What We Need Right Now: Jesuit-Educated Leaders

Times of crises demand ethical leadership. As we look around our communities, we are faced with inter-connected challenges related to this global pandemic: public health, economic stability, educational continuity, and the list continues. One challenge inevitably relates to another, requiring inter-disciplinary reflection and analysis in order to effectively solve the problems confronting us. Responses to these linked challenges invite us to gather data, bring experts to the table, struggle with complexity, and ultimately make decisions from a place of ethics, compassion, and the common good. While we hope that our local, national, and global leaders enter into their decisions in this way, we know all too well that not all leaders are formed to approach difficult decisions like this. A question that we are all then invited to ponder: what kinds of leaders are needed right now? And how do leaders become ethical, compassionate, and effective? Lest you think that such questions only apply to leaders in positions of formal authority, like governors and public health officials, these are questions that we should all be asking ourselves these days because we all have an opportunity to lead. Our tradition of Jesuit education offers some critical lessons about how ethical leaders can meet the challenges of this moment. All of us, whether faculty, staff, or students, have an opportunity in these turbulent times to demonstrate leadership in our homes, our communities, and our virtual schools and workplaces.

What does Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th Century saint, founder of Jesuit education, and patron of universities like Georgetown, possibly have to offer in terms of developing leaders who can meet the demands of the current pandemic? Jesuit education actually has a lot to say about forming the ethical leaders that we need today.

Georgetown University makes a bold commitment in its mission statement and gives a clear signal of the kinds of leaders we strive to form: Georgetown educates people to be reflective lifelong learners, to be responsible and active participants in civic life and to live generously in service to others. This bold claim is similar to the statements made by other Jesuit educational institutions who aspire to live out the core values that have defined Jesuit schools for the last 500 years: an orientation to fulfilling mission and the common good, a commitment to discernment in all that we do, a willingness to be flexible, creative, and adaptable in our work, and an enshrined inspiration to put the interests of others above our own. The hallmarks of this Jesuit tradition have been translated into theories and practices for leadership. One popular translation of Jesuit leadership theory has been offered by Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit turned JP Morgan Managing Director, whose best-selling book “Heroic Leadership” is used widely in courses and workshops at Jesuit schools and beyond. The popular book distills the wisdom of Jesuit spirituality, formation, and the history of education into four pillars of wisdom: self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. Written for a broad audience, Lowney’s text integrates Jesuit concepts into a prescription for what makes leaders effective. “Heroic Leadership” is relevant reading not only for those interested in learning more about the Jesuits’ self-development practices but also for anyone aspiring to lead others out of compassion and not fear, a stance that is critically important these days. Lowney sums up the Jesuit approach to leadership in this way:

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.

Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World

You might be wondering: aren’t leaders inspired by the Jesuit tradition of education offering the same thing as other leaders formed in different ways? While it is the case that leadership capacity and good leadership can grow out of many different traditions of education and training, there is no doubt that many Jesuit-educated leaders bring distinctive values-based approaches to their leadership. Recently, William Meehan in Forbes noted in two widely circulated columns (here and here) that some of the most effective leaders that have emerged in the response to COVID-19, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, share in common that they are products of Jesuit schooling. Meehan describes how Jesuit schools tend to produce “servant leaders,” who act in the following way:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps develop and perform as highly as possible.

William Meehan, “Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Redux: All Educational Institutions Should Include Instilling ‘Serving Others’ in Their Mission”

Does this resonate with you and your experience of Jesuit education? Have you felt called in your study and your work to approach leadership in this way of service?

This week, I invite you to reflect on these questions: 

  • What kind of leader are you and what kind of leader do you want to become?
  • How is this current crisis shaping your reflection about who you are as a leader?
  • How might you grow as a leader who deepens in self-awareness through regular reflection?  

There are many resources you might consider as you wonder about these questions. You might develop your self-reflection practices by joining our SCS daily digital meditations each work day at 12 pm EST (sign up here), which conclude each week on Friday with an Ignatian examen, an important resource for growing in self-awareness (read more on the examen here).  Additional leadership resources from within the Jesuit tradition might assist your reflection, including this self-paced set of modules: “Ignatian Leadership: Resources for Learning, Change, and Growth.