Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the Worldby Chris Lowney
Leadership is crucial to building organizations with staying power. In Heroic Leadership, author Chris Lowney examines organizational principles derived from the history and teachings of the Jesuits and applies them to modern corporate culture. Based on the four core values of self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism, this book identifies practices that sixteenth century priests developed to foster strong leaders and achieve longevity.
A Jesuit seminarian turned investment banker, Lowney recognized a tremendous lack of able leaders throughout his seventeen years of multinational management experience. By modeling the Jesuits' success, Lowney shares methods for molding innovative, ambitious leaders in the modern corporate environment.
“Entertaining and well researched, this is a must-read for any business leader, and an inspirational read for anyone who wants to be a better human being.”
—Walter Gubert, Chairman of the investment bank, J. P. Morgan
“Lowney does a wonderfully engaging job of making clear the connections between our current leadership challenges and the principles employed so effectively by the Jesuits.”
—Edward J. Kelly III, President and CEO, Mercantile Bankshares Corporation
“In this absorbing, lucid book, Lowney... explores how the Jesuits have successfully grappled with challenges that test great companies. Reflective business people of faith will find Lowney’s insights a breath of fresh air.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This 450-year-old institution [seems] as current today as it was four centuries ago. Lowney shows us how every employee can and should be a leader and that love-driven leadership does work.”
—Richard K. Green, Former President and COO, Blistex, Inc.
“This informative, fascinating book tells how Jesuits produced both outstanding individual leaders and a culture of leadership. This is a book to be enjoyed, pondered, and put into practice."
- John W. Padberg, S.J., Director, Institute of Jesuit Sources CIP
“In his book, Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney uses the history and tradition of the Jesuit order to articulate a model for authentic, moral leadership. As Governor of Colorado, Heroic Leadership helped me think about how to lead better than any other book out there.”
Bill Ritter, Jr.
Former Governor of Colorado
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Read an Excerpt
Of Jesuits and J. P. Morgan
After living for seven years as a Jesuit seminarian, practicing vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Jesuit general in Rome, I morphed into corporate man. On Friday afternoon, my role model was the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, whose writings reminded us seminarians that “poverty, as the strong wall of the religious life, should be loved.” The following Monday brought a new career in investment banking—and new role models. One managing director lured talented would-be recruits with the tantalizing prospect of becoming “hog-whimperingly rich.” I never quite got the image, but I did get the point.
At first I kept a low profile. My head was often spinning, and even casual conversation left me acutely aware that my background was, to say the least, a bit different from that of my new peers. When fellow new hires regaled colleagues with tales of amorous scores that summer, what was I going to talk about—making my final weeklong silent retreat or purchasing my first non-black suit?
It was my great fortune and privilege to have left the best company in one “business” only to land at the best company in another. J. P. Morgan headed Fortune magazine’s list of most-admired banking companies every year but two of the seventeen I worked there—two facts that, I hasten to add, are coincidentally rather than causally related.
A Leadership Challenge
Mighty though the House of Morgan was, we struggled with a long list of challenges, none of them unique to either J. P. Morgan or the investment banking business. One core issue cropped up again and again: eliciting the leadership from our teams that would enable J. P. Morgan to emerge a winner in a highly competitive industry. I served Morgan as a managing director in Tokyo, Singapore, London, and New York, discovering that our leadership challenge knew no geographic boundaries. I was also fortunate enough to serve successively on the firm’s Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Investment Banking Management Committees, where I, who apprenticed in a seminary, and Management Committee colleagues, who apprenticed in the world’s best business schools, all grappled with the same challenge of recruiting and molding winning teams.
We hired those supersmart, ambitious, and strong-willed people whom Tom Wolfe famously tagged “masters of the universe” in The Bonfire of the Vanities. And like Wolfe’s protagonist, our masters of the universe frequently suffered tragic downfalls. Raw talent and sheer ambition didn’t always translate into long-term success. Many up-and-comers blazed meteoric paths through Morgan skies: first shining brightly in the number-crunching roles assigned to junior “cannon fodder,” then flaming out spectacularly when challenged with the “grown-up” tasks integral to company leadership. Some were terrified of making major decisions; others terrorized anyone who dared make a decision without them. Some were great managers so long as they managed only numbers; their management repertoire didn’t extend to thinking, feeling human beings, who are less easily manipulated than spreadsheets. Ironically, many were uncomfortable with change and with taking personal risks—even though investment banking’s fast pace had lured them to the business in the first place (in addition, of course, to the prospect of hog-whimpering wealth). Not only was the industry highly cyclical, but it was roiled by sweeping fundamental realignment: by the time I left Morgan, every one of the ten largest U.S. banks had been through a transforming merger.
It was clear that only a handful of banks would emerge as winners in our changing, consolidating industry. And the winners likely would be those whose employees could take risks and innovate, who could work smoothly on teams and motivate colleagues, and who could not only cope with change but also spur change. In short, leadership would separate the winners from the losers.
At Morgan, we took whatever initiatives we could to elicit the mindset and behavior we needed. In the course of one such initiative, I experienced a small epiphany. J. P. Morgan was in the process of instituting “360-degree feedback,” a then cutting-edge practice. Annual performance assessments would incorporate input not only from one’s direct manager but from subordinates and peers as well. We proudly thumped our chests as one of the first companies to implement this “best practice” on a broad scale.
Hadn’t I seen this somewhere before? I vaguely recalled a long-ago time in a galaxy far away, when I often dressed in black and when I loved poverty as the “strong wall of the religious life.” The Jesuit company also had a 360-degree feedback system of sorts. In fact, its 360-degree feedback process had been launched approximately 435 years before it caught on at Fortune’s perennially most-admired bank and in the rest of corporate America.
A Centuries-Old Company
Come to think of it, the Jesuits had also grappled—quite successfully—with other vital challenges that confronted J. P. Morgan and still test great companies today: forging seamless multi--national teams, motivating inspired performance, remaining “change ready” and strategically adaptable.
