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Taking a page out of the Jesuits’ book

Chris LowneyChris Lowney, renowned author of a book on how the Jesuit understanding of leadership holds valuable lessons for commercial companies, spoke at a number of venues in Ireland last month. Here are some excerpts from one of his entertaining and thought-provoking talks.


In my talk I now plan to set out a leadership style based on the example of the Jesuits….

When the ten Jesuit founders were getting their company started in the 1540s, even though they had no business plan and no very clear idea of the kind of work they would do, they did have a very clear idea of the kind of person they wanted to recruit to join them. One Jesuit, a Spaniard named Jeronimo Nadal, had his own little recruiting slogan of sorts, saying that the Jesuit company needed quamplurimi et quam aptissimi, or in English, as many as possible of the very best. And the start of the Jesuit school system was the result of no master plan to build a global higher education empire, but almost completely an accidental outgrowth of this recruiting vision.

In the early 1500s when the Jesuits were starting, public education was virtually unavailable; perhaps only 1% of Europeans enjoyed the great blessing that you all have of achieving a higher education; you might reflect, incidentally, on how blessed you are to be born at this time in this place, where educational opportunity is so much more widespread. Even today, we all know that there are children who have no more chance of getting themselves educated than I have of going to the moon on a rocket ship. The Jesuit founders, therefore, could not find enough recruits who were well enough educated to be aptissimi, the very best. So the Jesuits opened a school or two to educate their own recruits studying to be priests. Soon after, however, local towns and princes noticed that these Jesuit schools were of far higher quality than anything else available in their regions, so they asked the Jesuits to begin accepting lay students into their schools.

It wasn’t long before Jesuits were opening schools not just for seminarians studying to become Jesuit priests, but also for those who would become government workers, teachers, performing artists, and business persons. Though the focus of their system changed dramatically, its core ambition did not: these were still places where the aptissimi—the very best—were to be molded.

And, of course, that school system succeeded in molding aptissimi as no other privately organized network has in human history. The facts are these: from a standing start, with exactly no experience running schools, the first generation of Jesuits somehow managed to get thirty of them up and running in a decade. It’s hard to think of any companies today that are equally nimble and aggressive. By the mid-eighteenth century it’s been estimated that Jesuits were educating 20% of all Europeans who received a higher education. Fortunately, educational opportunity is today more widespread, and no private network today can claim such market share in education. But Jesuits remain hugely influential educators who administer what remains the largest privately organized system of higher education in the world.
Many here are living proof that this Jesuit educational model still works. You are realizing Mr. Nadal’s sixteenth-century dream that if only they are given the right opportunities, guidance, and resources, talented young persons are capable of turning themselves into aptissimi. Jesuits have educated within the past generation alone, former or current presidents in the US, Mexico, Canada, Philippines, France, Japan, Peru, Nicaragua, and who knows how many other countries. Jesuits have educated so unlikely a combination as President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.
Now, what does it take for an individual to become aptissimi?

I find in Nadal’s statement the fingerprints of what in the book I call the ‘four pillars’ of personal leadership: self-awareness, ingenuity, heroism, and love. Let me elaborate on those briefly.

Self-awareness: to be a leader, you have to know your strengths, weaknesses, values, worldview and the impact you want to make in the world:

Ingenuity: Means confidently innovating and adapting to an ever-changing world. The world will be different tomorrow than it is today, and we have to prepare ourselves not just to succeed in today’s world, but with the positive outlook and ability to keep learning that will allow us to succeed in tomorrow’s world as well.

Love: Engaging others with a positive attitude that unlocks their potential:

Heroism: Leaders energize themselves and others with great ambitions and a passion to excel,

I’m now going to talk about heroism, self-awareness, ingenuity and love, in that order.

HEROISM
Let me now start with heroism, and let me use an anecdote to help you conceive how early-Jesuit style heroism might differ from our stereotypical understanding of what heroic means: as many of you know, the Jesuits operate today what is the world’s largest privately organized, higher education network. But that Jesuit school system was not always the world’s largest, of course, and while it was in its relative sputtering infancy in the late 1500s, one Jesuit named Pedro Ribadeneira had the temerity to write the King of Spain and call the fledgling operation something so important that, “the well being of the whole world and all Christendom” depended on it. That’s a heroic vision if ever there was one! Yet, grounded in reality. Ribadaneira knew what it was like to teach in a school, because listen to what he said in a different context: “It is a repulsive, annoying and burdensome thing to guide and teach and try to control a crowd of young people, who are naturally so frivolous, so restless, so talkative and so unwilling to work, that even their parents cannot keep them at home.”

This Jesuit Ribadeneira, in fact, may have articulated a wonderful model of heroism relevant not only to the teaching profession but in many of our work environments: this idea of immersing oneself squarely in the mucky reality you face each day, yet not losing sight of your guiding vision and fondest hopes. We’ve grown accustomed to associating heroism with extraordinary acts like saving persons trapped in burning buildings or saving comrades in battle. This Jesuit vision is instead proposing that heroism is less about the opportunity at hand – because most of us can’t control the opportunities that life will present us: we may never have the chance to save someone in distress – than it is about the response to the opportunity at hand, which we can always control. The teacher has no guarantee that he or she will make a profound, life-altering impact in a child’s life: his or her heroism is manifest in the commitment to live and work as if he or she might make such a difference, never losing sight of the fullest vision of what teaching can accomplish. This consistency of motivation and vision is exactly what heroes accomplish, whether in dramatic roles or more ordinary roles.

