Any ambitious entrepreneur seeking to lay the foundations of a 21st-century multinational would start with some of the following principles: set a strong purpose; be global from the start; maintain a firm governance structure, but devolve decision-making to your highly trained frontline managers; and communicate constantly.
This was the basis on which Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish saint, founded the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – in the 16th century. Jose Bento da Silva of Warwick Business School, who has studied the Catholic organisation for more than 10 years, believes it can offer lessons for modern multinationals.
Jesuits, whose mission is founded on vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, may balk at the parallel with profit-driven enterprises. But Prof Bento da Silva, who was himself a Jesuit novice before turning to engineering and then management studies, says the organisation has shown over the centuries how it is possible to balance central control and local autonomy.
The Society of Jesus has a military-sounding structure, headed by a “superior general”, based in Rome, who oversees a network of “provincials” in charge of geographical areas. The provincials supervise local operations including the Jesuits’ famously exacting schools and local charitable organisations. The society has 200,000 staff, of whom 20,000 are Jesuits, many undergoing lengthy training.
When he established the order, Ignatius had limited ability to contact his network of missionaries. Abundant exchanges of letters helped to keep him in touch. Occasions when provincials must notify Rome of big decisions are still clearly codified. But above all, Ignatius imbued the priests with the right purpose before they set out, and then trusted them to do the correct thing. It looks like the “loose-tight” management approach praised by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their business classic, In Search of Excellence.
Even in a world of email, “there’s no way a global organisation can run unless its power is divided [between] a group of men trained in a ‘way of proceeding’,” says former British provincial Father Michael Holman, using the Jesuit term for the organisation’s values and behaviour.
Autonomy has its pitfalls. Some Jesuits told Prof Bento da Silva the society was “a clear example of disorganisation”, suffering from inefficient duplication of activities. Far worse, Catholic child abuse scandals have hit some Jesuit outposts.
The Jesuits’ networked structure and the fact it promotes people only from within its ranks are mainly, however, sources of strength, according to Prof Bento da Silva. He was first driven to study the society because of the way Jesuits seemed to play a role in many breakthroughs in global history, science, philosophy and exploration. “Either they were there or they taught those who were there,” he says.
The society’s wider organisational principles are now visible at the top of the church. Pope Francis is the first pontiff from a Jesuit background. Fr Holman says he has shown “clear traces of his Jesuit identity” in his emphasis on collegiality and use of councils of senior churchmen.
Fr Holman, who heads the University of London’s Heythrop College, points to two other pillars of Jesuit vocation with wider application. One is “discernment”: “We are constantly looking for where the Lord is calling us at any time,” he says. The other is “disponibility”, drawn from the Spanish word disponible, according to which Jesuits are always available to answer that call. Executives at multinationals may not use the same terms, but they need to apply these principles every day: they are the spiritual equivalent of trend-spotting and remaining agile.
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