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Notes from Heroic Leadership

Planted 02020-06-17

Real leaders—real heroes—find fulfillment, meaning, and even success by shifting their gaze beyond self-interest and serving others.

Four values that create leadership substance

  1. Self-awareness: to order one’s life
  2. Ingenuity: the whole world will become our house
  3. Love: with greater love than fear
  4. Heroism: eliciting great desires

Leaders who

  1. Understand their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview
  2. Confidently innovate and adapt to embrace a changing world
  3. Engage others with a positive, loving attitude
  4. Energize themselves and others through heroic ambitions

A leaders duties

  • Establishing direction: developing a vision for the future—often the distant future—and strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision.
  • Aligning people: communicating direction in words and deeds to all those whose cooperation may be needed so as to influence the creation of teams and coalitions that understand the vision and strategies and that accept their validity.
  • Motivating and inspiring: energizing people to overcome major political, bureaucratic, and resource barriers to change by satisfying basic, but often unfulfilled, human needs.
  • [And largely as a result of these first three roles:] Producing change, often to a dramatic degree.

Leaders figure out where we need to go, point us in the right direction, get us to agree that we need to get there, and rally us through the inevitable obstacles that separate us from the promised land.

  • We’re all leaders, and we’re all leading all the time, well or poorly.
  • Leadership springs from within. It’s about who I am as much as what I do.
  • Leadership is not an act. It is my life, a way of living.
  • I never complete the task of becoming a leader. It is an ongoing process.

Leaders adapt confidently by knowing what is negotiable and what isn’t.

They commit to honoring and unlocking the potential they find in themselves and in others. They create environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection, and mutual support.

Leaders image an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them.

Each member undertakes a systematic self-examination where one should emerge energized, focused, and able to articulate life goals and personal weaknesses.

A clear idea about how we work as a team—driven by heroism, open to new opportunities, and tightly bound by mutual support.

An order: a body of persons having some common honorary distinction or rule of obligation.

A key motivation behind their incorporation is their desire to work in a group which “those who are sent from our midst will still be the object of our affectionate concern as we will be of theirs.”

“Friendly companionship”

“Uninterrupted life of heroic deeds and heroic virtues.”

How many people join companies looking to prove their heroism in action? Why has the modern company so thoroughly ceased to be “a group of friends,” and is such camaraderie irretrievably lost?


  • Are always teaching and learning
  • Mold “brilliant and eminent” men and women
  • Persevere
  • Energize themselves by the sheer ambition of their heroic goals
  • Innovate by approaching their challenges in ways their predecessors never imaged
  • Devote themselves to excellence
  • Remain open to new ideas, even in old age
  • Honor the truth above their egos
  • Influence others by example

Leadership is how the job is done, this means influencing, visioning, persevering, energizing, innovating, and teaching.

  • Most people never face the challenge of motivating armies of subordinates; we face Goes’s more prosaic day-by-day challenge to motivate ourselves through long and sometimes unpromising journeys.
  • Rarely does life unfold with the predictability of the carefully scripted strategic plan; far more leadership is improvised.
  • Unlike the general heading into battle or the coach heading into game seven, few of us experience dramatic defining moments. Rather, our defining “moment” is a pattern slowly etched through a lifetime studded with ordinary opportunities to make subtle differences.
  • Most of us must derive satisfaction not from manifest results but from the mere personal conviction that our actions, decisions, and choices have value.

An introspective journey—whether done all at once or over an extended period—builds the foundation for success. This journey involves

  • Appreciating oneself as talented
  • Identifying personal, derailing baggage that prevents the realization of full potential, especially weaknesses that manifest themselves as habitual tendencies
  • Articulating personally motivating goals and ambitions—not being content to merely drift along but instead living according to one’s personal sense of magis
  • Determining what one stands for, what impact one wants to make
  • Developing a worldview that guides interaction with others
  • Acquiring the habit of updating oneself regularly, indeed daily, on all the above

Ongoing success depends on turning recruits into leaders. Solve that problem, and the leaders you’ve molded will solve every other problem.

Emotional intelligence in Goleman’s terms: Self-awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives. Self-regulation: the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgement—to think before acting. Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status. Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

Reread the list. How many companies interview candidates with the above criteria in mind?