Moreover, the Jesuits were launched into an environment that, though four centuries removed, had telling analogies to our own. New world markets were opening as voyages of discovery established permanent European links to the Americas and Asia. Media technology was evolving: Gutenberg’s printing press had transformed books from luxury goods into more widely accessible media. Traditional approaches and belief systems were questioned or discarded as Protestant reformers mounted the first widespread and permanent “competition” to the Roman Catholic Church. Because the Jesuit company was cast into this increasingly complex and constantly changing world, it’s no great surprise that its organizational architects prized the same mindset and behaviors that modern companies value in today’s similarly tumultuous environments: the abilities to innovate, to remain flexible and adapt constantly, to set ambitious goals, to think globally, to move quickly, to take risks.
As I started to look beyond the obvious fact that an investment bank has a different mission than a religious order, these equally obvious parallels fell into focus. And as I considered Ignatius Loyola and his early Jesuit colleagues in this context, I became convinced that their approach to molding innovative, risk-taking, ambitious, flexible global thinkers worked. In some ways—dare I say it—it worked better than many modern corporate efforts to do the same.
My epiphany provided the impetus for this book. I began this project fascinated by the parallels between two very different moments in history. I was intrigued by the challenge of exploring what sixteenth-century priests might teach us twenty-first-century sophisticates about leadership and about coping with complex, changing environments. I finished the project completely convinced of the value and timeliness of what the early Jesuits have to offer.
Some elements of the Jesuit approach are increasingly finding -validation in recent research—for example, the link between self-awareness and leadership. I’m sure Loyola would be pleased that the research is finally catching up with his intuitions. But we haven’t completely caught up with him, and some aspects of Jesuit-style leadership carry the uncomfortable and even kooky ring common to provocative new ideas. For example, Loyola and his colleagues were convinced that we perform our best in supportive, encouraging, and positively charged environments (so far so good), and so he exhorted his managers to create environments filled with—I say it with trepidation, picturing my hard-charging Morgan ex-colleagues—“greater love than fear.” But after living with the idea of a loving work environment for a while, it seems to me more wise than kooky, and I hope readers will find similar wisdom in Loyola’s ideas after living with them for a while.
What has been most revolutionary and most refreshing for me personally is that these principles address one’s whole life and not merely one’s work life. The Jesuits’ principles made the company better because they made individual Jesuits better. Their principles are rooted in the notions that we’re all leaders and that our whole lives are filled with leadership opportunities. Leadership is not reserved for a few Pooh-Bahs sitting atop large companies, nor do leadership opportunities arise only “on stage” at work. We can be leaders in everything we do—in our work and in our daily lives, when teaching others or learning from others. And most of us do all those things in the course of any given day.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great leaders, and I’m convinced that Ignatius Loyola and his team were great ones as well. That’s the only reason for paying attention to the ideas they offer about leadership. Loyola also happened to be a saint, and he and his Jesuit colleagues were Catholics, priests, and, thus, all men. I’ve tried to refrain from basing judgments on these facts in order to measure them by one criterion only: how well they led themselves and others. Similarly, I ask the reader to shake off whatever positive or negative feelings that he or she may harbor about Loyola’s particular religious beliefs or males-only organization. Whenever possible I’ve stripped overtly religious imagery and phrasings from quotes; Jesuits did not become successful leaders simply by adhering to particular religious beliefs but by the way they lived and worked. And their way of living holds value for everyone, whatever his or her creed.
In the end, Loyola’s latter-day colleagues may be more rankled by the religious content that’s missing from this book than some others will be by the religious content that remains. But Loyola himself established the Jesuit success formula of attacking real-world opportunities with real-world leadership strategies, and colleagues observing him coined the Jesuit maxim “Work as if success depended on your own efforts—but trust as if all depended on God.”1 Loyola’s successor, Diego Laínez, echoed the sentiment in blunter terms: “While it is true that God could speak by the mouth of an ass, this would be considered a miracle. We are tempting God when we expect miracles. This would certainly be the case in a man who lacks common sense but who hopes to be a success merely by praying for it.”2
In the end, I’m confident that readers will give Loyola and his team their due. After all, the “leadership lessons” genre has proven flexible enough to embrace such unlikely gurus as Attila the Hun, Winnie the Pooh, the Mafia Manager, the Founding Fathers, and W. C. Fields. Surely any tent big enough to fit such a cross section of leaders also has room for a sixteenth-century priest and his -colleagues!
Why the Jesuits?
Founded in 1540 by ten men with no capital and no business plan, the Jesuits built, within little more than a generation, the world’s most influential company of its kind. As confidants to European monarchs, China’s Ming emperor, the Japanese shogun, and the Mughal emperor in India, they boasted a Rolodex unmatched by that of any commercial, religious, or government entity. Yet, infused with restless energy, Jesuits seemed less content at imperial courts than out testing imperial frontiers. Though their journeys deposited them at the very ends of the world as then known to Europeans, they invariably probed each boundary to understand what lay beyond it. Jesuit explorers were among the first Europeans to cross the Himalayas and enter Tibet, to paddle to the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and to chart the Upper Mississippi River.
Their colleagues back in Europe focused the same will to achieve and intense energy on building what would become the world’s largest higher-education network. With exactly no experience running schools, they somehow managed to have more than thirty colleges up and running within a decade. By the late eighteenth century, seven hundred secondary schools and colleges sprawled across five continents. By one estimate, Jesuits were educating nearly 20 percent of all Europeans pursuing a classical higher education.
Jesuits in Europe and their colleagues farther afield leveraged one another’s efforts in a richly symbiotic relationship. Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians in Rome supplied Jesuits in China with the technical know-how to win unprecedented prestige and influence in that country—as heads of the astronomical bureau, reformers of the calendar, and personal advisers to the emperor. Jesuits in remote outposts more than repaid any favors of their European colleagues by enabling them to burnish their corporate mystique as scholars and pioneers who were plugged in all over the world. French Jesuits proudly presented King Louis XV with a copper-plated edition of the first comprehensive atlas of China, prepared by French colleagues in China at the emperor’s behest. Educated Europeans eagerly learned about Asia, Africa, and the Americas through nearly a thousand works of natural history and geography penned by Jesuits all over the globe.
