Leading like a Jesuit: Q&A with author Chris Lowney
Chris Lowney is a lay Catholic author, speaker and leadership consultantwho chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives, a health care/hospital system. An alumnus of Regis Jesuit High School in Manhattan, he is also a former managing director of JP Morgan. Mr. Lowney holds a B.A. in history and M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University, as well as multiple honorary degrees.
Mr. Lowney’s four books include Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World (2005)and Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads (2013), both from Loyola Press. Focusing on the Christian leadership models of the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius Loyola, Mr. Lowney is an expert on the “best practices” that Jesuits like Pope Francis employ in their work.
I recently interviewed Mr. Lowney by email about the topic of Ignatian leadership.
How does Ignatian spirituality provide a model for leadership?
I might put it this way: Ignatian spirituality, like all good Christian spirituality, is both a “calling” and a “sending,” so in that respect, it is both following and leading. One is being called to follow Jesus, and at the very same time sent out to lead, that is, to role model a way of living (Jesus’ way) and to influence others positively: That’s the essence of leadership, showing a way and influencing others toward it.
How do you define leadership?
There are too many definitions of leadership! Every pundit who is trying to sell books makes one up. So I prefer to go right to the dictionary. When I do workshops, for example, I use a very simple definition of leadership, right from the dictionary: “to point out a way, direction or goal; and to influence others toward it.”
I like that definition because we can apply it to everyone. It is not just for presidents and chief executives. To be sure, hierarchical leaders certainly must lead under the terms of that definition: A general must “point out a goal” very clearly to the troops and motivate them to move in the right direction. But parents equally are leading by that same definition, because they point out a way and have influence on children.
What does the phrase “Ignatian leadership” mean to you?
I know the phrase “Ignatian leadership” is becoming more and more an “in” phrase to use. But the two words don’t rest real easily together to me. It almost makes it sound as if there is a specific program of leadership that was developed by Ignatius, whereas Ignatius could never have used the word “leadership” as we commonly do today. And using the phrase “Ignatian leadership” can sometimes make it sound as if this is something different from leadership more generally, whereas I would see the Jesuit or Ignatian traditions not as completely different from or opposite to what we normally understand as leadership but instead as helping people to perform the core tasks of leadership very well (and then some).
Now, without a doubt, I believe that Jesuit (or Ignatian) spirituality and the traditions of the Jesuits lend themselves well to manifesting leadership in one’s life and work. And, without a doubt, I feel that someone whose leadership is inspired by the Ignatian tradition will particularly emphasize certain habits or priorities as a leader, in ways that distinguish him/her from the way leadership is generally taught and practiced.
What would be some of those distinguishing characteristics and emphases be? As I would see them, aspects like:
- the importance of formation: leadership is not just learning to do technical tasks (like strategic planning); it also entails a commitment to lifelong self-development
- the importance of deep self-awareness (of coming to know oneself, for example, as happens in the Spiritual Exercises);
- becoming a skilled decision-maker, as happens through the discernment tools of the Exercises;
- committing oneself to purposes bigger than self, to a mission of ultimate meaning (Jesuits often refer to this commitment by the shorthand of “magis,” and I referred to it as “heroism” in Heroic Leadership);
- deep respect for others, what Jesuits might refer to in language like “cura personalis,” or “finding God in all things.” In Heroic Leadership, I referred to it as “love”;
- a habit of reflection, like the examen.
How do you adapt Ignatian spirituality for a secular business executive who might be too busy for a retreat or for spiritual direction?
Well, that’s easy and hard at the same time.
The easy part: We could teach someone a secularized form of examen to help them acquire a habit of self-reflection; we could teach them some of the discernment tools to help them become better decision-makers (like freedom from unhealthy attachments, or the attitude of indifference, properly understood—as a way of “getting over oneself” in order to serve the organizational mission rather than being self-serving); we could help them to reach into their own religion or value system in order to find a basis for treating others with the deep level of respect that might be called love.
And we could help people to understand that if they do not role-model a sense of mission that is bigger than self, they are never going to successfully motivate subordinates to care about something bigger than self.
So, we could pull together some of the elements of Ignatian spirituality and call that a “secular Ignatian spirituality of leadership,” or something like that.
But that brings us to the hard part: “A secular Ignatian spirituality of leadership” really doesn’t make much ultimate sense. The spirituality is not merely a “tool box” that one can pick from and use to achieve any old goal, like being a better crook thanks to the tools of the Ignatian tradition. Ignatius is always pointing at God, the ultimate source of meaning.
And all of the tools and all of the spirituality are ultimately part of a holistic approach to following Jesus. So, for example, when we think of the heroic Jesuits that I profiled in my books, like Francis Xavier or Matteo Ricci: They were able to accomplish the feats they did not simply because they had some good leadership skills but because they were inspired by love of God.
So the dilemma when I think about doing workshops in completely secular settings (and I often do such workshops), where talking explicitly of religion would not be considered acceptable, is that I feel I have to at least find a way to invite or challenge people to think about “ultimate meaning,” however they understand that, as they think about the meaning of their lives as leaders.
