The National Catholic Review

The first question that comes to mind about these two eminently sensible books is “who reads them and why?”There must be an audience for the issues addressed. Baker and O’Malley’s Leading With Kindness is one of an exhausting number of books on the topic. Amazon lists 311,487 results under the heading “leadership.” You can choose from titles like Leadership 101, The Indispensable Qualities of Leadership, The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan or that perennial bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People (15 million copies sold since publication in 1937). Chris Lowney’s Heroic Living would probably reach an even higher total in the category “how to lead your life,” and he is also the author of an earlier book, Heroic Leadership. There is readership for leadership.

What should one expect from books about leadership on the path of life or on the fast track at Time-Warner—one of the companies cited as leading with kindness? Based on the explicit claim of the authors and my own assessment of the contents, one should not expect secrets. Successful leadership is not an arcane and esoteric art. Over and over again the authors offer common-sense advice on the need to plan, to tell the truth, to be courageous and to exemplify a host of good behaviors that will make one a success at whatever the task at hand, from leading a mega-corporation to Lowney’s example of a maintenance man who took great pride in polishing floors. The books reiterate basic moral lessons that we have all heard, whether in Aesop’s fables or Spinoza’s Ethics. In the 19th century, British civil servants sent off to manage the empire were instructed to read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics as a guide to leadership.

Given the ubiquity of wisdom on how to lead and live a good life, why do we need these books? I suggest that if they do not reveal, they remind. The reminders come in two principal forms: style and story. Metaphorical style is everywhere. Within two pages Baker and O’Malley advise leaders to consider “pit stops” and “tune ups,” to “change the weather,” avoid promoting folks because they have “been on the bus” or “belong to the right clubs.” Why use metaphor rather than telling folks to rest, refresh, change the corporate culture, avoid promotion just because the individual has been long in the company or belongs to an office clique? Baker and O’Malley characterize leadership as “the distillation of chaos.” The corporate leader is an “artist” who produces “stirring images that capture attention.” Metaphors, by avoiding flat fact, create “stirring images” that offer distance and perspective to illuminate the messy mundane.

Lowney points out that we live in a new world of “change, culture clash, increasing scale and complexity.” No wonder mastering life can also seem like distilling chaos. The reason that leadership and life books proliferate is the same reason that tomes on spirituality abound, or the reason that we listen to the same sermon lesson week after week. The good life and good leadership are not secrets we have not discovered, but we need cheerleading to stay in the game (metaphor) despite changing fortune and complexity. Sum-ming up the struggle in metaphor reminds us of the goal. We chant the metaphoric watchword to encourage us on the march.

It would be unfair, however, to characterize either of these efforts as extended pep talks, replete with memorable phrases that can be pasted to the cubicle wall. Both books ground aphorism in biography. O’Malley and Baker held extensive interviews with some two dozen exemplary leaders, ranging from corporate C.E.O.’s to a university president and the head of the Service Employees International Union. Lowney is a former Jesuit who along life’s course became a successful investment banker at J. P. Morgan. He grounds his lessons not only in the life of St. Ignatius but in stories of various saintly individuals, like Sister Saturnina Devia, who established a school in the slums of Caracas. The leaders and spiritual guides are exemplars of desired conduct and often the source of phrases and instructions in which they sum up the lessons of life and leading. Robert Lane, C.E.O. of John Deere, commenting on success, says: “The moon has no light of its own.” Serving and satisfying customers is the light that illuminates the company. Walter Ciszek, S.J., imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for years, relied on the motto: age quod agis, do what you are doing. Instead of retreating into bitterness and self-pity, Cizsek did what he could do: pray and treat his captors with civility and kindness.

Given the multiple books of advice on achieving success in life and business, an author will seek some novel approach, a model that surprises and persuades like the striking metaphor. O’Malley and Baker stake out the unusual claim that “kindness” is the key to leadership; Lowney advances the cause of a 16th-century spirituality. Both approaches are meant to be surprising. “Kindness” would not seem to have been Genghis Khan’s secret. Machiavelli gets regular play in shrewd advice books for leaders. And there is, of course, Donald Trump, firing folks each week on television. As for the Spiritual Exercises, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles noted that the work is “unprepossessing.” The power of the work is certainly “not due to its literary qualities.... The order of presentation could seem confusing. The succession of meditations is interrupted by sets of rules that might irritate the casual reader.” Given Machiavelli in the wings and Ignatius’ plain style, do these unusual paradigms really work?

Baker and O’Malley create a sort of “apophatic” kindness: Kindness is identified most clearly by what it is not, rather than what it is. Bullying, barking, domineering leadership is finally counter-productive. The essential of “kind” management is not, however, soothing words, but speaking the truth at all times. It is real kindness when we tell an unknowing patient that he has an inoperable cancer. Truth or authenticity becomes the hallmark of kind leadership, because all other leadership gestures can be mere pretense. You can say you put the customer or the employee first, but the bottom line is the only truth.

If “kindness” gets redirected toward truth, Lowney’s advocacy of Ignatius is not directly Christian or even religious. Lowney wants to advocate “holiness” as a goal but not in the contours of a 16th-century saint. Ignatius writes, “We should strongly praise religious institutes, virginity and continence, and marriage too, but not as highly as the former.” As Lowney says, “No mainstream Catholic, starting with the Pope, would suggest that a priestly vocation excels a married person’s.” He goes on, “We live and work in a radically different world than Ignatius...and so, as we make our way from one job to another, the conscientious among us sometimes wonder if we are doing what God would want us to be doing.” Lowney’s answer? “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8). We come around to kindness again.

Lowney expands on what is required by citing the parable of the widow’s mite. Placing her two coppers in the temple treasury, she “put everything she had into it.” Self-giving is kindness, God’s will and the goal for heroic living. Authenticity in corporate leadership is also a form of self-giving to the cause of the enterprise in its manifold moral dimensions: to stockholders, employees and customers. Baker and O’Malley would applaud Lowney’s example of corporate integrity: the decision by Johnson & Johnson to recall all bottles of Tylenol after a bizarre poisoning incident. The widow was out two pennies; J&J lost $750 million. But both showed the sort of self-giving that constitutes the authenticity that is kindness.

There is a long literary tradition behind these two efforts. This is not highfalutin philosophy, but one can find precursors in serious thinkers whose primary interest was prudent living: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Francis Bacon. A recent translation of Marcus Aurelius was entitled The Emperor’s Handbook, and it came with the endorsement of Steve Forbes: “A must read for business leaders.” If I have any lingering doubts about the tradition from Marcus to our modern genre of leadership books, it would be a lesson from Ignatius. The Spiritual Exercises do not shy away from the dark side of the self that seldom appears in sensible advice books. Ignatius speaks of “spiritual desolation” which comes from “true knowledge and understanding of our selves, so that we may have an intimate perception...that it is not within our power to acquire and attain...spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God.” The counselors listed above and their modern counterparts have more confidence in our ability to succeed than the anguish of saints would suggest.

Dennis O’Brien is emeritus president of the University of Rochester, in New York.