Culture, Travel & Sport

Chris Lowney — What Jesuit Spirituality Can Teach Us About Global Leadership

In 1983, Chris Lowney left the Jesuit seminary he had been studying with from the age of 18 to work as an investment banker and then managing director for J.P. Morgan. Since leaving the bank in 2001 he has written four books and has been involved in a number of philanthropic efforts, including chairing the board of Catholic Health Initiatives, America’s second largest not-for-profit hospital and healthcare system. 

Much of Lowney’s writing on leadership, business ethics and decision-making attempts to bring the lessons of Jesuit practice to bear on leadership challenges in the worldly spheres of business and politics. His most recent book, published in 2013, is an examination of the leadership style of Pope Francis. Andrew Wrobel sat down with Chris during the European Executive Forum held in April in Warsaw, to talk about the challenges of leadership in the world today, in particular the problems that European and Central and Eastern European leaders face.


You’ve said that everyone has the traits of a leader. What do you mean by that?

There are different ways we can understand the word ‘leader’. The usual way people tend to think of it is in a hierarchical way: who is the leader? The one who is in charge, the boss. But if you look at the dictionary, you can also find another definition: the one who points the way and influences others. By this definition, everybody is showing some leadership. In other words, even the lowest ranking person in the company might be leading, by pointing out the company’s values — values of integrity, excellence and hard work. They might be having influence only on one person nearby or one customer, but they’re still leading. Increasingly, we have a kind of superstar culture where the only thing we think about is the number one — the top person, the super celebrity.

But strangely, in the environment like we have now, which is very complex and changing quickly, you need exactly the opposite. In other words, the president of the company cannot make all of the decisions. In countries like Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic, you need people in all areas who are showing leadership.

And do you think you can learn to be a leader? 

In the hierarchical sense of the word, I think there are natural gifts that some people have that others don’t. Some people are naturally better at giving a talk to a large group of people, for example. But in terms of leadership in the more general sense, everybody is showing good or bad leadership all the time. And everybody can show better leadership simply by becoming conscious of what their opportunity is right now. They can ask themselves, ‘where do I have influence?’ On one person? On 20 people I’m selling to? On my own family? What is my opportunity and how do I take advantage of it?

So whilst in the hierarchical sense of leadership some things can be learned and other things are just a matter of natural talent, in the more general sense that I define leadership, I think that everybody can and must think about their leadership style and improve it.


In the past you’ve said that leaders have four traits: self-awareness, heroism, ingenuity, and love. Could you elaborate on those?

I can define each of those briefly.  At one point I was a Jesuit seminarian, and then I worked for J.P. Morgan. In the first book I wrote I was trying to reflect on all of that experience and pick out the qualities that we find in effective leaders. And the four things I spoke about were as follows. Good leaders tend to be, firstly — self-aware. In other words, they have a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses, their own values, their outlook on the world.

Secondly, they have ingenuity — the will to constantly change. Only people who can keep changing and adapting can lead well. And thirdly, they have heroism. When I say heroism I don’t mean being famous or saving someone’s life in battle, but the more basic idea of heroism as something to do with self-sacrifice. In other words, you have to motivate yourself with goals that are bigger than your own ego. Fourth and finally, I spoke about love, which means treating people in a way that respects their human dignity and potential.

You’ve just mentioned an episode in your life — your time in a Jesuit seminary. How can the teachings of St. Ignatius be relevant to people today beyond the religious sphere?

Here I could talk in a philosophical or theoretical way, but instead let me talk in a very practical way. Here’s one very specific example. The Jesuits have this practice that I learned in seminary which, when I do business seminars, I often translate into a technique that anyone can use, regardless of their beliefs. I tell people this: every day you should take a couple of mental breaks — say five minutes after lunch or five minutes at the end of the day — and do just three things. First, remind yourself why you’re grateful as a person. Second, lift your horizon.

We tend to go through whole days only thinking about what’s right in front of our nose. Why not ask instead ‘why am I here on earth?’ Why not ask ourselves ‘what’s the most important thing for me to do?’ And third, revisit the last few hours in your mind and take away some lesson from it. Let’s say that during the morning you were distracted or irritated. Think about what was going on — think about why you were distracted or irritated, and derive from this lesson that you can use in the next few hours.

