Heroic Leadership

I’ve written before about the inspiration I draw from the story and teachings of the Jesuits, an order of Catholic Priests whose history demonstrates the sometimes unexpected results of the journey towards self knowledge. I have to admit to somewhat of a personal bias as I was blessed with a Jesuit uncle, a wise man thirty years my senior. He went where only angels dare to tread. His name was Harold Bradley, SJ, and he was a man so heroic in many of his works that he is truly legendary in many Central American countries.

He was, for me and many others, a living example of the Jesuit principle called Magisa Latin word meaning “more” or “better.” In the Jesuit philosophy it is closely related to Ad majorem Dei gloriam – “for the greater glory of God.” Magis in this context refers to the philosophy of doing more in the service of others.

Heroic Leadership

Father Bradley was so literally in search of the Magis with every cell of his being that there were times I didn’t know just what we were up to. I had the privilege of being his protégé and he became my unproclaimed mentor. I would simply listen and he would ask questions. We would share thoughts and contacts of people who could aid us in our cause. We were two Don Quixotes sometimes chasing the same windmill, sometimes not. He has since departed this earth, but his legacy lives on in the thousands of people on whom he had made an impression.

What I came to learn from Father Bradley was reinforced as I read Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, a book by Chris Lowney. My time spent reading Lowney’s work to my dear uncle during his final days was riveting. I rattled off the pages with enthusiasm, effectively proclaiming to him the very tenants of the life he had lived. This experience, similar to that with the veteran whose floor I mopped, elevated me to a keen awareness of the present moment and to the pure awe therein.

Lowney admits his own formation as a Jesuit helped him understand the underpinnings of their ways, but he bailed out to join one of the large NYC investment banks. He lived abroad chasing the dollar before settling in to write about the unique intersection of his high-pressure investment banking career and his seven years of Jesuit formation. What I learned and how I saw the words of the book manifest in my aged uncle caused me tears. Lowney’s fascinating and inspiring insights about the order leapt off the pages as I absorbed their meaning in the context of this one man’s life.

A Life of Service to Others

You see, my uncle HB was crass and probably not the Pope’s ideal version of a holy priest. He admitted that his priest’s collar allowed him to conduct the work he did by providing his followers context for his presence. They were free to think what they wanted about the collar, but he was there in pursuit of the Magis – some grand scheme that required their assistance should they be inspired to provide it. His work was always in service to others.

As Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits) knew, each person has their respective gifts to bring to society and it is up to us in our own self-understanding to discern how to use those gifts. Ignatius postulated that only careful reflection and meditation would allow the spirit enough space to help us realize our potential. HB’s potential, as he would say himself, was to enlist really smart, good people to join him on a given quest. He didn’t take credit and he didn’t scorn those who did, he just moved forward to address the next social need. Relentlessly.

In my twenty five years of working with HB I was engaged in or knew of his exploits in:

  • Providing US Community College scholarships to over 10,000 impoverished kids from Central America
  • Developing housing projects in Honduras and El Salvador
  • Sending reconditioned ambulances to Guatemala and reconditioned dental equipment to Colombia
  • Training nurses to care for the AIDS-stricken in Kenya
  • Donating medicines to Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Uganda
  • Introducing bamboo as an alternative energy crop in Honduras
  • Many, many more projects both domestic and international

This kind of work is exactly what Ignatius of Loyola must have meant when he proclaimed that Jesuits should always have one foot off the ground, mobilized to places where one’s ingenuity can be engaged in support of the need. HB’s service was community-based and responsive to the unique cultures being served. He never saw his efforts as “work,” just as extensions of who he was.

Working from the Authentic Self

I call this an “authentic self” – where life’s purpose is fulfilled by life’s work and the distinction between work and play is ever so narrow. Somehow, HB knew that every challenge ahead was worth the effort more than an easy chair and the comfort of security. Self awareness would fill the gap where security was lacking, and ingenuity would follow. This, for me, is the definition of Heroic Leadership and a model for seekers of justice and entrepreneurs alike.

A hero is one in pursuit of the Magis, where the goal of serving others is pursued with love as the constant underpinning, where audacious ingenuity stems from the wellspring of self-knowledge. These are the building blocks that are now hallmarks of successful leadership, exemplified not only by the broad Jesuit order but the individuals within the order and the millions receiving their instruction.

Do you have one foot off the ground? Do you value the benefits of a less tethered existence in which the gift of newness offers refreshed insight and self-knowledge? Do you pursue the Magis?