Central to and irreplaceable in the process were Spiritual Exercises. East Jesuit recruit emerged from his thirty-day immersion in the program with invaluable personal strengths, including:

  • The ability to reflect systematically on personal weaknesses, especially those manifested as habitual tendencies.
  • An integrated worldview, a vision, and a value system.
  • Profound respect for other people and for all of creation.
  • Appreciation of oneself as loved and important.
  • The ability to tune out everyday distractions in order to reflect, and the habit of doing so daily.
  • A method for considering choices and making decisions.

The Spiritual Exercises. What might be called a self-awareness “handbook.” It is not a book to be read; one achieves self-awareness not by reading how someone else achieved it but through focused reflection on one’s own experience.

Loyola called them Spiritual Exercises for a reason—they were actions to be done, not rules to be read or studied.

Exercises monopolize focus and energy for their third-day duration. This means no contact with family, friends, or coworkers; no involvement with work; no reading material other than spiritual texts; no engaging in casual conversation (even meals are taken in silence). For a month, each day is arranged around four or five one-hour meditations. The rest of the day is cleared for interior percolation of reflections, memories, thoughts, impulses, and convictions that might have been long forgotten, never allowed to surface, not sufficiently ruminated, or simply buried in the muck of everyday preoccupations.

The indifferent Jesuit liberates himself to choose strategies driven by one motive only: achieving his long-term goal of serving God by helping souls.


What would so motivate you that you would go further than wholehearted service to achieve it? Few can answer that question. Most have never even asked it of themselves. But asking oneself, and coming up with an answer, all but guarantees motivated, imaginative, engagement.

Every day upon arising, Jesuits are to remind themselves of key personal goals. And twice each day they make a short mental pit stop, what they call examen. Each examen begins by recalling the positive, loving worldview. Then comes a mental replay of the day thus far, “exacting an account of self with regard to the particular matter decided upon for correction and improvement. He should run through the time, hour by hour or period by period, from the moment of rising until the present examination.”

In other words, the recruit recalls in his mind all the events of the day, the opportunities and challenges presented, and how he reacted to them—whether his subsequent attitudes and choices brought him closer to his long-term goals or moved him further away.

The aim and end of this Society is, by traveling through the various regions of the world to preach, hear confessions, and use all other means it can to help souls.

In case he didn’t fully absorb the message, each trainee was given a sole-testing. Each was dispatched on a monthlong pilgrimage. Trainees set out empty-handed, begging for food and lodging along the way, the challenge symbolic and unmistakable: be resourceful, mobile, creative, free of attachments, and able to operate independently.

“I leave everything to your judgement and I will consider best whatever you shall decide.”

Three aspects of self-awareness are essential for pursuing personal integrity:

  • Indifference-inspired freedom from unhealthy attachments
  • Knowledge of personal nonnegotiables: the values, goals, and ways of working that are not up for discussion
  • Confidence to embrace new approaches and explore new ideas or perspectives, born of a “whole world becomes our house” attitude

Love-driven leadership is

  • The vision to see each person’s talent, potential, and dignity
  • The courage, passion, and commitment to unlock that potential
  • The resulting loyalty and mutual support that energize and unite teams

Leading is about helping others “run at full speed towards perfection.” Or, in other words, it was about the commitment to see others realize their full human potential.

The motivation was developing others to achieve a common agenda, not using others to achieve a self-interested agenda.

A company that implements love-driven leadership

  • Refuses no talent, nor anyone of quality: Love-driven companies recognize, honor, and hire the talent that others shun or overlook.
  • Runs with all speed toward perfection: Love-driven managers are dedicated to developing untapped potential rather than presiding over a Darwinian sink-or-swim workplace.
  • Operates with greater love than fear: Love-driven environments make people want to work instead of merely making them work.

They had been set up to fail—or at least to feel like failures—not positioned to succeed.

Three steps:

  • First, invite recruits to turn a corporate aspiration into a personal mission.
  • Second, create a company culture that stressed heroism, modeling the virtue yourself.
  • Third, give each person an opportunity to enlarge themself by contributing meaningfully to an enterprise greater than his own interests.

You cannot motivate anyone to do a good job unless he has a good job to do.

A restless, countercultural instinct to keep challenging the status quo we built into Jesuit heroism.

It’s not the job that’s heroic; it’s the attitude one brings to it.

Jesuits in one region after another saw schools as the ideal way to make a unique, long-range impact while cementing local status and reputation.

There were virtually no broad-based systems of free or subsidized education—those who were educated were those few whose families could pay.

Not only were Jesuits offering Europe’s best secondary education, they were offering it free of charge.

