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Heroic Leadership

April 9, 2013

By Fr. Max Oliva, SJ

In the beginning of my freshman year at a Jesuit high school I was instructed – as were my classmates – to put the initials, A.M.D.G., at the top of any paper I was to hand in to a teacher. Spelled out these initials are: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” in Latin, and “To the Greater Honor and Glory of God” in English.

I have chosen to write about this ‘motto’ because it is at the core of a Jesuit’s life. And, who is the most talked about Jesuit of our time: the new Pope, Pope Francis, who is a member of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). I choose to write about it also because of the lessons implied in the motto for ethical leadership.

When one studies the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, one sees in addition to A.M.D.G. the word “magis” for these two concepts are intimately connected. Magis is Latin for “more.” It is implied in the word, “majorem” – greater. Former Jesuit and author Chris Lowney explains, “Jesuits are exhorted to always ‘choose and desire’ the strategic option that is more conducive to their goals.” Magis is a philosophy, an ethic, and a motivating force. It suggests a spirit of generous excellence in any undertaking. Jesuit Michael Ivens writes, “The magis – the greater good – is embedded within a harmony of two seemingly contradictory virtues, humility and magnanimity (great-heartedness).” Humility leads to freedom and a willingness to risk all in the service of generosity. In fact, one of the most often quoted prayers to God of Ignatius reads like this:

“Teach me to be generous; teach me to serve Thee as Thou
deservest; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not
to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and
not to seek reward, save that of knowing that I do Thy
will, O God.”

This is obviously an ethic beyond self-interest. An example of this is seen in the goal of Jesuit education: forming “men and women for others.”

Magis-driven leadership encourages people to aim high and to keep seeking something more, something greater (majorem). This kind of leader helps his or her ‘subjects’ to discover their gifts and to make the most of them. Leaders such as these are not satisfied with the status quo and make liberal use of their imagination to seek viable alternatives.

Magis is the foundation of heroism. Heroically ambitious goals, wholehearted service, taking time to discern how best to use one’s gifts, the willingness to take risks, and the humility to learn from one’s mistakes are all characteristics of this form of leadership. Again, quoting from Chris Lowney in his book, Heroic Leadership, “Heroism makes a person equal parts dreamer and indefatigable pragmatist. Heroic leaders don’t bide their time until the big moment comes along; they grasp the opportunities within reach and extract as much richness from them as possible. Heroism lies in the nobility of committing to a way of life that focuses on goals that are greater than oneself.”

Returning, then, to Pope Francis, there are three primary ‘firsts’ in his election: first Pope from South America, first to take the name Francis, and the first Jesuit. In addition, he is doing a lot of innovative actions – bowing before the world and asking for our blessing before he gave his own first blessing as Pope, choosing a life-style very different from his immediate predecessors, and making himself available to the public in a very personal way. There is the potential for heroism here. He is certainly living the spirit of Magis in his humble and generous manner. Personally, I admire his spirit of discernment, choosing his actions carefully. Symbolically, they are bringing hope to many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic world-wide. May his way of leading be an inspiration to all who are in leadership positions.

References: Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney (Loyola Press, 2003).
                  Understanding the Spiritual Exercises (of St. Ignatius of Loyola), by Michael
                  Ivens, S.J. (Trowbridge, UK: Cromwell Press, 1998), p. 75.

Readers' Comments

ON LEADERSHIP - Six aspects of good leadership:

  1. Good leaders are seers of alternatives.
  2. Good leaders move forward by influencing events and inspiring people more than by ordering, or demanding.
  3. Good leaders learn to study, discern, and search together with other people for solutions.
  4. Good leaders know that total dilemmas are very few.
  5. Good leaders search for a middle ground where the most people can find meaning; they work for win-win situations.
  6. Good leaders know that there is no perfect solution.
    Sent by Janet, author unknown

A RESOURCE – Former Deputy Fire Chief and Ethics Presenter, Kevin Brame, is now leading a team that focuses on developing ethical leadership within organizations whose focus is public safety. The team follows a 3 - prong approach starting with self, then leading others, then organizations in the realm of the larger community. His company is partnered with Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society Leadership Development Services. Their web site is: www. IPSLEI.org

Long-time reader of this newsletter, and good friend, Pete Henriot, S.J., is director of development for a Jesuit secondary school being built in Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa. Like all good fund raisers he is looking for benefactors who are interested in a worthy project that will benefit many young people. For information, go to: http://www.loyola/-malawi.org

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