This very simple practice is highly relevant to the lives we all have to lead nowadays: we’re floating on a river of emails, meetings, taxes, and phone calls. We are absorbed by external stimuli. We are not absorbed by the really important things. So, this practice is an example of a technique that, for Jesuits, would be a religious one, but which could easily be adapted for anyone, in any walk of life, with any belief.

Is that the message of your book Heroic Living? Are you trying, in that book, to teach people to make better use of their lives, to plan their careers better?

Yes. In Heroic Living I discuss how the modern world has become very decision-intensive. Today we all have to make lots and lots of decisions. A hundred years ago, when it came to your career, perhaps you just did what your family was doing. You didn’t have a very large set of options to choose from. But now everybody has one hundred and one choices of career.


Many people today — particularly the young — will have three, four, five, ten jobs.  We have to make more and more decisions, but the ‘technology’ for making those decisions is not very good, so to speak. A lot of people just do what their friends are doing or the first thing that comes into their mind. In Heroic Living, I introduce people to techniques that will help them make these important life decisions.

So, coming back to your life experience for a moment, what makes a Jesuit Seminarian change career and join a corporation? I’m speaking about your time at J.P Morgan, of course.

I joined the seminary when I was 18 years old. And while I was there, at a certain moment I became unhappy. And we don’t need unhappy priests — just like we don’t need unhappy lawyers or unhappy bankers. Of course, I think it’s a very beautiful vocation. But it’s not a vocation for everyone.

One of the central precepts of the Jesuits is to think about our internal state in the profoundest way. The founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, would often say that if you’re fundamentally happy and peaceful then that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track in your life. If you’re fundamentally unhappy, then maybe you need to think about what you’re doing. So I decided that this was not the right path for me in life. At that time I was teaching economics at a Jesuit high school. I left and got a job in a bank. In the beginning that was just to have a job — to make some money. But in the end I was happy with the career so I stayed there for a long time.

What has been people’s reaction to your Jesuit background, both at J.P. Morgan and later on in your career?

I guess people’s reactions are a product of their own backgrounds. Sometimes people would assume that since I had been trying to be a priest I must be very ethical, trustworthy, someone who is good to do business with. Well, I felt good if they felt that way. But frankly, I found that many of the colleagues that I worked with in J.P. Morgan, although they didn’t study at a seminary like me, were nonetheless very principled, ethical people.

Reactions also differed based on where people came from. In Poland, for example — which is one of the countries in the region your publication covers — it’s still very common for people to become priests. In the United States, conversely, it’s not so common. So maybe someone from the States would just think ‘oh wow, this guy is a little strange’ or something like that. Everybody has a different reaction.

What do you think about leadership in business and politics in Europe right now? What’s your opinion about the situation with the multiple crises and so on?

Well, I am no expert on Europe. But, speaking from my own limited perspective, I feel like we have a crisis in leadership in Europe and in much of the rest of the world. How do people perceive their leaders? If you look at surveys right now in the United States and in many other countries, people have a very low level of confidence in leaders.

For example, in the United States, less than 15 per cent of people say they have a great deal of confidence in political leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders. That’s terrible. Why is that?

I think, in some ways, it’s not really the leaders’ fault. Because we’re now in an environment that’s very complex. Things change too quickly; we have very extremely complicated problems which people expect their leaders to solve very simply in two months. Our expectations are unrealistic.

Having said this, I also feel that leaders deserve this low confidence, to some extent. Because we have too many leaders who claim they’re doing things for the good of the people, when in reality it’s basically about power. They’re not patriots — they are self-interested — interested in money, status, and privilege. We have difficult problems that call for risk-taking and imaginative ideas. And sometimes, the solutions leaders are offering are very fearful, closed, old ideas.


Western Europe has comparatively good leadership. But Central and Eastern Europe is a region which is relatively young in terms of the free market and democracy. Do we have real leaders here or are we still waiting for them to establish themselves?

