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Five Ways You Can Lead Like St. Ignatius

By Mike Jordan Laskey

Christopher Kerr, Executive Director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network (left) and Br. Ken Homan, SJ, at the U.S. Capitol
February 15, 2019 — Feeling uninspired by our current crop of national political leaders this Presidents’ Day Weekend? Take heart – there are other possibilities.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing emphasis in the global Jesuit community on what you might call “Ignatian leadership,” or taking cues on how to lead in modern times from the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus himself, St. Ignatius Loyola.

Fr. David McCallum, SJ, and Karin Botto, MS, both of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, are prominent collaborators in this burgeoning field, so I wrote to them and asked them if they could describe distinct leadership values and principles St. Ignatius practiced that we might learn from today as leaders of projects, teams, families, or ministries in our professional or personal lives. I took their insightful responses and boiled them down to five important characteristics of Ignatian leaders.

1. Ignatian leaders are contemplatives in action.

Botto notes that a lot of the leadership best practices you see being talked about in places like the Harvard Business Review reflect things St. Ignatius was doing centuries ago: values like humility, authentic care for the people you are leading, careful decision-making, and more. (We’ll get to some of these in a minute.)  “Practitioners of Ignatian Leadership note a difference in how they approach their work, make decisions and find more meaning in their lives through these practices,” Botto says. There’s an interior difference that distinguishes Ignatian leaders from “secular” leaders, rooted in a mature spirituality that leads to healthy self-awareness. Jesuits talk about being “contemplatives in action,” rooted in prayer while also being hard at work in the world. (Of course, Ignatian leaders in countless different contexts, from religious organizations to small and large businesses to nonprofits to families to community associations to government.)

Tania Tetlow (center), president of Loyola University New Orleans, is an Ignatian leader.

One of the key spiritual practices of St. Ignatius Loyola was the daily examen, a prayer ritual that includes a review of one’s day, taking special note of moments in which God was clearly present. The consistent discipline of the examen helps the practitioner to develop the habit of noticing God and goodness in all things, another hallmark of Ignatian spirituality. If you’re noticing God in all people and situations, even in stressful ones where the potential for conflict abounds, you’re more likely to approach them in a spirit of peacefulness and respect for the other.

2. Ignatian leaders are humble.

St. Ignatius was certainly bold and energetic, but he wasn’t self-centered. He knew the work of the Society of Jesus wasn’t about his own ambition or power or glory, but the glory of God. That perspective helped him check his ego and cultivate deep humility, “oriented toward the greater good and inspired by a hopeful, God-given vision of the future,” Fr. McCallum says. Humility doesn’t mean false modesty, but an understanding that all we have, all the unique traits each of us has that we can offer to the service of the human family, are gifts from God. Downplaying those gifts isn’t humility, but cheapening the divine creativity God employs in making each and every person. How might our current political scene look different if our leaders were even 5% more humble across the board?

Daniel Nevares, SJ, leads in the classroom.

3. Ignatian leaders practice discernment.

Ignatian spirituality comes from a manual called "The Spiritual Exercises" St. Ignatius wrote in the 1520s, which is largely focused on the practice of what he calls “discernment of spirits.” “How do we know what God wants us to do in life? That’s the question for people in discernment, isn’t it?” writes Fr. Warren Sazama, SJ, in a good introductory article about the practice. “We know that God wants all of us baptized Christians to be united with God, serve God, and share our gifts in service. But how? For each of us that’s different.”

Discernment is an intentional process of choosing one path among various good options. Deciding between good and evil is easy; discerning the right thing to do when you have multiple options that all seem good is hard. According to Ignatius, proper discernment by an individual or in a community requires openness, generosity, courage, freedom, and having your priorities straight. A discerning leader listens to others, weighs all the possibilities, and doesn’t steamroll people with their own agenda. She or he “acknowledges the partiality of his or her perspectives and actively pursues other points of view in order to come to a more objective understanding,” Fr. McCallum says.

Fr. Kevin White, SJ, with lay collaborators.

4. Ignatian leaders have a “restless dissatisfaction with mediocrity,” in the words of Fr. McCallum.

The main question that should drive discerning leaders is, “What is the greater, more universal good?” Fr. McCallum says. This question is inspired by another Ignatian term, the magis, which means “more” or “greater.” You can spot a connected m-word in the Jesuit motto, ad majorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.”

“A magis-driven leader is not content to go through the motions or settle for the status quo but is restlessly inclined to look for something more, something greater,” writes Ignatian leadership pioneer Chris Lowney in his book "Heroic Leadership." “Instead of wishing circumstances were different, magis-driven leaders either make them different or make the most of them. Instead of waiting for golden opportunities, they find the gold in the opportunities at hand."

Fr. Gilbert Sunghera, SJ, an Ignatian leader at University of Detroit Mercy.

5. Ignatian leaders commit to caring for the person, the mission and the community.

Three more Latin phrases are at the heart of Ignatian leadership.

First, there’s cura personalis, or what Fr. McCallum describes as a “personal and loving care for the whole person.” Too often we hear stories about workplaces or families or communities where individual members are not valued or seen as beloved children of God. Ignatian leaders make sure all those they collaborate with are seen, heard and appreciated.

Second, there’s cura apostolica, or a deep commitment to the organization’s mission – in the case of the Jesuits or the church at large, our mission is to love and serve God and one another. For every proposed project, task, or priority within an organization, Ignatian leaders must ask, “How does this help us accomplish our mission?”

Third, there’s cura communis, or a commitment to building and serving the local and global community. Cura communis includes a special concern for those living on the margins of society, people who are usually left out and whose needs are not considered. Ignatian leaders seek out these people and groups and work to put their voices at the center of any communal discernment.

Fr. Tim Kesicki, SJ, working towards cura communis on Capitol Hill. 

These five traits are just scratching the surface in a field that is rapidly developing. Botto and Fr. McCallum are both excited about an upcoming international summit on Ignatian Spirituality and Leadership at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, where attendees from around the world will pool their expertise on these subjects and discern ways to make resources more available across the Society of Jesus and beyond.

So if you find yourself wishing for more out of our present-day leaders this Presidents’ Day, take heart in the fact that 450-year old wisdom can be applied in the exercise of real, compassionate, others-centered leadership. Pray for us, St. Ignatius, and guide us wherever and however we lead.

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