The Secrets of Jesuit Leadership

In this age of widely publicized business scandals, it helps to take another look at the values that sustain business leadership. There are innumerable examples of people who managed to build great businesses without delving deep into the process of leadership training.

 

An important contribution can be found in the history of the Society of Jesus, quite possibly the largest and most ancient “enterprise” in the world.  In his book, “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World,” recently published in a Spanish-language edition, Chris Lowney reveals the principles that have enabled Jesuit leaders to run one of the world’s longest surviving, most innovative and most global religious institutions over the course of 450 years. Lowney is an ex-priest and executive of the JPMorgan investment bank.

 

In 1983, Lowney left the Society of Jesus and began a new carrier at JPMorgan. He spent 17 years at that firm as managing director and board member in New York, Tokyo, Singapore and London. His ability to see things from two points of view – both man of faith and knowledgeable business executive – enabled him to lay out the complete story of how, back in the 16th century, 10 men without any funding and no business plan established one of the world’s longest-surviving, most innovative and most global religious institutions. Today, the Society of Jesus comprises 21,000 professional staff members, running some 2,000 institutions in more than one hundred companies. Among the more prominent graduates of its educational system are Bill Clinton, Francois Mitterrand, Antonin Scalia and Fidel Castro.

 

Why have the Jesuits prospered? Why do they continue to prosper? That is the key question the author, currently a consultant to the Catholic Medical Mission Board in New York, tries to answer. According to Lowney, the Jesuits abandoned an ostentatious style of leadership and focused instead on the four values that are the real substance of leadership: Self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism.

 

Ignatius of Loyola and his followers trained their students so that they could win. They trained leaders who “understood their strengths, their weaknesses and their values, and had a vision of the world; embraced change and adapted themselves to a changing world; treated others with love and with a positive attitude; and strengthened themselves by providing them with heroic ambitions,” Lowney writes.

 

Equally important, notes Lowney, the Jesuits trained every novice to become a leader. They were convinced that leadership always begins by learning how to manage yourself. Their principles are not applicable to a mere handful of big company managers. Nor are the opportunities for leadership limited merely to the workplace, Lowney explains. “We can be leaders in everything we do — in work and in daily life, when we teach and when we learn from others; almost all of us do these things during the course of a day.”

 

Lowney admits that Jesuits are not generally perceived as experts in leadership, either by the public or in business literature. Books on leadership usually focus on Attila the Hun, who managed to unite many dispersed tribes, and launched the attack that destroyed Europe, in around 440 A.D. Or they focus on Niccolo Machiavelli, a contemporary of Loyola, who has been extolled in a half-dozen books on leadership. In contrast, Lowney argues that the methods of the “Society,” along with its vision and longevity, make it superior. “Unlike the Huns, who flourished for only a brief period, the Society of Jesus has had 450 years of success. As for Machiavelli, he managed the affairs of a great prince, while the Jesuit team used the talent of an entire group.” Moreover, unlike Attila and Machiavelli, the Jesuits did not consider deceit or assassination acceptable strategies for gaining or using influence.

 

In retrospect, the most visionary and influential innovation of the Jesuits was almost obvious and inevitable, says Lowney. Prior to the Jesuits, individual schools and networks of schools already existed. However, “no organization had established a network on such a grand scale, and with such imagination.” In the book, Lowney writes that global companies are still struggling to incorporate certain practices that were typical of Jesuit schools four centuries ago. These include bringing together multifunctional teams; managing across borders; devising and tirelessly circulating information about ‘best practices;’ and differentiating the organization from competitors by making a commitment to deliver a product of ‘total quality.’

 

The Four Decisive Principles

 

Although the Jesuit religious order had no plan, product or capital, Lowney notes that it had something more valuable. Its founders “had an unconditional dedication to a single way of working and living, a life that included the principles of leadership and self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism.”

 

Neither Loyola nor his followers viewed them as principles of leadership in the sense we use those terms today. Taken as a whole, and reinforced in daily practice, they saw them as a way of doing things — an overall approach to life. Lowney stresses that it is people, not companies “who are aware of themselves. It is human beings, not the organizations they work in, who feel love. Leadership involves making a personal choice.” For example, Loyola attracted some of the most talented people in Europe, not because of his superior intelligence but because of his “appealing approach.” The most appealing thing about Loyola was his ability to help others become leaders. “His way of managing his fellow founders served as a model for the Society. Everyone has a potential for leadership, and true leaders open this potential in others.”

 

As for ‘heroism,’ Lowney says it should not be measured by the scale of opportunities the Society provided, but by the quality of the responses people made to those opportunities. “Heroic leaders do not wait until the great moment arrives. They seize opportunities that are within their reach and extract as much as possible from them. Heroism involves the nobility of committing yourself to a way of life that focuses on goals that are larger than you alone.”

 

For Lowney, ‘ingenuity’ means destroying all provincialism, fear of the unknown, attachment to status and possessions, prejudices and aversion to risk. “Breaking free of the unreasonable attachments that make it harder to take risks or innovate, (a person who aspires to become a leader) prepares for seizing new opportunities in an imaginative way.”

 

“‘Love’ provides purpose and passion to ingenuity and heroism,” says Lowney. It is easy to understand how a loving spirit can help the sort of organization [like the Society] that is dedicated to helping people. However, Lowney also believes that love makes every sort of company stronger. “Love enables any company to welcome every sort of talent, irrespective of religion, race, social position or credentials. Love is the joy of seeing team members succeed.” Leaders motivated by love start from the premise that people will give their best when they work for those who provide genuine support and affection.

 

As Lowney points out, the first step toward heroic leadership is to discover who you are, what you want, and what you are defending. This is the essence of ‘self-awareness,’ and it “establishes and nourishes the other virtues.” This is not something that takes place on only one occasion. “Just as important as the initial evaluation you make of your strengths, weaknesses, values and vision, you have to follow that by making it a daily habit to look inside yourself and examine your conscience.”    

 

How Does One Perform a Leadership Role?

 

According to Lowney, performing a leadership role involves appreciating one’s dignity and potential, recognizing the weaknesses and attachments that block fulfillment of human potential, expressing underlying values, fixing personal goals and forming a world view. That means realizing where you are, what are you looking for and how are you treating others. It also involves the wisdom and value of examining your conscience and getting into the habit of reflecting every day, so you can re-focus priorities and derive lessons from successes and failures.

For Lowney, self-awareness “is the prelude to a productive relationship with the world, and a greater, more heroic sort of leadership.” Leaders choose the impact that they want to produce when they adopt a personal style for moving forward. Whether their mission involves “helping souls,” raising a new generation, composing a symphony, or selling insurance, those who live by the Jesuit style of leadership maintain four principles: Understanding one’s strengths, weaknesses, values and viewpoints about the world; innovating and adapting to a changing world; treating others with a positive, loving attitude; and strengthening both oneself and others with heroic aspirations.”

Those who aspire to become leaders must focus on what is possible in the future. Those leaders who are motivated by love look for potential in themselves and others. “Heroic leaders attempt to shape the future, instead of patiently putting up with what the future brings. And leaders moved by innovation discover ways to realize human potential and turn a vision of the future into reality.”


Leadership always brings risk, Lowney concludes. However, the risks involved were greater for the first Jesuits who followed Loyola, because his leadership and vision were unproven at the time. Not so for those who follow in their footsteps today. “From that day forward, the formula has been put to a test by many generations in several continents and cultures. The four essential foundations all fit together.”

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