Their coups were by no means only academic. Though religious strife bitterly divided Protestants and Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe, fever sufferers of all religious persuasions gratefully used the quinine distilled from what widely became known as Jesuit’s bark, while benzoin-based Jesuit’s drops soothed those afflicted with skin irritations. Jesuits had learned of both herbal medicines from indigenous new world populations.
This innovative, wide-ranging Jesuit company still exists. Once dwarfed by larger religious orders, it has long since become the world’s largest religious order.3 Its twenty-one thousand professionals run two thousand institutions in more than a hundred countries.4 More than 450 years have passed since its founding; this longevity alone is a remarkable testament to success in the Darwinian corporate environment. The Jesuits are marching inexorably toward their five hundredth anniversary; by comparison, a mere sixteen of the hundred largest American companies of the year 1900 survived long enough to celebrate a centennial.
Why were, and why are, these Jesuits successful? What spurred their creativity, energy, and innovation? How have they succeeded while so many other companies and organizations have long since fallen by the wayside?
Four Pillars of Success
What often passes for leadership today is a shallow substitution of technique for substance. Jesuits eschewed a flashy leadership style to focus instead on engendering four unique values that created leadership substance:
In other words, Jesuits equipped their recruits to succeed by molding them into leaders who
• understood their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview
• confidently innovated and adapted to embrace a changing world
• engaged others with a positive, loving attitude
• energized themselves and others through heroic ambitions
Moreover, Jesuits trained every recruit to lead, convinced that all leadership begins with self-leadership.
This four-pillared formula still molds Jesuit leaders today. And the formula can mold leaders in all areas of life and work.
This book examines not only what made sixteenth-century Jesuits successful but also who leaders are and how they are molded in every generation—including our own. The Jesuit founders launched their company into a complex world that had probably changed as much in fifty years as it had over the previous thou-sand. Sound familiar? They speak to us not as experts in dealing with an antiquated sixteenth-century landscape but as experts in eliciting confident performance despite uncomfortably shifting landscapes—in whatever century.
This book looks closely at what made the early Jesuits successful and then relates that wisdom to the person or organization today who wants to learn and to practice effective, whole-person leadership.
Succeeding chapters explore the four Jesuit principles in greater detail, illustrating each with anecdotes drawn from Jesuit history. Some stories fit familiar perceptions of what priests do for a living; others certainly don’t. Nor does every story show the Jesuits at their best; equally illuminative are the instances when they failed their own leadership principles. Even great companies stumble, and Jesuit stumbles proved particularly spectacular. Their high-profile tactics and successes regularly won them almost as many enemies as admirers. An exasperated John Adams once vented to Thomas Jefferson, “If ever any congregation of men could merit perdition on earth and in hell, it is the company of Loyola. Our system however of religious liberty must afford them an asylum.”5 Not every nation proved as tolerant as “the land of the free.” By 1773, the Jesuits’ growing ranks of detractors caught up with them, winning papal approval for their total global suppression. Hundreds of Jesuits were jailed or executed; others were deported to wander Europe as refugees. (The story of the great suppression is detailed in chapter 10.)
Most readers already know that this disastrous suppression did not end Jesuit history. Indeed, if ever there was a striking display of leadership, it was the company’s phoenixlike resurgence after a forty-year suspended animation. Our Jesuit leadership story will draw anecdotes from the two-hundred-odd years from their -founding through the suppression, a period I’ll arbitrarily call early Jesuit history.
The very last thing these early Jesuits would have considered themselves to be was leadership pundits. They rarely if ever used the word leadership as management consultants might employ that term today. Instead of talking about leadership, they lived it. The following chapter outlines their unique leadership values in greater detail, values that differ starkly from what’s bandied about in today’s crowded field of leadership gurudom. The next chapter also explores the dire need for greater personal leadership throughout our society, and contrasts three popular contemporary leadership stereotypes with the countercultural Jesuit vision of effective leadership.
What Leaders Do
Bookstore shelves today groan with what sometimes resemble indoctrination manuals for some bewildering ta-lismanic cult. Want to become a better leader? Consult any of the current works unlocking the mysteries of the leadership and management arts by revealing “7 miracles,” “12 simple secrets,” “13 fatal errors,” “14 powerful techniques,” “21 irrefutable laws,” “30 truths,” “101 biggest mistakes,” and “1001 ways.”
We’ve long known what “outputs” we want leaders to deliver. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, for more than thirty years a leading commentator on corporate management practices, offers as good and concise a working summary as any of what we think of as a leader’s duties:
• Establishing direction: developing a vision of the future—often the distant future—and strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision
• Aligning people: communicating direction in words and deeds to all those whose cooperation may be needed so as to in-fluence the creation of teams and coalitions that understand the vision and strategies and that accept their validity
• Motivating and inspiring: energizing people to overcome major political, bureaucratic, and resource barriers to change by satisfying basic, but often unfulfilled, human needs.
• [And largely as a result of these first three roles:] Produc[ing] change, often to a dramatic degree1
In other words, the leader figures out where we need to go, points us in the right direction, gets us to agree that we need to get there, and rallies us through the inevitable obstacles that separate us from the promised land.
So we’re pretty sure we know what leadership looks like, and we can pretty easily compile a thousand-item checklist of “secrets,” “irrefutable laws,” and assorted pointers that promise to turn any one of us into effective leaders. Yet oddly enough, given all we think we know, no one seems to believe that our society has the broad leadership it needs. Again Kotter, offering a sorry indictment: “I am completely convinced that most organizations today lack the leadership they need. And the shortfall is often large. I’m not talking about a deficit of 10% but of 200%, 400%, or more in positions up and down the hierarchy.”2 Four hundred percent is a lot. Still, no critics derided Kotter for hyperbolism. No pundit has yet won prominence arguing the contrary, “don’t worry be happy” vision that our companies and organizations are brimming with all the leadership they will ever need. The leadership deficit is widely accepted as real, not hype, and probably with good reason.
