Friday, December 26, 2008

Heroic Leadership

Jo Hunter Adams

Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney, has been a book that’s come up in my life several times over the last few months; it focuses on the history and leadership of the Jesuits, a Catholic order that has survived, and at times flourished, for over four hundred years. It is written by a former Jesuit monk who went on to work for major consulting firms.

He asks, how is it that a group that was banned for over forty years by the Catholic church, and has some pretty strict philosophies, managed to survive and thrive into the twenty-first century? What company can make such a boast?

The answers have bearing on the way we think about leadership in our own lives. The Jesuits are well-known for being “doers”, most notably for starting one of the most widespread, egalitarian, and best education systems in the world. They’re also an all-male order, which may be super-important to you, or not.

I wanted to highlight two main take home messages:

1.) Leadership evolves out of who you are as a person, and is made up of the daily tasks of your life, not out of some special or exclusive method, nor reserved for the CEO of a company.

2.) Movements may start out of response to a direct need. In today's world, there’s a fair amount if emphasis on goal-setting and long-term vision. And I’m all for goals. Yet the story of the Jesuits suggests that a massive movement can also evolve out of a localized and well thought-out response to a specific need. The Jesuits did not set out to start the largest education system in the world. Rather, they discovered that the monks that joined that order often did not have the education they needed to be “the best.” The Jesuits created schools in response to that need; their response gradually snowballed into a huge movement.

I think both of these points are meant to be encouraging. It makes a lot of sense to develop character, good habits, discipline, and maturity, rather than solely try to figure out how people work (and how you can get them to follow you). The latter seems impossible and possibly manipulative. The former seems fully applicable in all spheres of life. Even it doesn’t work to elevate me in any part of my life, character development is always a good idea. It’s a good framework.

On the second point: How often do I feel that, in order to bring positive change, I have to know everything (or at least more than most)? And since I know I don’t know everything, I feel paralyzed and may just wait for greater genius to rain down on me at some unknown point in the future.

In public health and behavior change, there’s an idea that if you tell someone to do something that they don’t think they can do (quit smoking overnight, start eating “healthy”, exercise 15 hours a week), they won’t do anything at all, even though even doing a little would be better than nothing (smoking a little less, eating one vegetable there and then, exercising 10 minutes a day). I think the Jesuit’s story is a cheer for those who can’t develop a long-term vision just yet, but can respond to a small problem. Big things, and even great leadership in an entire field, can start small.

For those of you who are interested in the spiritual side, there’s also a whole a lot of anecdotes in the book about Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, and how he seemed to be all about trying things, but trying things with reflection. Unlike orders who believed pretty strongly in being silent and contemplative much of the day, the Jesuits came to believe in doing stuff, with the expectation that God would guide them in the midst of that.

I thought this was one more super-encouraging possibility. It seems like Jesus pushed his disciples to do exactly that—preach, heal people, do church—even though they didn’t necessarily know exactly what they were doing. So the message seems to be “go for it” with the caution “but think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.”

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