Lowney, Chris. 2003. Heroic leadership: Best practices from a 450-year-old company that changed the world. Chicago: LayolaPress.

This is not a new book, but it is highly instructive: the primary “hero” is St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. It is Lowney’s goal to outline the missionary management practices that the Jesuits used in their work. He was “intrigued” by what the 16th century Jesuits can teach us today by means of the leadership structure they practiced in many different environments.

Lowney, once a priest himself, later worked for the investment bank of J.P. Morgan. He is convinced that the Jesuits “approach to molding innovative, risk-taking ambitions” can work for today’s leaders. He outlines the “four pillars” (p. 9) of the Jesuits success as:

  • Self-awareness, where the men understood their strengths, weaknesses, values and worldviews; it means that one must order his/her life.
  • Ingenuity, such that they were confident to innovate and adapt in a changing world; in Loyola’s case it meant the development of spiritual exercises.
  • Love, that is engaging others with a positive and loving attitude; teams were bound by loyalty and affection, not backstabbing and second-guessing.
  • Heroism, so that they were energized and could do the same for others through their heroic ambitions

Chapter 2 is on “What Leaders Do” (11-35):

  • Establish direction by maintaining and developing a vision of the future
  • Aligning people by communicating the direction
  • Motivation and inspiring so that followers can overcome bureaucratic and resource barriers
  • Producing change

Lowney asserts that we are all leaders, all the time, and it is not simply CEOs, etc. who are in charge. However, if followers are not recognized, their energy will be sapped. Leadership is a way of living, not an act; it is self-development.

Chapter 3 provides some history of the Jesuits, which Lowney calls “an accidental company with a purposeful vision” (37). Loyola started with a shady background; two failed careers, arrests, multiple run-ins with authorities and no money. The “company” began with a few men who were convinced that they needed to preserve the spirit of understanding and concern they had for each other. However, they had a high profile and were often in the middle of controversies.

In our modern times the meaning of “company” has drifted far afield from what the connotation Loyola and the Jesuits portrayed.

In Chapter 4, Lowney mentions four leadership models: 1) the explorer, illustrated by Benedetto de Goes, who went to China in the latter part of the 1500s. Some say he died a failure, but he survived journeys that demonstrated the overland routes between India and China and interacted with Hindu and Muslim scholars. He also survived deserts and mountains and undertook a 3,000 mile trek that took nearly four years; 2) the linguist, mapmaker and priest named Matteo Ricci. His journey to Beijing began in the late 1500s. He learned the Chinese language and characters and adopted the Chinese culture by assimilating himself into it in various ways. He and his colleagues maintained a low profile. “It took Ricci twenty years from his arrival in Macao to reach the imperial city of Beijing” (80); 3) Christopher Clavius was a scholar who pursued astronomy and mathematics. He worked for 48 years as a university professor and trained recruits for a changing world (83). He helped Galileo secure his first teaching post and endorsed “all of Galileo’s findings and calculations”, although he himself had defended the Ptolemaic system (87). Clavius was responsible for the mathematics that led to our present day calendar.

Lowney surveys what these three leaders did (90-92):

  • They were always teaching and learning
  • They mentored brilliant men
  • They persevered
  • They energized themselves with heroic goals
  • They were innovative when challenges came up
  • They devoted themselves to excellence
  • They were open to new ideas
  • They honored truth more than their own egos
  • They influenced others by their examples

In other words, they were in charge, producing results and embracing “defining moments”. Lowney notes that most people, including leaders, find it difficult to face challenges when there are unpromising situations. They expect scripted situations, do not pass on their knowledge to others, and often they do not have the “conviction that our actions, decisions, and choices have value” (93).

Chapters 5 to 9 enlarge upon the four pillars of the Jesuits. As an example of self-examination, after several years they were called back for self-reflection, not simply professional development. John Calvin also had this trait, such that “the Calvinist church and the Jesuit order, came to dominate Europe…” in a short period of time.