So what do we know? We know what we think leaders should do, we know that we have been experiencing a leadership deficit for more than two decades, and we know that a steady stream of leadership prescriptions flows from a wide-open spigot. Yet we’re still a tad shy—try 400 percent shy—of the leadership we need.
The Jesuit Contribution to Leadership Wisdom
What does a collection of sixteenth-century priests possibly bring to this party?
The Jesuit team doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know about what leaders do. Nor do they teach us anything about what leaders achieve.
But they have a lot to say about who leaders are, how leaders live, and how they become leaders in the first place. In so doing, the Jesuits offer a leadership model that flows against the tide of most contemporary leadership models. It rejects quick-fix approaches that equate leadership with mere technique and tactics. Their approach scraps “command and control” models that rely on one great person to lead the rest. It finds leadership opportunities not just at work but also in the ordinary activities of everyday life. The Jesuit approach examines leadership through a very different prism, and refracted through that prism, leadership emerges in a very different light. Four differences stand out:
• We’re all leaders, and we’re leading all the time, well or poorly.
• Leadership springs from within. It’s about who I am as much as what I do.
• Leadership is not an act. It is my life, a way of living.
• I never complete the task of becoming a leader. It’s an ongoing process.
We’re all leaders, and we’re leading all the time
Harry Truman called leadership “the art of persuading people to do what they should have done in the first place.” Good for Harry. But the early Jesuits do him one better. The job of Jesuit managers was not to persuade recruits what to do but to equip them with the skills to discern on their own what needed to be done.
The Jesuit vision that each person possesses untapped leadership potential cuts against the grain of the corporate top-down model that continues to dominate thinking about who leaders are. Although corporate America is expe-riencing a leadership dearth, its leadership model has slowly insinuated itself into most notions of who leaders are. The stereotypical role models are those in charge: company presidents, generals, and coaches. The leader is the one who whips subordinates into the motivated frenzy that propelled Henry V’s inspired, outnumbered soldiers “once more into the breach” for a glorious victory at Harfleur. Dramatic though such depictions may be, they are a bit insidious. They foster what might be called a “1 percent” model of leadership: 1 percent of the team, only 1 percent of the time. Yet the narrow focus on 1 percent of the team, the general, overlooks the challenges facing the other 99 percent, the troops. The even narrower focus on the 1 percent of the time the leader supposedly leads—the peak opportunity at battle’s eve—ignores the other 99 percent of the opportunities he or she has every day to make a leadership impact. That’s 1 percent of the chances to lead enjoyed by 1 percent of the potential leaders, or 1/10,000 of the leadership pie. Think of what’s lost, and imagine the power of capturing that potential.
The early Jesuits were a -little greedier and a little hungrier when leadership pie was served. Throwing aside the blinders that forced people to focus only on those in command as leaders, they developed every recruit to lead. They shunned “one great man” theories of leadership in order to focus on the other 99 percent of the potential leaders.
Everyone is a leader, and everyone is leading all the time—sometimes in immediate, dramatic, and obvious ways, more often in subtle, hard-to-measure ways, but leading nonetheless.
All well and good for the Jesuits, but isn’t “We’re all leaders” mere feel-good sloganeering that conveniently de-fines away the very essence of leadership? After all, if everyone leads, no one follows, and without lots of followers there are no real leaders. “One great man” leadership theories may not be egalitarian, but they reflect the reality of leadership in the real world. Or do they? Most would agree that leaders influence others and pro-duce change. But what kind of influence or change defines leadership? The company president’s bold decision to merge will inevitably be praised as corporate leadership, as will his efforts to identify and develop his company’s promising future leaders. Yet these are two completely different kinds of behavior. The merger creates immediate, material, and obvious impact, while developing subordinates is a subtle initiative that may not pay off for years. Yet few would have trouble recognizing both as displays of leadership, at least when it’s the company president undertaking such initiatives.
But if the president nurturing the company’s future management is a leader, aren’t they also leaders who years earlier taught these same rising corporate stars to read and write and think?
If the general rallying hundreds of troops for a decisive engagement is a leader, aren’t the parents who molded these same troops into conscientious, self-confident adults leaders as well?
If the manager navigating colleagues through a work crisis is a leader, isn’t the person who encourages a friend to tackle a difficult personal problem also a leader?
In sum, who invented the yardstick that measures some as leaders and others as merely teachers, parents, friends, or colleagues? And what are the dividing lines? Does one have to influence at least a hundred people at a time to be a leader? Or will fifty do? And if fifty, what about twenty, ten, or even a single person?
And does a leader’s impact have to become apparent within the hour? Or within a year? Are there not also leaders whose impact is barely perceptible within their own lifetimes but manifests itself a generation later through those they raised, taught, mentored, or coached?
The confusion stems from an inappropriately narrow vision of leaders as only those who are in charge of others and who are -making a transforming impact and who are doing it in short order. And the faster they do it, the more transforming it is, and the more people it affects, the hotter they register on the leadership thermometer.
But the stereotype of top-down, immediate, all-transforming leadership is not the solution; it’s the problem. If only those positioned to direct large teams are leaders, all the rest must be followers. And those labeled followers will inevitably act like followers, sapped of the energy and drive to seize their own leadership chances.
The Jesuit model explodes the “one great man” model for the simple reason that everyone has influence, and everyone projects influence—good or bad, large or small—all the time. A leader seizes all of the available opportunities to influence and make an impact. Circum-stances will present a few -people with world-changing, defining-moment opportunities; most will enjoy no such bigtime opportunities in their lifetimes. Still, leadership is defined not by the scale of the opportunity but by the quality of the response. One cannot control all of one’s circumstances, only one’s responses to those circumstances.
Leadership springs from within; it’s about who I am as much as what I do
Instead of rehashing well-worn tactical lists of what leaders do, the Jesuit approach focuses on who leaders are. No one ever became an effective leader by reading an instruction book, much less by parroting one-size-fits-all rules or maxims.