But, truth be told, I often find that people don’t need me to connect the dots for them anyway. Smart and accomplished leaders are not as shallow and greedy as is sometimes portrayed as stereotype; many do indeed think about their lives and work in very deep ways. They already feel conscientious about their beliefs, and they are trying to accomplish good by means of their work and in leading others.
St. Ignatius once famously wrote that sometimes we have to go in through the other person’s door in order to come out through our own. That’s been a very powerful idea for me. And I find it a very modern idea, too, completely relevant to the church in the 21st century. We live in a very secularized society generally, and young adults in particular are showing very little interest in the church. What are we going to do for these populations? Offer spiritual opportunities that we know they will never avail themselves of? The only place that gets us is to a smaller church, where we all end up sitting around talking to each other. Rather, I would say we are now challenged to find ways to “enter the other’s door,” to offer them some of the riches of our traditions in ways that will better their lives and that might provoke or invite their deeper thought that might draw them toward the essence of what Christianity offers.
How is the Ignatian notion of a retreat compatible with the secular idea of a corporate retreat?
Well, I do find it a bit ironic that many corporations “get” the idea that we have to pull away from the turmoil, chaos and busy-ness of our workplaces in order to reflect in a calmer and more focused way on where we are going. The corporate world has essentially “hijacked” the word “retreat” to describe this process, and corporate retreats and retreat centers are growth industries, precisely because secular and corporate leaders see the wisdom of stepping back from the world periodically.
And so the irony: We religious Christians seem to have forgotten the very idea that secular businesses now get! Corporate retreat settings are growing in business, while religious retreat centers are withering in some places.
How can Ignatian spirituality form one to be a leader?
Self-awareness is crucial to good leadership, and Ignatian spirituality forces one to make a foundational investment in self-knowledge and, additionally, to develop a habit for daily updating.
When I say a “foundational investment” in self-awareness, I mean the Spiritual Exercises. And the leadership-relevant gifts of the Exercises experience would include, for example, coming to grips with one’s own chronic weaknesses and sinfulness and appreciating one’s gifts and one’s calling to play a unique role in the world.
The daily examen strikes me as the companion “self awareness” tool, a way of reminding oneself every day of some of what one learned during the foundational investment in the Exercises. The examen is the element of Ignatian spirituality that typically resonates most immediately and strongly with businesspeople or folks in any active walk of life. The modern world has become so chaotic, busy, distracting and complex that people immediately “get it,” when they are introduced to the examen.
What would you say to a business executive who expresses curiosity about Ignatian spirituality and wants to learn more?
Well, I might first say something to spiritual directors and retreat houses and others involved in presenting Ignatian spirituality! Pardon me for saying it, but I don’t think the practitioners of Ignatian spirituality are making the fruits of the spirituality accessible enough to business executives or, more broadly, to your average Catholic who works in the world.
We insist on using lots of arcane language that presupposes formation that most people today, even educated people who are practicing Catholics, cannot really grasp. “Discernment of spirits,” for example, can sound weird; “indifference” can create meaning problems in modern use; consolation and desolation are not intuitively clear to many people nowadays.
By no means am I suggesting that one cheapen or water down the content of Ignatian spirituality. But I could envision, for example, plucking out pieces of the tradition that might appeal to businesspeople (or teachers, hospital workers or any in active work fields). For example, an appealing way to introduce the examen could be (pardon my sloppy phrasing):“a Jesuit technique for staying on track amidst each day’s chaotic pace and constant change”—lots of people would sign up for something like that! And while ordinary folks in secular occupations might find “discernment of spirits” a frightening phrase, I suspect that most of them would be intrigued by “a methodology for making high-quality decisions.”
Those of us who have been steeped in this tradition have to take upon ourselves the burden of making it known and accessible to those who might benefit from it. We have to work harder and hustle more and be more creative to get that done.
Any final thoughts or words of wisdom?
The Jesuit tradition has done a good job on engaging business and the working world on questions of ethics and justice. Lots of writing and teaching take place on what might broadly be called the “ethical” dimensions of work. For example, Pope Francis, a Jesuit, has really challenged modern workplaces around justice-related issues.
But what about a “spirituality” of work, how, for example, businesspeople and workers can “find God in all things” in their workplaces, to use one of the mantras of Jesuit spirituality. Given Ignatius’ vision of a religious order that would be “in the world yet not of the world,” his spirituality lends itself, perhaps above all other Christian spiritualities, to helping workers see their labor in spiritual and sacred ways.
What’s more, Jesuits accompany so many people who end up working in the world, often in important ways: No other Catholic education system graduates as many Catholics from high schools and universities as the Jesuit system does; many of these graduates end up working in the world. The spirituality can “accompany” these folks in their young adulthood, just as their teachers and administrators accompanied them through their education. Yet I don’t think that nearly enough has happened on this front.
There is a great hunger in the 21st century among folks who don’t find enough “meaning” in work, or who find the modern workplace to be “soul-less.” The need is great to help people develop a deeper spirituality of their work, and the resources within the Jesuit tradition seem so deep and relevant to this quest. I see great opportunities out there, if we have the imagination, creativity, mettle and resolve to pursue them.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.