Final Analysis: What if companies were run according to Jesuit principles?

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Having spent more than a few hours lately in classrooms at Seattle University and Gonzaga University, I’ve been wondering: What if America’s businesses operated according to Ignatian principles?

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t the Federation vanquish the Ignatians in the eighth Star Trek movie?

Nope. The Ignatians, better known as the Jesuits, are still going strong—477 years after Ignatius Loyola founded the order with a group of friends in Paris.

What has struck me about my exposure to Jesuit education is that no one has tried to proselytize me. Or sell me basketball tickets. Instead, I’ve been encouraged to be myself, always with an eye toward intellectual engagement centered on leadership, social justice and service to others.

Is that any way to run a business?

Chris Lowney thinks so. Before donning pinstripes as a managing director for J.P. Morgan & Co., Lowney wore mostly black as a Jesuit seminarian. The transition to corporate life, he says, was interesting: “One managing director lured talented would-be recruits with the...prospect of becoming ‘hog-whimperingly rich.’ I never quite got the image, but I did get the point.”

In 2003, a couple of years after leaving J.P. Morgan, Lowney published Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. Lowney was referring to Loyola’s “company”of Jesuits, suggesting that the Ignatian principles of leadership are rooted in self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroism.

Self-awareness is a given: Every book on management says good leaders must know themselves. “Only the person who knows what he or she wants can pursue it energetically and inspire others to do so,” Lowney writes. “Only those who have pinpointed their weaknesses can conquer them.”

But how many corporate leaders actually heed those words?

Sadly, some executives seem to focus solely on ingenuity, and certainly not in the way Loyola envisioned. From accounting fraud at Enron to outright executive theft at Tyco, from unethical behavior at Boeing—anyone remember the Druyun scandal?—to Microsoft’s questionable treatment of permatemp workers, the capacity for ingenious (read: dubious) behavior in the corner office would seem to be limitless. Loyola’s own Jesuits aren’t immune from scandal. And JP Morgan Chase, successor to the company that Lowney used to work for, recently agreed to pay out $150 million in a settlement over charges that one of its divisions defrauded buyers of complex mortgage investments shortly before the housing market collapsed.

Of course, Ignatian ingenuity—the art of becoming comfortable in a changing world—is driven by core ethical values that are nonnegotiable. (Bribery, fraud and moral turpitude don’t make the cut.) Lowney calls these core values “the centering anchor that allows for purposeful change as opposed to aimless drifting on shifting currents.”

Probably the biggest eyebrow raiser in Lowney’s four pillars of Ignatian leadership is love. You don’t often see the word in an M.B.A. syllabus, probably because it’s not considered appropriate in a business context. But when he describes love as “creating environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection and mutual support,” what’s not to like (or love) about that?

If love is the most unusual tenet to grasp, heroism may be the most difficult. In Lowney’s view, heroism is not about taking one for the team. It’s about “eliciting great desires” in each team member to contribute to something bigger than him/herself.

No doubt there are companies out there that subscribe to Ignatian principles without necessarily describing them as such. If you work for or manage such a company, congratulations. If you don’t, that sound you just heard might be opportunity knocking.

Or it could be a hog whimpering in the CEO’s office.

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JOHN LEVESQUE is managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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