What can we learn about self awareness from the Jesuits?

I have just been reading an inspiring book called, ‘Heroic Leadership’ by Chris Lowney, about the Jesuits who have been working as an order or company, as they prefer to call it, for over 450 years.  They have obviously been doing something right!  The following thoughts are excerpts from a few chapters of the book.

Ignatius, who was the founder of the Jesuits with 9 others, wasn’t your classic saint. His background was colourful. He started out as a military man, then got injured and tried out all kinds of wild and wacky ideas. He travelled three years on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem only to last there three weeks before he was sent home.  He spent time as a teacher that only lasted for a short period and then he moved back into academic studies. He didn’t seem to know where he was going or what he was doing. He was 49 before he started what was to become his life destiny.

So, a crazy, ‘out there’ thinker but humbled by his failures and in the midst of his soul searching times, came up with some personal exercises that helped him work through his own weaknesses and failings and become self-aware. This self-awareness became one of the keys for Ignatius to pull his life together and it became one of the foundation stones for all members of the Jesuits to go through, as an orientation into the mission, much like the DTS is for YWAMers.  

For the Jesuits, the disciplines they learned from their orientation or spiritual exercises became their lifelong habits and deeply set values.  Their self-awareness programme was focused on identifying their strengths, weaknesses, values and worldview and involved deep reflections and the checking of attitudes and motivations, all talked through with a spiritual guide.

If self-awareness is critical to leadership success, as Loyola, Peter Drucker, Daniel Goleman and others have argued, our ideas about leadership and about how we help leaders develop must be revisited.  Only I, can muster the will, courage and honesty to search myself.  All leadership begins with self-leadership, and self-leadership begins with knowing oneself.

The “ten man, no plan” operation of the Jesuits, launched in 1540 grew a hundredfold within fifteen years.  Loyola found himself running a thousand-strong company with dozens of outposts on four continents.  As you can imagine, they faced a problem of success – being spread too thin, and they desperately needed more recruits.  So, what was the response of the leadership?  The screening process became even more selective!  No rushing recruits in to help out those struggling on the field!

Recruits underwent a longer, more rigorous orientation than that of any other religious order by a striking margin.  Recruits of other sixteenth-century religious orders typically went through a year’s training but now the Jesuit recruits marched through a spiritual boot camp that lasted twice as long.  And after Jesuits had been out working in the field for years, they were reeled in for yet another year of professional development and for some midcareer self-reflection. They called it their “school of the heart.”  Rather than slow down the growth it increased it.  In the next 20 years they grew from a thousand to five thousand.  Their reputation for selectivity, high standards, and outstanding results was precisely what attracted the most-talented recruits that kept the growth happening.  They focused predominantly not on grandiose, company-wide strategies but on the simpler strategy of forming quality Jesuits one by one – or what we might today call moulding leaders.

Loyola’s final project was translating the Jesuit vision into a set of rules and procedures robust enough to govern the fledgling company.  The result was the 250-page Jesuit Constitutions. Fully two-thirds is monopolized by guidelines for selecting and training recruits; every other aspect of Jesuit life is relegated to a measly eighty pages.  The message was obvious – ongoing success depends on turning recruits into leaders.  Solve that problem, and the leaders you’ve moulded will solve every other problem.

These missionaries didn’t bring with them tactical handbooks addressing every foreseeable contingency (sounds familiar – we don’t have one of those policy handbooks either!).  Instead, they brought the most important skill they needed to thrive in unfamiliar and challenging environments – self-awareness.  Perhaps we too, need to train ourselves a little more in this critical quality.

Why do some talented individuals become successful leaders while others crash and burn, why is the first in the class, rarely the first in life and why is the hotshot junior executive seldom making it to CEO?  Well perhaps self-awareness is a key!  The more senior one’s role within an organization, the less critical to success are intellect and technical skills compared with the bundle of skills Goleman calls emotional intelligence. 

  • Self-Awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives.
  • Self-Regulation: the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and mood; the propensity to suspend judgment — to think before acting.
  • Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status.
  • Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people.
  • Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

One company, 450 years ago, was looking for self-awareness in its leadership candidates.  What we’re calling Jesuit self-awareness lines up strikingly well with Goleman’s notion of emotional intelligence. It’s no surprise.  Both the Jesuits and Goleman wanted to identify the personal traits essential to successful leadership.

The Jesuit approach takes it one step further, identifying not only the “what” but also the “how” — a program for imparting those skills.  Central to and irreplaceable in the process were the Spiritual Exercises or the orientation into the company.

Ignatius believed, the person who knows what he or she wants can pursue it energetically.  When that person is challenged with internal issues, it’s only those who know their weaknesses that can deal with them or even hope to conquer them.  We can only overcome our baggage that prevents us from realising our full potential – our poor self-confidence, our selfish ambition, our low passion or our lack of emotional intelligence – by identifying and attacking our weaknesses. Those who have identified what moves them to wholehearted engagement have little trouble staying motivated.  The problem is few people take the time to invest in this kind of focus.

Ignatius’ orientation didn’t just deal with weaknesses though, it worked on potential and strengths.  So the exercises dealt with issues like: appreciating oneself as talented; articulating personally motivating goals and ambitions; determining what one stands for, what impact one wants to make; developing a worldview that guides interaction with others and acquiring the habit of updating oneself regularly, indeed daily, on all the above.

The good news is that everyone has the capacity to cultivate these leadership skills by committing to the personal introspective investment that will develop them.  Most major companies have notoriously poor track records when it comes to identifying future leaders.  How are we doing?

Until next month,      

P.S. The examen is just one of the spiritual exercises but a very good one, that can be used to debrief every day.  Take a few minutes at the end of the day to read and ask these questions:

Knowing that God loves me unconditionally, I look honestly over the past day, its events and my feelings.  Do I have something to be grateful for?  Then I give thanks.  When I remember what brought me that sense of closeness with God, I take note to make a habit of seeking out those moments again. Is there something I am sorry for?  Then I ask forgiveness.  Where did I feel out of peace and what can I learn from my experience?

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