Rather, a leader’s most compelling leadership tool is who he or she is: a person who understands what he or she values and wants, who is anchored by certain principles, and who faces the world with a consistent outlook. Leadership behavior develops naturally once this internal foundation has been laid. If it hasn’t been, mere technique can never compensate.
A leader’s greatest power is his or her personal vision, communicated by the example of his or her daily life. Vi-sion in this sense refers not to vague messages and mottoes adopted from the corporate lexicon—“bringing good things to life” or being “the supermarket to the world”; instead, vision is intensely personal, the hard-won product of self-reflection: What do I care about? What do I want? How do I fit into the world?
To the chagrin of public relations gurus, company mission statements don’t take root simply because they’ve been elegantly worded. They take root when subordinates see managers take a personal interest in the mission. Beating the competition comes alive for me not when I hear my manager parrot the goal but when I see his or her passionate commitment to winning. More simply, what springs from within makes the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Technique—how to spellbind a team, how to fashion long-term goals, how to establish objectives and win buy-in—can amplify vision, but it can never substitute for it.
Leadership is not an act; it’s a way of living
Leadership is not a job, not a role one plays at work and then puts aside during the commute home in order to relax and enjoy real life. Rather, leadership is the leader’s real life.
The early Jesuits referred often to nuestro modo de proceder, “our way of proceeding,” or in Americanese, “the way we do things.” Certain behaviors fit nuestro modo; others didn’t. No one ever tried to capture nuestro modo in writing, because no one could have and no one needed to. “Our way of proceeding” flowed from a worldview and priorities shared by all members of the Jesuit team. Their way of proceeding was a compass, not a checklist. If you know where you’re heading, the compass is an infinitely more valuable instrument. And so it was for the Jesuits. Thrown into China’s unfamiliar cultural terrain, a Jesuit found that the checklist of tactics that worked in Europe was useless to him in this foreign land. But his “compass”—his way of proceeding—served him well. By knowing what he valued and wanted to achieve, he oriented himself to the new environment, adapting confidently to unfamiliar circumstances.
Becoming a leader is an ongoing process of self-development
The beguiling but misleading promise implicit in “seven steps to becoming a leader” is that one will actually become a leader by completing the steps. Anyone who has tried to lead oneself or a team knows that nothing could be less true. Personal leadership is a never-ending work in progress that draws on continually maturing self-understanding. The external environment evolves and personal circumstances change, as do personal priorities. Some personal strengths erode, even as opportunities arise to develop others. All these changes demand consistent balanced growth and evolution as a leader. For the weak leader, the ongoing process becomes a threat or a chore; a more attractive prospect is to arrive at some imaginary leadership plateau where one coasts and enjoys one’s leadership status. In contrast, the strong leader relishes the opportunity to continue learning about self and the world and looks forward to new discoveries and interests.
An Odd Leadership Definition Compared with Others
All the above makes Ignatius Loyola and his colleagues strange additions to the leadership bookshelf. They certainly look like those we call leaders today. And they do the things we expect leaders to do: innovate, take risks, and produce major change. They would have little trouble establishing their leadership bona fides.
Still, they set themselves apart from the mainstream—sometimes uncomfortably so—by offering a unique vision of who leaders are and how they’re molded. In our instant-gratification culture, there is something alluring about the prospect of buying a book before you board a plane in Chicago and arriving in New York a better leader. The Jesuit team offers no such handy promise. Their vision can’t be distilled to mere technique; it comes with no ready-made list of tactics. They offer us direction but send us away with questions in place of pat, practical, and easily implemented answers. If all leadership is first self-leadership that springs from personal beliefs and attitudes, then each person must first decide what personal leadership legacy he or she wants to leave behind. If our leadership role is continually unfolding, we’ll be making that decision more than once. And if we’re influencing those around us all the time whether we realize it or not, we’re usually not choosing our opportunities to lead; they’re thrust upon us willy-nilly. Our only options are to respond well or to do a lousy job.
But if these early Jesuits are leadership contrarians, they may also be better role models than what’s usually served up to us—for the simple reason that their model was built for real people living real life in the real world. Consider, on the other hand, some of the gurus we’ve consulted for enlightened leadership advice as we embark on the third millennium.
Attila the Hun, a.k.a. the “Scourge of God,” has been celebrated in at least two leadership guides. No doubt, Attila deserves credit as a leader of sorts. He cobbled together a united Hun enterprise from disparate tribes roaming central Europe around A.D. 440. Moreover, he definitively “clarified” the Hun leadership structure by murdering his brother and coleader, Bleda. Secure in his authority, Attila articulated and pursued a clear strategic vision. His Hun horde rampaged Europe from the Rhine to the Caspian Sea, extorting tribute from hapless states in exchange for peace treaties terminating the pillage. He was probably the first entrepreneur to build a successful business on the principle that customers would pay him to stop providing his service.
Attila’s motivational powers must have been impressive, given what he asked his followers to endure. He drove the Huns against larger, better-equipped, technologically superior armies. If his team won, the spoils went largely to Attila and his inner circle. But if he lost, the bottom-rung Huns suffered the consequences disproportionately. When Romans, Franks, and Visigoths joined together to trounce the Huns at the Catalaunian Plains, Attila simply turned his horse around and headed home, leaving behind more than a hundred thousand dead Huns, proportionately one of the most horrifying death tolls in military history.
Attila took this “heads, I win; tails, you lose” management philosophy to the grave: according to legend, those who buried him with his treasure hoard were summarily executed so that the gravesite would never be revealed and looted.
Impressive though Attila’s early extortionate forays may have been, one can hardly cite his Hun organization as a model of sustained excellence. After eight years of largely successful rampage, Attila lost his last two major cam-paigns, and the Hun dynasty began to slowly drift into eclipse even before his death.
The insider turned management consultant
Ignatius Loyola’s historical contemporary Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) has been lionized in at least half a dozen leadership books.
