How to be a leader (the Jesuit way)

August 23, 2022

Discernment is a major feature of the life of the Society of Jesus, but how do Jesuits refine and share that spiritual skill? Kensy Joseph recently attended a unique event which explored this question.

By Kensy Joseph SJ

How do Jesuit leaders (both present and future ones) learn to share the Ignatian gift of discernment with the wider Church – a call that was specifically made by the Holy Father to the Jesuits? That was the question posed to fourteen Jesuits in formation from around the world, who gathered at Campion Hall in Oxford for the Ignatian Leadership Programme earlier this month. Originally planned for 2020, the course was delayed by two years because of the Covid pandemic.

It was led by Fr David McCallum SJ, director of the Discerning Leadership Programme and Fr Roger Dawson SJ, psychologist and superior of the Jesuit community in Scotland. Other instructors included Fr John Dardis SJ, Fr. General’s General Counsellor for Discernment and Apostolic Planning; Fr Nick Austin SJ, Master of Campion Hall; and Austen Ivereigh, Catholic journalist and author of The Great Reformer and Wounded Shepherd. The fourteen Jesuits on the course, mostly between ordination and tertianship, are based in Europe but hail from provinces as far away as Brazil, Egypt and Pakistan.

The two-week course began by setting the contemporary socio-cultural and ecclesial context in which Jesuits minister. The Jesuit leader must learn to contend with a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. At the same time, the Church is increasingly called to a more synodal approach. Discernment is the essential skill for the Jesuit (and Church) leader of the future; and the Jesuit tradition of leadership is embodied in the life and letters of St Ignatius. At the same time, Jesuits can learn much from the world of psychology and management. The course sought to integrate all these aspects.

The first part of the course looked at self-awareness using a number of psychometric tools such as the Leadership Circle and Key Polarities Indicator. The leader must learn to be vulnerable and be aware of both his strengths and weaknesses. The second part of the course focused on being part of an apostolic team. The role of the leader is to develop, and articulate, the vision of the organisation. Effective communication requires a narrative – the good leader must also be an engaging storyteller. The course wrapped up by looking at the Jesuit heritage of discerning leadership – particularly St Ignatius of Loyola (whose virtues are outlined in Part IX of the Jesuit Constitutions) and Pope Francis.

In his letter to the Jesuits at the Council of Trent, St Ignatius exhorted the group to meet each evening to review their day and give each other feedback. In this spirit, the Jesuits on the Ignatian Leadership Programme met in small groups each day to share their experience and engage in peer coaching. The course instructors were also on hand for one-to-one coaching sessions with participants.

Ignatian Spirituality and the Jesuit leadership tradition have much to offer today’s technocratic world. Where organisations are marked by a spirit of competition, the course gave participants an experience of fraternity and mutual support. Between classes, participants engaged in common prayer, recreation and sightseeing around Oxford.

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