Lowney quotes Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence (109), noting self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills and applies this to the Jesuit recruits self examination of: 1) reflection on personal characteristics; 2) having an integrated worldview; 3) demonstrating respect for creation and other people; 4) appreciation of oneself as loved and appreciated; 5) ability to tune out every day distractions; 6) demonstrate an appropriate decision making process.

According to Lowney, leadership in the Jesuit manner was to: 1) turn corporate goals into a personal mission; 2) create a proper company culture that they modeled; 3) provide opportunity for people to grow in a way that went beyond their personal interests.

Over time, the Jesuits exemplified the world’s largest education system. They saw the needs and responded to them, even when not prepared in terms of the number of recruits or the funds available. They would see a good idea and then build their priorities accordingly. As Lowney notes “Jesuit capabilities and strategic interests uniquely and symbiotically coincided with the needs of an era. Most runaway business successes are rooted in the same happy marriage of core capabilities and market need” (216).

However, even the Jesuits found it difficult to maintain their vision. They did not do so well on human rights in the case of slave trade in Brazil and “took more compromising positions on African slavery and on who could be admitted to their ranks” (228). As Chapter 10 indicates “the end of risk taking almost ended the Jesuits” (229). The Jesuits had found common ground with those who had different viewpoints and had toned down their rhetoric. This changed somewhat because they “inordinately relished…high-profile polemic battles” (232). Subsequently “Pope Clement XIV didn’t think it in his or his church’s best interests to stand up to Portuguese, Spanish, and French states intent on global eradication” (236). The Jesuit Company virtually collapsed without the support of the managers in Rome and the Pope effectively suppressed them.

The Jesuits crawled out of the woodwork some 30 plus years later, seemingly feeling that they had nothing to lose. As Lowney notes “Few people can even name a company that went out of business forty years ago. What other company ever reemerged after forty years of suspended animation—with its leadership principles intact?” (242).

Chapter 11 sums up the four core values that reinforce leadership. Here Lowney draws on other experts, such as Kotter and Heskett from the Harvard Business School:

  • The corporate culture cannot be just on paper: it must demonstrate a customer service culture
  • The culture has to be strategic and appropriate
  • The culture doesn’t block change—it promotes it

Ricci had sent a letter to Rome asking for a qualified Jesuit to teach in China—it took 17 years for his request to be answered. The man sent was Johann Adam Schall von Bell. Schall was a cannon maker, a trusted Chinese “grandpa”, an architect, astronomer, mathematician and calendar reformer. However, upon the death of the emperor Shun–chih, Schall was soon served with a death warrant and stripped of all his duties and titles. Nevertheless, he demonstrated the “whole-life”, living the principles of Jesuits: “What gave Schall’s constantly changing life wholeness and integrity was his lifelong commitment to a set of goals and values” (271).

Chapter 12, the Conclusion to the book, reviews the Jesuit principles that Loyola outlined:

  • Aiming high and pointed towards something great
  • Not only thinking outside the box, but also living outside the box
  • Exemplifying love through purpose and passion
  • Basing leadership virtues on self-awareness

How then can present day managers lead their leaders?

  • By example—leading themselves
  • By developing the best talents
  • By promoting self-examination
  • By being ready for adventure
  • By investing time with employees
  • By questioning the status quo

Grasping your own leadership role:

  • Appreciate your dignity and potential
  • Recognize your weaknesses
  • Articulate your values
  • Establish personal goals
  • Establish a world view that you demonstrate
  • See the wisdom and value in lessons learned and priorities

SIL and WBT managers and leaders can learn from the Jesuit “Company”. However, far too few of them (us, at one time) have the discipline to practice the self-reflection that Loyola had. They do not mentor enough new people, instead often suppressing their talents and ingenuity with corporate rules and customs.

SIL and WBT are unlikely to last 100 years, let alone 450—many of our leaders want to “finish the task” as soon as possible. They are apparently not seeing or setting new horizons or goals that incorporate intellectual pursuits similar to the linguistic ones that once defined our “companies”. Are Bible translation activities, per se, the end of the road (and the company)?

April 2015