Six books. What did Machiavelli have that poor Loyola didn’t? Certainly not leadership experience. True, Machiavelli’s career started with promise. By age twenty-nine he was already a top bureaucrat in Florence; Loyola was forty-nine when he launched the Jesuits. But Machiavelli’s inner-circle experience was embarrassingly short-lived. He was “downsized” while still in his early forties as soon as the famed Medici family reclaimed power in Florence. A year later he was briefly imprisoned under the probably unfounded suspicion that he was conspiring to overthrow them.
Marginalized and unemployed, Machiavelli had plenty of time to draft The Prince, his primer for would-be leaders intent on -gaining, holding, or using power and the reason for our seemingly insatiable fascination with Machiavelli as a leadership consultant. Though he dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo de Medici in a transparent but unsuccessful attempt to ingratiate himself with the powerful family and reenter politics, the real inspiration for the work was Cesare Borgia. The wunderkind Borgia had been anointed a cardinal at the tender age of seventeen. Was this a remarkable recognition of his budding saintliness? Well, not quite. It turns out that the pope who elevated him also happened to be his father. Like many adolescents who abandon high school jobs upon reaching adulthood, Borgia soon hung up his cardinal’s hat and robes. He got married and then succeeded his murdered older brother as captain general of the papal army. No culprit was ever prosecuted for his brother’s tragic death, although Cesare has been historians’ favorite suspect.
Machiavelli approvingly notes how the cruel, treacherous, and ruthlessly opportunistic Cesare double-crossed a loyal lieutenant, having him murdered and “placed on the public square of Cesena one morning, in two pieces.” A page later Machiavelli says, “Looking over all the duke’s actions, then, I find nothing with which to reproach him; rather, I think I’m right in proposing him . . . as a model.”3
While the reticent Attila spoke little and wrote nothing, Machiavelli left behind numerous choice nuggets of his leadership wisdom:
“If you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.”4
“Those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”5
“You must be a great liar and a hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”6
Well, at least we know where Machiavelli stands on the issue. But is it really where we want our leaders to stand? Is it where you want to stand?
Sports coaches may have become our culture’s most prominent leadership role models. A trip to any average-sized bookstore will be rewarded with at least a dozen invitations to purchase management advice from active or retired coaches. Given this tidal wave of sporting wisdom, it would seem that the challenges faced by coaches must be highly analogous to the challenges we all face in life.
Are they? How many of us live and work in an environment that even remotely resembles professional basketball? The rules of that game rarely change, and then only marginally. Three people with whistles ensure that everyone obeys the rules, stopping play to deliver immediate justice for even miniscule trespasses. Those dissatisfied with or overwhelmed by the course of events can stop things with a time-out, regroup, and head back onto the court.
Every coach is restricted to producing only one product: a championship basketball team. So no one has to worry about being outflanked by competitors introducing new products. (Imagine how relaxed life would have been for record player manu-facturers had there been similar prohibitions against cassette tapes or compact discs.) Nor, in this little world, need anyone -agonize over optimal staffing levels for the company; the optimal staffing level is twelve employees (not eleven, not thirteen—always twelve). The twelve employees always work together in the same location; they work on only one project at a time, and it’s always the same project: beat team X.
The leader’s defining mark is his ability to motivate these twelve employees to work together toward the common goal of winning a basketball game. He draws mightily on his experience, wisdom, and knowledge of the game. But he also employs one other motivational tool: the approximately $80 million he has to spread among the twelve people on his payroll. He provides his least valuable players with approximately $280,000 apiece—as dictated by the NBA’s “minimum wage”—to motivate them to practice and to work hard during each of the eighty-odd games they play a season. This typically leaves him enough to pay better players between $5 million and $10 million apiece to encourage them to dedicate themselves to company success.
Would it be presumptuous to assert that the work environments and life challenges of the overwhelming majority of the 135 million people employed in the civilian labor force in the United States don’t very much resemble the working environment of the professional basketball player?
Although the Jesuits aren’t popularly known as leadership experts, their methods, vision, and longevity make them superior leadership role models to the aforementioned crowd. Unlike Attila’s flash-in-the-pan Huns, the Jesuit team boasts a 450-year legacy of success. While Machiavelli pinned his hopes on one great prince’s ability to lead hapless subjects, the Jesuit team lodged its hopes in the talents of its entire team. And the Jesuits saw these hopes fulfilled in the heroic, innovative performance of their members over centuries and all over the globe. They were as fiercely committed to winning as Attila, but unlike Attila or Machiavelli, they didn’t deem deceit or murder acceptable strategies for winning or holding influence. And unlike professional basketball players, the early Jesuits operated in a rapidly changing world without rules.
A Closer Look at the Four Pillars
What are the Jesuit leadership secrets? How did individual Jesuits become leaders and why were their corporate efforts successful? Four principles stand out. Jesuits became leaders by
• understanding their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview
• confidently innovating and adapting to embrace a changing world
• engaging others with a positive, loving attitude
• energizing themselves and others through heroic ambitions
These four principles don’t come from a Jesuit rule book or leadership instruction manual. It’s pretty certain that no early Jesuits—and no one else in the sixteenth century, for that matter—ever used the word leadership as we understand it today. Nor did they speak explicitly of self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism as four core principles driving their organization. Instead, their leadership principles emerge only as we sift through their words and actions to find those themes that animated them at their most successful. In the early Jesuits’ case, one could do the sifting with a pitchfork: these four themes infused their work and achievements, leap from their writings, and dominated their carefully mapped training program.
These four leadership principles guided individual Jesuits, and the same four formed the basis of Jesuit corporate culture.
Self-awareness: “To order one’s life”
Leaders thrive by understanding who they are and what they value, by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them, and by cultivating the habit of continuous self-reflection and learning.
Only the person who knows what he or she wants can pursue it energetically and inspire others to do so. Only those who have pinpointed their weaknesses can conquer them. Obvious principles, but rarely heeded in practice.