Only a company enamored with “heroic goals” would be foolish enough to launch such a vast, novel, and labor-intensive experiment while plagued by a lack of manpower and funding—and, characteristic of heroes, pull it off.

It was free. That fact alone announced a revolutionary social vision: even the poor should have the chance to learn.

BHAGs—big, hairy, audacious goals.

There was only one problem. The network was built from the bottom up, not visioned top down. The result was extraordinary, but it was accomplished person by person, each one internalizing and shaping the company mission. Each one was motivated by a spirit of magis to look beyond an ordinary potential outcome and wonder if there wasn’t something more, something greater he could accomplish.

Such heroism can’t be bought, bartered, manipulated, or forced. It’s freely offered and passed along by self-motivated individuals enthused about their work. Successful leaders know that eliciting heroism is not as simple as dreaming up an ambitious enough BHAG. Instead, they spend their time creating environments where individuals will choose heroism as a way of working and living.

Heroic leadership is never-ending, challenging work. It involves the willingness to continue questioning and probing one’s approach, tactics, values, and culture.

Great results emerge one motivated individual at a time. magis-driven leadership inevitably leads to heroism. Heroism begins with each person considering, internalizing, and shaping his or her mission. No mission is motivating until it is personal. And it is sustainable only when one makes the search for magis a reflexive, daily habit.

Instead of wishing circumstances were different, magis-driven leaders either make them different or make the most of them. Instead of waiting for golden opportunities, they find the gold in the opportunities at hand.

A strong corporate culture can also spur outstanding results, when three key characteristics fall into place:

  • The culture is strong not just on paper but in a tangible way that guides day-to-day employee behavior. When a retailer successfully instills in his or her company a customer service culture, employees instinctively go the extra mile to meet customer requests.
  • The culture is strategically appropriate. A detail-oriented culture emphasizing operational controls is better suited to a low-margin precision manufacturer than an advertising agency.
  • Most critically, the culture promotes adaptability. The culture doesn’t block change; it promotes it.

Adhere to a set of values that incorporate an engine for change.

Those who know were they’re going and what’s nonnegotiable liberate themselves for confident, even radical, experimentation.

Inventory personal weaknesses and change blocking attachments.

More important than when each person discovers defining life principles is making the commitment to pursue them. By this process life is transformed from a succession of random episodes to something whole, a life with integrity.

Leaders persevere not only out of pride, integrity, and commitment to their values. They persevere because they are all at once trusting, optimistic, foolish, and humble enough to hope and expect that the seeds of their efforts will blossom in times, ways, and places that they can neither predict not control.

Infinitely more valuable than the plan, product, and capital the Jesuits so obviously lacked was what the founders did have: uncompromising commitment to a unique way of working and living, to a life that integrated four leadership principles—self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism.

Everyone has leadership potential, and true leaders unlock that potential in others.

magis-driven heroism encourages people to aim high and keeps them restlessly pointed towards something more, something greater.

Ingenuity disposes people not just to think outside the box but to live outside the box.

Love lends purpose and passion to ingenuity and heroism.

Self-awareness riots and nourishes the other leadership virtues.

Explicitly name your values: This is who I am, this is what I stand for, this is what I want.

We’re all leaders, and we’re all leading all the time, often in small, unintended ways.

It is a lesson of experience that all men are more delighted and more moved by what they find out for themselves. Hence it will suffice just to point, as with the finger, to the vein in the mine, and let each one dig for himself.

In a World of bottom-up leadership, leader-managers

  • Lead themselves, inspiring others by their own example and creating environments of greater love than fear
  • Find and develop aptissmi (as many as possible of the very best)
  • Help subordinates locate their inner switches for motivated performance
  • Trust and support those who are “on the ground”

Guiding future leaders through a self-assessment of strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview. They met once a day for thirty days for as much as an hour each visit.

The gap is filled on person at a time, one day at a time—by all who refuse to drift through life simply going through the motions and instead commit to purposeful leadership.

How do you grasp your own leadership role?

  • You appreciate your own dignity and rich potential.
  • You recognize weaknesses and attachments that block potential.
  • You articulate the values you stand for.
  • You establish personal goals.
  • You form a point of view on the world—where you stand, what you want, and how you will relate to others.
  • You see the wisdom and value in the examen and commit to it—the daily, self-reflective habit of refocusing on priorities and extracting lessons from successes and failures.

Champion four values