Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jesuit Leadership

As I've read through my blog to date, I realize that I never explained the title of the blog -- Ratio Studiorum. It comes from the Latin phrase the Jesuits used to describe their curriculum in their schools.

So why did I pick that as the title of my blog? I admire the Jesuits -- Jesuits guided my education in graduate school and represent to me the best in intellectual achievement and commitment to social justice.

I just finished reading the book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450 Year-Old Company that Changed the World by Chris Lowney. Lowney reminded me why I've always admired the Jesuits and also made me think more clearly about exactly what it is that I admire in them.

In an amazing book, Lowney outlines four basic principles for leadership: self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. On the surface, the book looks like one of those inane books like The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun or Robert E. Lee on Leadership or something like that. But this book is decidedly not of that sort.

First of all, Attila and Robert E. Lee were, when all is said and done, pretty pathetic failures. The Jesuits, by contrast, have been remarkably successful as a group. But more importantly, Lowney give one a remarkably humane approach to leadership that is designed for the whole person. As such, it is very different than most leadership books.

He does a nice job outlining Jesuit history and showing how the four principles have been applied over the years. As I see it, their ideals are remarkably suitable for our world today. Lowney stresses that Jesuits are rooted in their principles and ideals, but reflective enough to understand that one must be flexible to compromise on non-essential points. For examples, he cites de Nobili and Ricci, Jesuits sent to live among the people of India and China. Both men remained devout Jesuits but were able to appreciate local customs and cultures. It is a principled ability to navigate in the world and remember what is truly important.

As we move ahead in education, these are principles I think all educators would be well to remember. Let's remember what's essential about education, but also be willing to forgo customs, habits, and traditions that don't compromise our principles.

I recognize that the Jesuits don't have a spotless record in all things and in fact the very term "Jesuitical" is not used in praise. Nonetheless, I think Lowney shows that whatever their shortcomings have been, they have also been resilient enough and principled enough to make a real difference in the world. He also does a good job of "secularizing" the Jesuits' leadership principles so that it applies to people beyond the Catholic world.

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