The early Jesuits invented an array of tools and practices to mold self-aware recruits. Cut off for a month from work, friends, news, and even casual conversation, Jesuit trainees dedicated all their energy to a searching self-assessment. Engaging in the Spiritual Exercises was the peak developmental moment of a training regimen that en-compassed everything from scutwork to begging for food and lodging on a solitary long-distance pilgrimage. Recruits emerged from training knowing what they wanted in life, how to get it, and what weaknesses could trip them up.
Self-awareness is never a finished product. Granted, some guiding life values are usually adopted early on and thereafter remain nonnegotiable. But our already complex world keeps changing. Leaders must keep changing as well. Every early Jesuit dedicated an intensively focused week each year to revitalizing his core commitment and assessing his performance during the previous year. Moreover, Jesuit self-awareness techniques accommodated change by instilling in recruits the habit of continuous learning, of daily reflection on activities. These techniques remain relevant today precisely because they were designed to allow busy people to “reflect on the run.” Most reli-gious prior to the Jesuits counted on the cloister walls to help them remain focused and re-collected each day. But Loyola essentially tore down the monastery walls to immerse his Jesuits in the maelstrom of daily life. Once those walls came down, Jesuits had to employ techniques to remain re-collected while all hell was breaking loose around them—just as everyone else has to today.
Centuries later, academic studies are finally catching up to Loyola’s vision and are validating his emphasis on self-awareness. Though executives frequently rise through the ranks on the strength of their technical expertise, raw intelligence, and/or sheer ambition, these traits alone rarely translate into successful long-term leadership performance. Research increasingly suggests that IQ and technical skills are far less crucial to leadership success than is mature self-awareness. In other words, the hard evidence points to the critical soft skills that are encompassed by knowing oneself.
Ingenuity: “The whole world will become our house”
Leaders make themselves and others comfortable in a changing world. They eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner. Anchored by nonnegotiable principles and values, they cultivate the “indifference” that allows them to adapt confidently.
Loyola described the ideal Jesuit as “living with one foot raised”—always ready to respond to emerging opportunities.
Self-awareness is key to successfully living with one foot raised. A leader must rid him- or herself of ingrained habits, prejudices, cultural preferences, and the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude—the baggage that blocks rapid adaptive responses. Of course, not everything is discardable baggage. Core beliefs and values are nonnegotiable, the centering anchor that allows for purposeful change as opposed to aimless drifting on shifting currents. The leader adapts confidently by knowing what’s negotiable and what isn’t.
Our generation has been dizzied by seemingly unending change. Within the last fifty years, a handful of humans has stood on the moon; the Earth-bound majority learned to e-mail friends. The early Jesuits faced equally profound changes. Voyages of discovery had more than tripled the size of the settled world then known to Europeans. Asia and the Americas had begun to appear on the world map—the European version of the world map, that is—first in sketchy outline but with increasing definition over the early decades of the sixteenth century. In Europe, a Protestant reformation sparked by Martin Luther had in one generation ended Roman Catholicism’s monolithic domination of Christendom, winning broad support for new religious ideas and practices. The reformers helped spur the world’s first media revolution. It’s been estimated that Martin Luther alone was responsible for composing one-quarter of all the titles published in Germany over a ten-year period. As Luther and others exploited the full power of the printing press for the first time in its short history, publishers inundated Europe with more books in a fifty-year period than had been published in the previous millennium.
In those troubled times, the Vatican hierarchy vacillated between deer-in-the-headlights paralysis and defensive overreaction to the roiling environment.7 Distracted by other priorities or wallowing in denial, church authorities first allowed Martin Luther’s challenge to fester; then, by summarily excommunicating the dissident monk, they handed him a platform with which he could rally support. While Luther and others swamped Europe with books and pamphlets outlining their reform message, Vatican authorities got busy publishing their first index of banned books.
While the Vatican sputtered in its efforts to halt unwelcome changes, Loyola’s Jesuits plunged headlong into this changing world. In Europe, Vatican officials were condemning the vernacular Bibles and prayer books used in Protestant worship; outside Europe, Jesuits were compiling groundbreaking translating dictionaries for Tamil, Japanese, Vietnamese, and a host of other languages so that they could present their message in local languages through local culture. While a lumbering institutional church squandered nearly a decade in preparations for the Council of Trent—where they would galvanize strategic responses to the Protestant threat—nimbler Jesuits pursued their strategic agenda with greater speed and urgency. Within a decade of identifying higher education as a key priority in the 1540s, they had opened more than thirty colleges around the world.
How did the early Jesuits make themselves so immediately and totally comfortable in a world that had probably changed as much in their lifetimes as it had over the previous thousand years? Jesuits prized personal and corporate agility. They were quick, flexible, open to new ideas. The same set of tools and practices that fostered self-awareness, Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, also instilled “indifference,” freedom from attachments to places and possessions, which could result in inappropriate resistance to movement or change. The “living with one foot raised” message was reinforced constantly: Loyola’s chief lieutenant barnstormed Europe reminding Jesuits that for men open to new and ever changing missions, “the whole world will become [their] house.”8 He meant it literally, urging them to speed, mobility, and rapid response. But he was also describing a mindset for each Jesuit to cultivate.
Love: “With greater love than fear”
Leaders face the world with a confident, healthy sense of themselves as endowed with talent, dignity, and the potential to lead. They find exactly these same attributes in others and passionately commit to honoring and unlocking the potential they find in themselves and in others. They create environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection, and mutual support.
Machiavelli counseled leaders that “to be feared is safer than to be loved.” Unsurprising advice from a man con-vinced that humanity was “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.”
Ignatius Loyola was his polar opposite, counseling Jesuit managers to govern using “all the love and modesty and charity pos-sible” so that teams could thrive in environments of “greater love than fear.”9
This starkly contrasting Jesuit approach stemmed from their starkly contrasting worldview. Whereas Machiavelli beheld a world peopled with fearful, ungrateful deceivers, Jesuits viewed the world through a very different lens: they saw each person as uniquely endowed with talent and dignity. The Jesuits’ behavior flowed from their vision, as Machiavelli’s advice did from his. Love-driven Jesuits worked with passion and courage, whether teaching teenagers or confronting colonialists who abused indigenous peoples in Latin America.
