Understanding Ignatian Leadership – an ELP Fellow’s perspective

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Credit: Jehyun Sung

One of the five constitutive pillars of the European Leadership Programme (ELP) revolves around the so-called segment of leadership. Since ELP is a Jesuit inspired programme, we ELP fellows wonder “What does it mean to form leaders in the Ignatian tradition?” 

In Heroic Leadership. Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the WorldChris Lowney, former Jesuit seminarian and keynote speaker notes how the Jesuits’ principles enhanced the Company by making individual Jesuits better. These principles are anchored in the idea that we are all leaders and that our entire lives are filled with opportunities for leadership.

In the first principle and foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola urges: “I ought to desire and elect only that which is more conducive to the end for which I am created.” He pioneered innovative teaching and learning methods through Spiritual Exercises and developed tools and practices to train leaders capable of changing the world.

Ignatian leadership is a lived experience that immerses itself in the world, leading to a specific way-of-being in the world marked by humbleness, trust, genuineness, and an intense sense of purpose. This ethos is founded on the conviction that God is active in our planet and in our everyday life. As the Jesuit palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once wrote: “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts.” God is therefore active. Ignatian spirituality seeks to bring people closer to God and to bring them deeper into the world — with appreciation, enthusiasm and humility — and not to take them away from it.

Similarly, Ignatian leadership is a process characterised by an ongoing commitment to personal and community transformation. Ignatius called Jesuits to be “contemplatives in action” and, as Jesuit Pedro Arrupe stressed, such action nowadays calls for active leadership focused on others.

The field of Ignatian leadership gathers a vast amount of literature, making the task of offering a more detailed and concise guideline a challenging one. Nonetheless, and because the subject does not comprise a coherent theory or body of scholarship, we find in Sarah Broscombe’s analysis an excellent guide for beginners. Since 2018, this freelance trainer and coach has coordinated the preparation of the University of Oxford Ignatian Leadership Program. And she suggests the following key components of the Ignatian leadership:

Humility: Ignatian leaders are authentic and see their true and real self, surrounding themselves with teams of people who exceed their own skill, so they can reinforce humility among those they lead.

Consolation and sense of direction: today’s uncertain and volatile world is transformed by drawing inspiration from the Christian narrative of the Resurrection, acting with a greater sense of authenticity, agility and resilience.

Freedom and discernment: letting go and a letting come constitutes the essence of the Ignatian interpretation of freedom. The work of a leader is twofold: to distinguish one’s own attachments, to guide and to be ready and not threatened by change.

Discernment is undoubtedly one of the key concepts in this process and, although St. Ignatius did not refer to it directly, his descriptions of how he practised the art of discernment have resonated over the centuries. Often called “discernment of spirits,” it is spiritual practice to notice movements in one heart and soul -desires, thoughts, and emotions- and to recognize where they come from and where they lead us. 

Translating this description in the practical area of leadership and institutional governance at the European level, discernment helps us to acquire inner and outer understanding to reflect and operate in multiple scenarios shaped by diversity, complexity and interdependency.

Being a leader in the Jesuit tradition means, as Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach states, that we must be human beings marked by “competence, conscience, and compassion.” As a result, Ignatian-inspired leaders are working towards a leadership model that enriches their personal lives, builds better communities, and creates a more just world.

By Teresa Pallarés Ramos 

ELP Fellow Spring 2023