(…)

SELF AWARENESS

Every Jesuit in history, from the founders to the current Jesuits being formed in more than one hundred countries, with no exception in history that I’m aware of, has participated during training in a month-long intense period of personal reflection called the spiritual exercises, during which he is removed completely from the workplace, from reading papers, watching television, talking with friends, or anything that could deter from the intense introspection that becomes their only ‘job responsibility’ for thirty days. These guided meditations, which probably remain the most powerful retreat tool in the Christian world today, were St. Ignatius Loyola’s very practical attempt to translate into a systematic approach the fruits of his own journey to religious understanding. As far as Jesuits are concerned, this is a spiritual and religious experience, but the self-assessment that is taking place makes these exercises a superb leadership bootcamp. For each Jesuit is making a considerable investment in pondering his strengths and weaknesses, his personal values, his outlook on the world.
(…)

Jesuits also learn during this period a wonderfully modern and easy-to-adopt tool for daily updating: for the rest of his life after this month-long upfront investment, each Jesuit follows a daily regimen of three mental pitstops that in aggregate absorb as little as twenty minutes a day. First, ‘upon waking up’ remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for, and remind yourself of your goals – which might be a weakness you want to work on or an objective to achieve. Then, once in the middle of the work day and once at the end of the day, take a few minutes, remind yourself of your blessings, remind yourself of your goals, and mentally scroll through the last few hours to extract lessons learned from your performance.

I think the genius of this simple practice is obvious when we consider its origins. Remember I mentioned that the Jesuits broke radically from existing custom by abandoning the monastic practice of gathering together in chapel multiple times daily in order instead to pursue a much more activist lifestyle. Yet, Ignatius had the incredibly modern insight that we in the 21st century typically overlook: if you and I don’t have the luxury of retreating to chapel multiple times daily like monks, we need to find some other way of keeping ourselves focused and recollected as we bob along each day on a tide of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings without ever pulling back to take stock. I’m sure you’ve seen the fallout from this chaotic lifestyle as I have: the person who gets to the end of the day without ever getting to his or her # 1 priority, or the person who has a meeting go badly at 8:30 and remains distracted about it all day, draining productivity. These are self-awareness problems.

INGENUITY

Having spoken now about heroism and self-awareness, let me touch only briefly on the concept of ingenuity—briefly because it’s intuitively obvious to any 21st century businessperson that ingenuity—the ability to adapt, to be creative, to change course and develop new products or approaches, is absolutely essential in our changing world. During the time I worked at JP Morgan, for example, we once calculated that each year about 1/3 of our revenue was coming from businesses or products that hadn’t even existed five years earlier—in other words, to remain competitive and profitable we basically had to re-create ourselves every few years, and I know most of you are in similarly challenging circumstances. So, when these 16th century Jesuits tell us they have to be change-adaptive, they tell us nothing we don’t already know.
(…)
In other words, we’re only going to be free enough to be true risk-takers, ingenious, adaptive, creative, flexible in our business approaches when we have first identified, come to grips with, and freed ourselves from personal attachments: to the ways we’ve always done it, to our status, to our possessions, to our fear of taking risk, to our particular institutional structures, before. Let me give an example: everyone who has worked in mergers and acquisitions business knows that some mergers that would greatly enhance shareholder value don’t happen simply because one CEO is too attached to his own ego and status and doesn’t want to give up control in a merged entity. The opposite also occurs: lousy mergers occur simply because some ego-attached CEO wants a bigger corporate sandbox.

LOVE

We’ve spoken now about heroism and self-awareness at some length, and so I would like to move on to the value about which anyone from a corporate background would surely be more skeptical: what place could love possibly have in a large company. First of all, let me assure you that I didn’t patrol the hallways of JP Morgan telling my colleagues I loved them, nor am I recommending you do that in your respective workplaces. Anyway, Ignatius told his colleagues that ‘love ought to manifest itself in deeds, not words.’ So let me elaborate on what deeds might show the impact of love in a work, team, or other setting.

How about this for starters as love in action with clear bottom-line impact: surely no corporate leader who loved employees would recklessly gamble their pensions and livelihoods to prop up his or her stock option value, or treat as a personal piggy bank the profits generated by dedicated employees, or blithely wear the “chief executive” mantle while claiming complete ignorance of massive frauds engineered by key lieutenants. Think of all the other kinds of examples in our other environments that would also be applicable here: surely no government worker or politician who loved the citizens he or she was entrusted with serving could engage in the kind of corruption that takes their money and/or deprives them of the government services to which they are entitled.

But all of these examples, legitimate though I believe they are, have a vaguely negative ring, as if love might guide us in the workplace only by saving us from perpetrating outrageous ethical misdeeds. And I would also like to talk about some of the richer, more positive dimensions of love in the workplace.

Let’s start to do so by reflecting on the very word of the word ‘Company.’ I would note that the formal name the Jesuit founders chose for their company was, in their native Spanish, Compania de Jesus, company of Jesus. The word Jesuit was coined later as a kind of nickname. And the way they understood ‘company’ is not what we would typically understand today. Although nowadays the meaning of the word company has been almost completely hijacked by commercial enterprise, recall that the Latin roots of the word are cum panis, ‘together’ and ‘bread’, in other words, a company was the group of people with whom you might ‘break bread’…in the 16th century a ‘company’ would more often refer to a religious group, a military troop, or even a group of friends. These early Jesuits clearly saw themselves as companions of each other, and that this companionship would energize their efforts. The Jesuit compania is offering us the challenge of getting our own companias back to this root concept: groups characterized by mutual support that energizes team members…that might even be fun.

Everyone knows that children learn and perform more productively when they are raised, taught, and mentored by families and teachers and coaches who value them as important and dignified, who set high standards, who create environments of love rather than fear. Why have we somehow convinced ourselves that our adult needs are so different? The best teams I’ve been on have thrived precisely because there was trust, mutual support, real respect for each other’s talents, real interest in helping others succeed, and a willingness to hold each other accountable to high standards so that each of us might realize our fullest personal and team potential.