Jesuits remained committed to this vision because it worked. They were energized by working with and for col-leagues who valued, trusted, and supported them. Teams were bound by loyalty and affection, not riddled with backstabbing and second-guessing. The company’s pioneer in Asia, Francis Xavier, eloquently exemplified the depth and far-reaching power of these ties. Crisscrossing Asia, thousands of miles and some years removed from his cofounder colleagues, he drew energy from mere scraps of paper he carried bearing each one’s signature. Why? Their signatures alone reminded him of “the great love which [colleagues] always showed and are still showing toward me.”10 It’s hard to imagine today’s corporate road warriors snapping open briefcases to draw similar energy from the latest memo from headquarters.
Their egalitarian, world-embracing vision enabled Jesuits to create teams that seamlessly blended recruits from European nobility, the world’s poorest families, and most everything in between. Jesuits working in China included nationals from half a dozen countries, all this centuries before the term multinational teams entered the cor-porate lexicon.
Everyone knows that organizations, armies, sports teams, and companies perform best when team members re-spect, value, and trust one another and sacrifice narrow self-interest to support team goals and their colleagues’ success. Individuals perform best when they are respected, valued, and trusted by someone who genuinely cares for their well-being. Loyola was unafraid to call this bundle of winning attitudes “love” and to tap its energizing, unifying power for his Jesuit team. Effective leaders tap its power today as well.
Heroism: “Eliciting great desires”
Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them. Heroes extract gold from the opportunities at hand rather than waiting for golden opportunities to be handed to them.
Management consultants endlessly search for the elusive sure-fire formula to elicit motivated, committed per-formance from individuals and teams. As much as managerial America would like to throw a switch or push a button to ignite a corps of charged-up workers, it doesn’t work that way. There is no on switch for moti-va-tion. Or, more accurately, there is a switch of sorts, but it is on the inside. Ultimately, only each individual can motivate him- or herself.
Loyola once encouraged a Jesuit team in Ferrara, Italy, by saying that they should “endeavor to conceive great resolves and elicit equally great desires.”11 It was not an isolated sentiment. Jesuit culture spurred Jesuits to “elicit great desires” by envisioning heroic objectives. Outstanding personal and team performance resulted, just as it does when athletes, musicians, or managers focus unrelentingly on ambitious goals. Jesuits were also driven by a restless energy, encapsulated in a simple company motto, magis, always something more, something greater. For Jesuit explorers all over the world, magis inspired them to make the first European forays into Tibet, to the headwaters of the Blue Nile, and to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. For Jesuit teachers in hundreds of colleges, magis focused them on providing what was consistently the world’s highest-quality secondary education available—one student at a time, one day at a time. Regardless of what they were doing, they were rooted in the belief that above-and-beyond performance occurred when teams and individuals aimed high.
The Jesuits built their company on this conviction. They looked to enlist total team effort in something that was larger than any one Jesuit. Yet team commitment followed individual commitment. Each recruit first went through the process of personally shaping and owning the team’s goals, of eliciting his own “great desires” and motivating himself.
How did the Jesuits build the most successful religious company in history? And how do individuals become leaders today? By knowing themselves. By innovating to embrace a changing world. By loving self and others. By aiming high.
Self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. Not four techniques, but four principles forming one way of living, one modo de proceder. No early Jesuit succeeded by adopting three and ignoring the fourth. To understand Jesuit leadership, we must first dissect it to study its four core elements and then conclude by reassembling them to bring Jesuit leadership to life. For its real power lies not in the mere sum of its parts but in what results when these four principles reinforce one another in an integrated life.
Later chapters explore each pillar in further detail. But the Jesuit leadership story must begin with the man most responsible for inspiring it: Ignatius Loyola. Loyola’s story, of military man turned public leader, is a familiar archetype, as venerable as George Washington and as fresh as Colin Powell. But Ignatius Loyola’s journey from soldier to company leader defies all stereotypes of how such human transformations happen. His journey to company leadership provokes reflection on the attributes that distinguish true leadership. The following chapter also revisits the unlikely origins of the Jesuit company, founded by a team who had no product, brand, or business plan—but who perceived clearly what they valued and how they wanted those values reflected in their work.
Meet the Author
Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit, served as Managing Director at J.P. Morgan in New York, Tokyo, Singapore, and London for seventeen years. A popular speaker on issues around leadership, he is the author of the best-selling Heroic Living, and he has been featured in Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and FastCompany.com. Lowney currently lives in New York where he is a consultant for the Catholic Medical Mission Board.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I had great expectations for this book, having heard Mr. Lowney speak recently. I was a bit disappointed. The message in the book is very clear and easily accessible. The book itself is very readable, although I found it to be redundant. In my opinion, this book provides more of a history of the Jesuit company than a practical leadership guide. I love history, and very much enjoyed that aspect, I was just hoping for something more.
A thought-provoking yet straightforward book of value to anyone interested in how to make an organization more successful. Whether or not you care for the spiritual aspects of the Jesuits, their extraordinary success from the earliest days and the principles which drove them apply directly to the modern day enterprise and offer lessons that counter many current management techniques. After all, a group that taught its members to be flexible in the face of rapid change, to set ambitious goals, to think globally, and to take risks seems to have had in mind the challenges facing many managers today -- yet those modes of thinking were developed more than 450 years ago. Not author's thunder, but any 10-person start-up with no experience in education which had 30 colleges up and running in a decade -- without modern day communications or transportation -- and then surpassed its competitors to become the largest of its kind, 450 years later boasting 21,000 professionals -- bears taking a look at in an era of 3 year wonders. How did they do it? Read the book.
This is a marvelous book and gives an excellenrt overview on how to draw out the best in ourselves and others using the vision of St Ignatius of Loyola. I highly recommend lt!