excerpt from Lowney, "Heroic Leadership"

“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:

  • self-awareness
  • ingenuity
  • love
  • heroism

“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.

“What does a collection of sixteenth-century priests possibly bring to this party?

“The Jesuit dream 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 bur 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 1 do.
  • Leadership is not an act. It is my life. a way of living.

“We never complete the task of becoming a leader. It’s an ongoing process. 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.”

“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 seems from an (inappropriately harrow 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 nor the solution; it’s the problem. If only those positioned Co 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. Circumstances 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…”

“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 manufacturers 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?”

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 themselyes 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 continous 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 co a searching self-assessment. Engaging in the Spiritual Exercises was the peak developmental moment of a [raining regimen that encompassed 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 religious prior to the Jesuits counted on the cloister walls to help them remain focused and recollected 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 recollected 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 valus 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, chat 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.1 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."' 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 locking 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 convinced that humanity was "ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain," Ignatius Loyola was his polar opposite, counseling Jesuit managers co govern using "all the love and modesty and charity possible" so that teams could thrive in environments of "greater love than fear.'"

This starkly contrasting Jesuit approach stemmed from their starkly contrasting worldview. Whereas Machiave 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 colleagues who valued loyalty. They were energized by working with and for colleagues 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 form 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." It's hard to imagine today's corporate warriors snapping open briefcases to draw similar energy from the latest memo from HQ.

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 corporate lexicon.

Everyone knows that organizations, armies, sports teams, and companies perform best when team members respect, value, and trust one another and sacrifice narrow sell-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 on 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 performance 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 motivation. 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 equally great desires."" 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 seif 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 Syroceder. 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.


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008