The organizational base of the Jesuits gives us some basic keys on how an organization focused on doing and the creation of knowledge can sustain itself with a hacker ethic… as long as it knows how to pay the cost of not incorporating those who don’t have the necessary mettle, however intelligent or well-prepared they may be.
Chris Lowney, former Jesuit and former director of J.P. Morgan, is not a typical author of books on “leadership.” Rather his books define leadership as non-leadership, which is to say, they are not about how “conducting” others, but about how the structures of a community help its members generate meaning, become empowered in accordance with it, speak frankly, aspire to impossible things, and carry them out. In short: how an oranization can be a platform for its members, conducting their own lives, to build collectively.
His starting point is the history of the Company of Jesus and his central model is the first generations of Jesuits. Some features of the “selective process” of the members are especially interesting:
- From the begining, the Company of Jesus had more work to do than people to do it… especially because, since it didn’t have a concrete objective, it encouraged its full members to investigate, learn, and innovate in a sort of hacker ethic avant la lettre, which, as we know, is a way to generate a tremendous diversity of initiatives and fields of development. The temptation, given this permanent lack of apprentices, was clear: lower the criteria of incorporation and begin “recruitment techniques.” Lowney tells about how, when they were presented to Iñigo de Loyola, he returned them with a note that said:
Reject them all or allow a few, but let it always continue to be very difficult to enter.
And he collects the testimony of a Jesuit who was a contemporary of the founder who described him by saying that
if there was one thing that made him want to keep living, it was being able to make admission to the Company stricter.
- But if “getting in” was hard, getting started was no less so: the first mission of every new Jesuit started thousands of kilometers away. One out of every three died on the journey, at the end of which each one would face — practically alone, with no more resources than his own wits and correspondence that took years to arrive — the challenge of founding the company in a new place or setting a new undertaking in motion. The cost of entry couldn’t be higher… and after three years, each one had to return to headquarters, be reexamined, reaffirm himself, and await a new destination… Only half survived physically, and even fewer succeeded in their first mission. Soon there was a legion of former Jesuits. The result was a settling out that didn’t have to do with intelligence, but with strength of character… which had the effect of greater internal cohesion. While Jesuits call themselves “Soldiers of Christ” and organize themselves in a Company, it’s not that way by being a group based on affection, as Lowney erroneously says, but because Iñigo de Loyola took the model of military companies in which he and some of his companions had fought. The Jesuit fraternity is not merely a group of friends with common goals, it is a “band of brothers,” forged, like King Henry’s, in the permanent challenge and its demands of personal self-improvement.
- And, as we indianos know, this lifestyle of being “permanently passionate about change,” as Juan would say, can only be sustained by considerable individual strength of character. Tremendously centralized in a global space, but with some precarious means of communication, the Company of Jesus understood that its capacity for cohesion depended on the intimate strength of its nodes; so, as Peter Drucker points out, permanent self-examination, characteristic of Jesuits and Calvinists, was the great innovation of the two great militants forces of the time. They had understood, as Lowney highlights, that they only needed:
those who have the capacity to learn, innovate, take responsibility for their actions and take risks. These characteristics are not like the abilities required by a lawyer, an accountant, or a merchant. They are born of self-knowledge, not of vocational training.
As for concrete policies and their historical evolution, the relationship with power, scale, the emphasis on solitude and and the resulting tension between the concepts of person and individual, and a thousand topics connected with Jesuitism that haven’t lacked for criticism, that’s a whole different discussion.
The important thing about this literature we’re reviewing today is that clarifies for us that the Jesuit organizational base was characterized by a strict selection that began with the analysis of the applications, lasted three years, encouraged early defection through high entry costs and hard first missions, and openly and permanently demanded mettle in one’s character until one’s definitive incorporation after three years.
Obviously, the cost was leaving many people out, which resulted in a lot of noise and confused stories from men who were still of worth and intelligence, and who felt the need to justify defections that weren’t really based on theological differences, but on the inevitable tensions their character was subjected to in a process like this. The prize for those who made the cut was to live as multispecialists in a community that was a leader in knowledge development, but also in action and social transformation.