In the summer of 2011, I met Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Amma, the “hugging saint” from India. I was completing my training as a Hatha Yoga instructor, and one of our teacher-training fieldtrips was a visit to Amma’s ashram in San Ramon, California. Amma was making one of her visits to California to give hugs to visitors to the ashram and to hold her sacred event called a “darshan,” where she gives her blessing to participants. I waited in line and received a hug from Amma. Her ushers were rushing us through the process, and before I knew it, I was being pulled away from Amma’s warm embrace. I felt disappointed, unable to enjoy this important moment. Just as I was about to stand up and move aside, Amma reached her hand out to me and brushed my cheek with her finger. I felt electrified. I felt that she had somehow sensed my disappointment, my longing for more time with her. I felt that she was reassuring me that I was seen and loved by her.
This is precisely what it means to be a great leader—to truly see or acknowledge others and to do so lovingly. To love others without reservation is true leadership, in my opinion. In Amma’s presence, I felt that I was witnessing the work (and personally experiencing the impact) of one of the greatest leaders currently walking the earth. Amma truly is a saint, a hugging saint, which makes her all the more wonderful because she offers practical comfort to so many, just by offering her embrace. In this extraordinarily simple way, the giving of hugs, Amma shares love with the world. To date, she has hugged over 33 million people (Mata Amritanandamayi, 2017). In addition to her hugs and darshan, Amma spreads goodwill through her charity and relief work, offering even more practical help and support to many. Included in her charity work are such things as crisis or natural disaster relief, housing, education, healthcare, and nutrition (Mata Amritanandamayi, 2017). Her organization is staffed by dedicated volunteers, no doubt inspired by Amma’s great love and commitment.
I was told during my visit to her ashram in 2011 that Amma endures great physical exhaustion and pain from having to sit for long days, embracing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. This work has affected her back and caused her physical injury, yet she is tireless in her work and efforts, sharing her generous heart with so many people. In reading about her, I also learned that from a young age she knew her calling, she knew that she needed to offer comfort to people, and that by offering them hugs, she could uplift them and in turn uplift the world. As a child, she started hugging people in her hometown in India but eventually she took her work across the globe. Now she travels the world, dispensing these important messages of peace: love and selfless service.
Amma and her work offer us a perfect example of servant leadership. Servant leaders are unique and easy to identify, because their leadership style is fully oriented toward serving other people. They do not operate under the traditional hierarchical structure or model of leadership, where the leader is at the top of the structure and the followers are below (Blanchard, 2017). Instead, these servant-leaders view their followers and those they serve as being equal to (or above) the leader.
Charismatic leaders may inspire and motivate followers by charming them, transactional leaders might achieve goals by emphasizing progress and outcomes, laissez-faire leaders might have a “hands-off” approach and allow followers to chart their own course, and transformational leaders may seek to nurture trust and dedication in followers (Harper, 2012, pp. 23-26). However, servant leaders lead by example—and their example offers a model of how to serve others, how to care for others, and how to put others first, while treating followers as equals and leaders in their own right (Harper, 2012, p. 27; Savel and Munro, 2017). To these servant-leaders, what matters most is what others need, not what the leader wants. While they may view themselves as leaders, what comes first is service to others—their view is always oriented toward the people they serve (Savel and Munro, 2017). This way of working is also a way of being in the world, a lifestyle, or as Richard Savel and Cindy Munro describe it, “a philosophy of life” (p. 99). Seeing Amma and watching her embrace so many people so warmly, I came away with the conviction that, for her, this way of leading is a way of life.
While Savel and Munro (2017) are writing about critical care work (for medical professionals), I believe that servant leadership is important for librarians to consider, because we are in a public service profession, and our work is dedicated to offering support to our communities. While we may have personal and organizational agendas, we are very much concerned with the needs of those we serve, making us servant-leaders, to a certain extent.
Savel and Munro list “humility” as a key quality embodied by servant-leaders (pp. 98-99). The servant-leader recognizes that being humble and committed to others “[are] not [sings] of weakness” (p. 98). Amma embodies this humility. Humility can serve LIS professionals in many contexts, as we recognize our shortcomings and need for more awareness in dealing with diverse individuals and communities. Also, staying oriented toward the needs of those we serve can help us overcome our human bias toward self-interest and self-advancement, especially for those of us in a western, capitalist society that values and celebrates individual and material success. While we may not be able to fully embody servant leadership ourselves, we can strive to emulate it, if not personally then certainly in some of the values, missions, and visions for our information organizations.
Love and selfless service are things we do not often talk about in our workplaces and organizations (Bolman and Deal, 2001, pp. 108-209). “Love is largely absent in the modern corporation. Most managers would never use the word in any context more profound than their feelings about food, films, or games” (p. 109). I think this is very telling, that we can speak of our love for hobbies and houses and favorite devices—and even love for our favorite books and authors, for us library lovers. We can speak of how much we love the library itself, or the profession we have chosen. But can we speak of loving others, of loving those we serve, of showing love to those we meet each day at the library? Can we speak of loving our coworkers?
As Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal put it, “Every organization is a family, whether caring or dysfunctional. Caring begins with knowing—it requires listening, understanding, and accepting. It progresses through a deepening sense of appreciation, respect, and ultimately, love. Love is a willingness to reach out” (p. 108).
Mata Amritanandamayi—Amma—the hugging saint from India is a leader who is not afraid to reach out, to embrace us, to show love. This act of reaching out need not be complex. She reveals that a simple act of lovingkindness and affection—a hug—is not something to fear, it is a gift to offer, a gift to share, a gift to receive—one that so many of us desperately need. We may not be able to be exactly like Amma but we can show kindness, we can do so fearlessly and simply by giving our attention and support to those we serve in our communities.
Blanchard, K. (2017). It’s time for a different leadership model. Chief Learning Officer, 16(6), 14.
Bolman, L.G., and Deal, T.E. (2001). Leading with soul: An uncommon journey of spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley and Sons Inc.
Harper, S. (2012). The Leader Coach: A Model of Multi-Style Leadership. Journal of Practical Consulting, 4(1), 22-31.
Mata Amritanandamayi. (2017, September 4). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Amritanandamayi
Savel, R. H., & Munro, C. L. (2017). Servant leadership: The primacy of service. American Journal of Critical Care, 26(2), 97-99. doi:10.4037/ajcc2017356