I don’t know these individual cases enough to make comments, but I would say this: a challenge many leaders face in Central and Eastern European economies is that the world is now so much more global than it used to be. There are so many more factors that are not really within their control. To put it one way, if the United States has a cold, then Poland or the Czech Republic gets pneumonia. A leader in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Lithuania cannot 100 per cent determine the destiny of their country or their business, because they are so subject to the changes in the global economy and geopolitics.

Additionally, I think they have the challenge of trying to convert people to a completely new mindset. Many of these countries are coming from very different economic and social models than in the past, and have very abruptly transitioned to new models. I have some admiration for that, because I don’t know how the United States could adapt if a whole population had to very quickly change its mindset on how to organise society.

Your latest book is about Pope Francis. In response to the migrant crisis in Europe, the Pope is encouraging everyone to help the refugees. Do you think he’s strong enough to be heard all over Europe and the world, on this point and also more generally? I ask because it seems he is making some statements that are very different from those made by his predecessors.

You ask a deep question that could have many different kinds of answer, so let me answer it in a couple of different ways.  One way to answer is specifically on the issue of immigrants or refugees. Let me put on my Christian hat for a moment. I feel that Pope Francis is speaking in a prophetic way. In other words, he’s just saying that this is what the gospel teaches us and anyway, the family of Jesus were refugees. When Jesus was a baby they went to Egypt and some family took them in.

In Europe the refugee issue has been a fierce debate. In the United States it’s also a debate but it’s not as fierce, because we don’t have people coming in on our shore. But to take an example: one of our Presidential candidates makes a big point of waving a Christian flag, trying to get people to vote for him because he’s a Christian. Then he also says, in terms of refugees, that we should accept only the people who help our economy. And speaking for myself as a capitalist who worked in an investment bank, I can understand that this is a very logical economic viewpoint. But when I wear my Christian hat, I know that economics has nothing to do with it. The point is to help anyone you can.

So, I’m fully aware of the economic and political difficulties that the refugee scenario is presenting in Europe right now, but I also have to admire the Pope because he doesn’t just say the easy thing. He says what he feels must be said. And he’s not a stupid person, so I’m sure he understands that what he’s saying will cause unpopularity for him. And I admire that, I must say.


Talking about the Pope more generally, you called your book on him Why He Leads The Way He Leads. So how does he lead?

From a leadership perspective, I feel that he’s acknowledged that the Catholic Church faces challenges in many countries. People are not interested in religion — especially not young people. Religion is decreasing in popularity all the time. Participation is falling in many, many, countries — Poland being maybe one of the few exceptions in the whole world. And I guess the Pope is saying, let’s face facts and start behaving differently — in a way that could be of interest to young people. Remember at the beginning of our conversation, I said leadership is about pointing the way. I feel that the Pope is pointing out the strategic direction for the Church.

But in addition to pointing the way I also mentioned in my definition of leadership the importance of influencing others.

And as a challenge for his leadership, I think the real question is — how influential has he been in changing the ship to be more effective? And that to me is an open question. I think if we could forget about the religious angle and put it in terms of any human organisation — the challenge for the hierarchical boss is always whether or not they can build a leadership. I would say you need about 20 per cent of the influential people in the next level down of the hierarchy to strongly support your direction, and that’s  enough to get things going. And I don’t know if he really has a leadership coalition in place yet to carry his ideas forward.

And finally, how do you see the future of leadership in the coming decade? How will they behave? Will we still have leaders?

Somehow I am hopeful, though I can’t exactly explain why. I feel that the job of leaders is so much more difficult now because the problems are complex, things are changing quickly, and also everything is much more public and transparent — the Panama papers fiasco is a good example of that. In the old days, the leader of a company or a country could make their decisions in a corner where nobody knew about it and nobody questioned it.

But now it’s becoming a much more transparent world, and I think this is very healthy for leadership. If things are out in public then you must be accountable and explain why you made the choice you did and you can’t have secrets anymore. And in the short term, this is all creating a lot of dislocation. We have leaders who are used to the old ways, who are not good at dealing with complexity, but somehow I am hopeful that a new generation of leaders will respond to the challenges of the environment and be able to take us forward. Ultimately I’m hopeful.


(photos: courtesy of the European Executive Forum)