Why We Should All Be More Like the Jesuits

jesuits leadership May 03, 2023

Let’s talk about leadership.

In particular, let’s look at a group of leaders who have a great deal to teach us who are called to lead during these challenging times. The leaders I’m referring to are the Jesuits.

The leadership practice of the Jesuit's has a lot to teach us about living out our calling with courage, adaptability, and the readiness to help others change and grow through transition.

These thoughts come from a book I’ve revisited but still very applicable today. The book is by author Chris Lowney and is entitled "Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World." If you haven't read it, pick up a copy. 

General Thoughts on Leadership

When you look at what the Jesuits believed about leadership some key underlying principles stand out:

  • We’re all leaders and we’re leading all the time – either leading well or poorly.
  • All leadership springs from within and is first and foremost an inside job!
  • Leadership is about who I am as much as about what I do.
  • Leadership is not an act we perform.
  • Leadership is about my entire life and is a way of living.
  • The journey of becoming a leader is never complete but is an ongoing process.

A metaphor for leadership that resonated with the Jesuits was to describe leadership as a compass instead of a checklist. If you are clear on what you value and on what you want to achieve you make it your assignment to orient yourself to the new environment and adapt confidently to unfamiliar circumstances.

Sounds a lot like the kind of leader a transitional leader, coach, or pastor needs to be – not coming in with a checklist you simply walk through but coming in with a clear sense of what the values are, what the goal is, and then navigating creatively to get to your destination.

Qualities of Heroic Leaders

Everything the Jesuits did was on purpose including how they recruited new members, how fast they allowed themselves to expand, and what they called themselves.

Core to what made the Jesuits unique from other religious orders was how they looked at leadership and the qualities they sought to develop in themselves and in new recruits they brought into their order. As you read these four qualities, you will no doubt easily see how relevant they are for today.

A leader is someone who: 

  • understood their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview
  • confidently innovated and adapted to embrace a changing world
  • engaged others with a positive, loving attitude
    • LOVE
  • energized themselves and others through heroic ambitions

This description very intentionally begins with self-leadership and flows from that. Let me say a little more about these qualities. 


 Leaders thrive by understanding who they are and what they value, by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them, and by cultivating the habit of continuous self-reflection and learning. - Lowney

 Leadership must keep changing.

Every early Jesuit dedicated an intensively focused week each year to revitalizing his core commitment and assessing his performance during the previous year. They also used self-awareness techniques that facilitated change by instilling the habit of continuous learning and daily reflection on activities.  - Lowney

 Unlike the cloistering that was the norm in Monastic circles, Loyola tore down the monastery walls to…

 …immerse his Jesuits in the maelstrom of daily life. Once the walls were down, Jesuits had to employ techniques to remain recollected while all hell was breaking loose around them.  -- Lowney

It's fascinating that they were very clear on what today is well backed up by research – IQ and technical skills are far less crucial to leadership success than mature self-awareness.


Leaders make themselves and others comfortable in a changing world. They eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life's next corner. Anchored by nonnegotiable principles and values, they cultivate the "indifference" that allows them to adapt confidently. The ideal Jesuit "lived with one foot raised" – always ready to respond to emerging opportunities. Lowney

 The Jesuit's view on prayer was radically different from other monastic orders and was much more portable, less rigid and allowed their monks to respond to needs and opportunities as they arose. Ingenuity reminds me of what John Wesley used to say, "the world is my perish." 


Leaders face the world with a confident, healthy sense of themselves as endowed with talent, dignity, and the potential to lead. Because Jesuits saw themselves as uniquely endowed with talent, dignity and potential, they were able to see other people through the same lens. That perspective allowed them to have greater love and less fear when encountering others. 

Love-driven Jesuits worked with passion and courage, whether teaching teenagers or confronting colonists who abused indigenous peoples in Latin America. - Lowney

Even in their teams, they were driven by love and bound by loyalty and affection for each other.


Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them. Heroes extract gold from the opportunities at hand rather than waiting for golden opportunities to be handed to them. - Lowney

Jesuit’s culture spurred Jesuits to "elicit great desires" by envisioning heroic objectives. They had a motto which was the word "magis" which meant "always something more, something greater!" They aimed high and tackled big challenges because of this inner motivation to make a difference and extract gold from the opportunity.  

What About You?

Heroic leadership is needed today as much as ever! As a leader, my encouragement to you is to take some time in the next month to reflect on the state of your life and leadership. This will give you an opportunity to exercise your self-awareness muscle, deepen your learning, reflect on what needs to change, and develop an action plan for putting those changes into practice.

The hard work of leadership is continuing your own growth so that you continue to be fresh and alert to those opportunities Jesus have for you next.



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