which isn’t an especially high one! We recently hosted our Fusion Exchange event in Singapore, an all-day forum about the future of Travel & Spend management. Truth be told, I played only a small role in the event: it was the larger Concur team that worked tirelessly to pull it all together. As a leader, it’s my job – and joy – to acknowledge that when customers inevitably come to congratulate me for the success.

When we practice humility, we recognise the value of others as equal to, or above ourselves.

That positions us to not only work better and achieve more with those around us, but continue to give our best – whether in a troubled project, a struggling charity, or a difficult employee – even when it seems to yield little or no fruit. “If you are humble,” Mother Teresa once said, “nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Know your place, and you can’t be shaken from it.

Gratitude ensures that we act with the right motives. Often, companies and leaders invest in CSR because of how it’ll burnish their reputation amongst customers. While that’s an acceptable reason to do so, I don’t believe it should be the main one. We should be giving back out of gratitude – because we have enough, by the good grace of our circumstances and others’ investments in us, to provide for those in need. If Mother Teresa can say “thank you” to me for my paltry efforts, none of us have an excuse.

The same goes for how we work as well, particularly our relationships with customers. When we’re grateful for receiving their business, we’re much more likely to go the extra mile to support them, whether it’s frequently revisiting their goals or giving them the training they require. At Concur in Asia, we have a renewal rate of around 99% for our T&E services, but I remind my teams constantly not to kid themselves that we’re at the center of the customer universe. It’s hard to separate gratitude from humility.

Giving only makes a difference if it’s done with purposefulness. All of us have a purpose when we give – helping others, building our reputation, raising up the talent we need – but not all of us are purposeful about the process. Purposefulness requires us to clearly know what outcomes we want when we give, and focus on the most effective way of getting there. Habitat for Humanity, which I volunteer at, is an excellent example of this. They want to improve the health, education, and economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities in Asia Pacific. They focus on just one activity – building houses – because it allows them to accomplish all those goals. When we’re purposeful about how we give, we avoid spreading ourselves too thin and make sure our efforts really count.

In the bigger scheme of things, the things we fight for – our ambitions, achievements, and material successes – don’t really count for much. Mother Teresa knew that, and devoted her life to fighting for the needs of others. When we practise in our giving – both at work and outside of it – some of the humility, gratitude, and purposefulness that she exhibited, we end up with a legacy of real worth.

 Madanjit Singh is the Regional Director – South East Asia at Concur Technologies Inc., based in Singapore