Two tenets of Jesuit philosophy can help companies build cultures of trust and initiative

Two tenets of Jesuit philosophy can help companies build cultures of trust and initiative
Image: Henri Campeã for Quartz
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Imagine this scenario: You’re promoted to lead a department. You do a great job on all counts and are loved by your clients, team, and peers. But three years later, you’re asked to rejoin the ranks and report to one of your former employees for no particular reason.

What sounds like a brewing HR matter is actually the management structure at my first, and still most memorable, job. In the midst of that existential impasse after university, I found myself teaching at an all-boys Jesuit school in the Philippines. There, I witnessed how upending the typical methods of running a business can foster the most satisfying work environment. It was a kind of utopia where a veteran gardener might earn more than a teacher just based on his years of service, or where a lunch lady’s kid could be playmates with the grandson of a local tycoon. It remains the closest thing to a perfect company in my mind.

The school’s approach to career progression is particularly revolutionary. In the two years I spent teaching third graders at Xavier School in Manila, I saw the principal joyfully revert back to his post as a math teacher and several faculty leaders change roles as a matter of course. Somehow, the periodic management switch-up happened with no drama or tearful power plays. My aunt Dreena, who led the school’s nursery department for a time, says it best: “As the department head, I formed teachers, but as a regular teacher I was shaping young children, which was very fulfilling.”

Xavier School is among many educational institutions operated by the Catholic religious order Society of Jesus around the world. Founded in 1540 by the Basque theologian Ignatius of Loyola and a group of intellectuals at the University of Paris, many early Jesuit missionaries who joined the Society became teachers in a range of spiritual and secular topics.

The order’s history is dotted with milestones in scientific research. In the 18th century, for instance, Jesuit astronomers ran 30 of the world’s 130 astronomical observatories. The Gregorian calendar was developed by the Jesuit mathematician Christopher Clavius. Jesuits worked as schoolmasters in places like China, India, Brazil, the Congo. At one time, Jesuit priests and brothers worked in more than 700 educational institutions around the world.

The career structure at Xavier is animated by two hallmarks of Ignatian philosophy: cura personalis, which means caring for the whole person, and magis, or doing more than what’s required. This type of service leadership is about being more than a down-to-earth boss or a responsive supervisor. Cura personalis means feeling concern for employees’ welfare, even outside the office. My friend Jay Perez, who currently heads the science department at Xavier, exemplifies these values. He says that he’s not anxious about the inevitability of having to relinquish his seat for a less prestigious title because his team has a trusting relationship. “That kind of camaraderie and bond assures each of us,” he says. “We will welcome that next head with open arms once my stint is over.”

Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit seminarian turned JP Morgan executive, and now a speaker and author, characterizes this trusting, open attitude as one of “mutual affection.” In his 2009 book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World, Lowney describes affection—or love—as the fundamental force that kept the early Jesuit founders intact. But it’s “hardly what drives most companies today—big, lumbering, bureaucratic, unimaginative, competitive, anonymous modern companies,” he writes. “The critical mass, scale, capital, global reach, and broad capabilities to pulverize opponents, yes. Limited liability? Of course. The chance to become rich by going public? Naturally. But heroism and mutual affection? Not usually.”

Lowney explains that in the 1500s, Ignatius, and his six Jesuit Society co-founders— Francisco Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laínez, Nicolás Bobadilla, Peter Faber, and Simão Rodrigues—appealed to Pope Paul III to formalize their religious order as a way to stay connected during a time when they were living in all corners of the globe.

Instead of naming their order after its founder like the Franciscans (after Francis of Assisi), Dominicans (after Dominic of Caleruega), or Augustinians (after Augustine of Hippo), the Jesuits deliberately chose a name to allude to their flat, decentralized leadership. Society of Jesus or Compañía de Jesús was a fellowship bonded by the moral philosophy of Jesus. The word “company” is likely a vestige from Ignatius’s military career, meaning comrade or companion. The most persuasive “company representative” today is, of course, the Argentine priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to be elected as head of the Catholic church.

Ignatius of Loyola, by the way, didn’t exactly posses the textbook traits of a charismatic leader. Born to a minor noble family in a tiny Basque village of Azpeitia, he spent his youth as a page and didn’t have much time to devote to learning to read or write. Loyola was a gambler, had a quick temper, and was arrested at least once for “most outrageous” behavior that the magistrate declined to record in deference to his family. He lost his right leg in the first battle he led, and sought cosmetic reconstructive surgery to repair the appearance. “A dashing rake—as Loyola fancied himself—doesn’t dash as convincingly with one leg hobbled by a battle injury,” Lowney notes in his book. And when the Jesuit missionaries were preaching in the streets, Loyola proved to be a terribly dull orator.

Ultimately, Lowney explains, it was Loyola’s keen sense of self, wrought from his personal struggles, that drew thousands to the Society of Jesus. His interest in helping others find their own sense of self was perhaps his top leadership competency. “Loyola’s core appeal was not his own leadership traits—it was his ability to unlock other’s latent leadership potential,” Lowney writes.

Of course the Ignatian way isn’t always easy. Practicing magis, for instance, can result in volunteering to take on more work than you expected. Teachers at Xavier can work 12-hour days or more, with after-school activities for the kids, meetings with parents and students, teaching remedial classes, faculty committee meetings—all this before factoring in commuting time in Manila’s congested streets, where it can take two hours to travel the distance of seven miles. Long hours is cited as the most common complaint of former Xavier employees on the career portal Indeed. “The hardest is having to juggle your core duties with all the committee work you may be asked to do—magis, as the Jesuits say,” explains a former English teacher. “Bringing work home is a fairly common practice.”

The lives of many of the school’s employees when I was there indeed revolved around the campus, especially parents on the staff who were able to send their sons to the elite school tuition-free. As a new teacher, I was trusted with shepherding the school magazine called Hoofprint (the name was inspired by the school’s mascot, which was a stallion). I also conducted an after-school animation club, volunteered to drive a faculty carpool, and swam regularly with co-teachers at the beautiful lap pool in the afternoons. It usually added up to a lot more than an eight-hour workday, but somehow it never felt oppressive—stressful at times yes, but I never felt spite over it.

My stint at Xavier made me choosy about all the places I went to next, because it instilled in me a core understanding of what a good company truly is: a group of people who want to do good in the world and to one other.