I told myself that I would refrain from discussing Pope Francis’ interview last week as that subject was widely covered elsewhere. I have largely stuck to that other than a brief reference to Blessed Peter Faber, S.J., one of the significant influences on Pope Francis. I am going to bend this rule again (bend only as I am only going to talk about Pope Francis’ leadership style, not the substance of the interview).
Chris Lowney did a brief piece on Pope Francis and I recently found out he wrote a book on Pope Francis that is going to be published next week. Many people have not heard of Chris Lowney but he has a truly unique story. Lowney spent seven years as Jesuit seminarian before leaving to work for J.P. Morgan & Co. He had a very successful business career, rapidly advancing up the leadership ranks at J.P. Morgan, holding senior positions in New York, Tokyo, Singapore and London. Lowney retired early in 2001 to focus on writing and charitable activities. During his business career, Lowney modeled his leadership style from what he learned during his Jesuit training. The first book that Lowney wrote was “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450 Year Old Company” that describes the Jesuit leadership style. According to Lowney, the Jesuit approach to leadership eschews flashy techniques and focuses on four core pillars:
- Self-awareness: Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview
- Ingenuity: Confidently innovating and adapting to a changing world
- Love: Engaging others with a positive attitude that unlocks their potential
- Heroism: Energizing yourself and others with heroic ambitions and a passion for excellence
The four principles address a person’s whole life—personal and professional–and are rooted in the idea that we are all leaders. They form an integrated way of living, a modo de proceder (“our way of doing things”) as the Jesuits called it.
The Jesuit approach scraps the “command and control” model that relies on one great person to lead the rest. Convinced that people perform best in a supportive climate, St. Ignatius of Loyola and his colleagues sought to create environments filled with “greater love than fear.” They lodged their hopes in the talents of their entire team, showing that success flows from the commitment of many, not the isolated efforts of one. In my professional life (a corporate law firm), I have tried to use many of these techniques and they work. On my white board at work, I have the initials: SILH (self-awareness, ingenuity, love, heroism).
We are seeing the leadership style that Lowney describes in Pope Francis. According to the article by Lowney published today in National Catholic Register:
“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro asked the pope during their now-famous August interviews. While most politicians or celebrities would have batted a self-promoting answer to that softball question, here’s what the pope said: “I am a sinner.” He was taking a page from Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, which include some bruising meditations on personal sin: “I will look upon myself as a sore and abscess from which have issued such great sins.”
But that’s no “downer” in Francis’ and Ignatian spirituality; it’s plain speaking about the human condition. And even though postmoderns here in cosmopolitan New York might reject Catholic “sin talk,” all can resonate with the pope’s vision of a “battlefield hospital” church that focuses first on healing. We’re all deeply flawed, popes included, but inherently dignified and unconditionally loved by God nonetheless.
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Francis said he was initially drawn to the Jesuits for three reasons, one of them its “missionary spirit.” Ignatius of Loyola exhorted Jesuits to live “with one foot raised,” ever ready to seize the next opportunity. He also instituted a special fourth vow of obedience for many fully formed Jesuits: to be always available to be sent on mission by the pope.
That mindset unleashed extraordinary centrifugal energy among early Jesuit generations, who famously sought out the frontiers of the world then known to Europeans. The pope’s own Argentine homeland, for example, is still dotted with ruins of remarkably innovative settlements — the so-called Paraguay reductions — that Jesuits pioneered alongside indigenous persons.
But Francis is inviting us to understand “frontier” in a much more expansive way. Catholicism’s 21st-century frontiers are less about geography and more about those who don’t see much value in organized religion or who have been overlooked or excluded. The pope told his interviewer that he admired early Jesuit Fr. Peter Faber’s “dialogue with all … even with his opponents.” And, the pope said, “let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.”
That’s not a platitude; that is his strategy. Another Jesuit interviewed for my book project said Fr. Bergoglio was once asked to assume responsibility for a new parish in an impoverished community and drafted some seminarian volunteers to assist him. To do what? Well, walk the neighborhood. Meet everyone, not just the churchgoers. Seek out the poorest and see what could be done to help them. When the seminarians returned from these visits, Bergoglio used to check whose shoes were dusty — who was showing the frontier spirit to meet people where they really live.”