Company Men

Heroic Leadership : Lessons from one of the world's most successful companies

The new book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney puts a new spin on the commonly discussed topic of leadership. The author, a Jesuit seminarian turned investment banker, believes there is much our modern corporate society can learn from these 16th century priests. In fact, Lowney refers to the Jesuits as a “company” and openly acknowledges that a term like that might at first make some readers skeptical.

But the book carries us on a journey from the earliest days with founder Ignatius Loyola (who’s referred to as the company’s first CEO) to the Jesuits’ present status, all the while packing in the drama of a blockbuster film.

Love at the office
How many times have you stopped and thought, “Oh, how I love my boss?” The idea of love in the workplace is not generally an American ideal. But according to Lowney, the Jesuits believe that a positively charged environment filled with “greater love than fear” will lead to a higher level of achievement.

And this belief is supplemented by three other pillars of success: self-awareness, ingenuity, and heroism. All of these are explored in depth throughout the book, giving the reader a clear sense of how the Jesuits have become the world’s largest religious order. “Its twenty-one thousand professionals run two thousand institutions in more than one hundred countries,” writes Lowney.

The proof is in the people
In addition to describing the four pillars, Lowney puts a face on this Jesuit story by detailing the lives of a few men who were instrumental in the company’s success. One chapter gives a case study of three leaders: Benedetto de Goes, Matteo Ricci, and Christopher Clavius ; while an earlier chapter traces the life of Ignatius Loyola himself, who is described as having had “the dissolute youth, the personal crisis, the intense conversion experience.” It’s a wonder Russell Crowe hasn’t yet been cast to portray him on the big screen.

Snags in the system
Lowney does present a balanced view of the Jesuits by pointing out their flaws along the way. In the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, they found themselves almost completely shut down. According to Lowney, “Jesuit managers lost the appetite for risk-taking heroism that had invigorated Loyola and his cofounders.” Luckily, all was not lost, and the Jesuits found their way back to those basic principles of success.

“An Army of One”
I’m reminded of this U.S. Armed Forces promo as I finish Lowney’s book. (Now more than any other time in my life, the Army has been in my consciousness.) I never quite understood that particular advertisement, because I’ve always thought that in the Army, individuality takes second place to following the orders of a superior officer.

Yet, for centuries, the Jesuits have successfully practiced knowing oneself in order to better serve or lead others, so perhaps I can see this catchphrase in a slightly different light. It’s as if each one of us is a building block in our day-to-day jobs, whether we’re working in a mailroom or serving our country.

Though part of me does wonder what Loyola would think about how our government is managing the current Armed Forces’ situation.