What drives a Jesuit seminarian out of the seminary to the height of the corporate world? From a life bound by poverty and humility he switched to investment banking, an environment often known for blind ambition and unscrupulous ways? Jen Rosenberg speaks to Chris Lowney about his unusual journey
Former seminarian Chris Lowney thinks he has found a middle road.
Where you can take the best of one and apply it to the other and somehow find a happy medium. It all comes down to a matter of good practice, management and leadership.
One could draw a superficial comparison between himself and the best-known Jesuit of the day: Pope Francis. Both started out as unprepossessing young men, on a path of sanctity, both reached the pinnacle of their career – one as the Pope of the Catholic Church, the other as the managing director of international investment bank JP Morgan.
While the career prospects of both took a massive lurch in other directions, each had to apply the principles of good management and leadership in order to achieve what he has done. Lowney has been a regular visitor to Australia from New York and is looking, forward to his speaking tour of ACU in October.
He will touch on the themes he has become familiar with and known for: the role of leadership in the community and challenging our assumptions about leadership, and recognising that each person has a leadership opportunity and responsibility. So is there a distinction between a good leader and a great leader?
Lowney says some of the qualities he believes are those needed to become a strong leader are ones some might attribute to good management: competence, fairness and accountability.
“Some people consider these basic things not to be leadership at all. But I disagree. They are the important fundamental tasks that any leader must accomplish. “The great leader does these basic things, plus is able to conceive and convey some real sense of the future: this is where we need to go ... and is able to motivate and inspire and align us around this vision of the future ... and, by doing so, and by dealing with the unforeseen obstacles that come up along the way, the great leader drives needed and desired change in the organisation and the world.”
The kind of leadership that has become particularly irksome to Lowney is the increasing cult of celebrity. Our celebritysoaked culture, enabled by the globalisation of information, has generated a swathe of people obsessed with empty personalities who simply have to appear in public for there to be wonder and speculation about their every living movement.
Is it possible to overcome this forceful tide of celebrity, which is aided by “churnalism” that spews endless and vacuous information about nothing at all? “Whenever you’re in complex changing time we need strong leadership yet at the same time we have this brand of celebrity culture or idolisation, of hierarchical leaders.
They’re the ones who are on television, they’re in magazines, they’re paid incredible amounts of money. Even if one moment we need broadly disseminated leadership, at the other moment the culture signals we send are exactly the opposite and people tend not to think of themselves at all as leaders.” Lowney himself has overcome stereotypes to become a leader in his field.
He entered the seminary at 18 but after six years he decided to chance his luck in the corporate world, entering JP Morgan’s trainee program.
For the next 17 years he rose through the ranks to become managing director of the company in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and London.
What a difference two worlds can make. In one he earned an allowance of $5 a week and as he told the ABC in an interview, he probably made more in one week at JP Morgan than he would in a hundred weeks in the church. How do you go from poverty and humility to an organisation that promised to make people “hog-whimperingly rich”?
He said he drew on history of early Jesuits to remain grounded and for some of their lessons in leadership. “So people who come from a faith-based tradition tend to be quite receptive or at least open to discussing some of these ideas because in a way it’s connecting to their own tradition – in a way I see that at ACU.
By tradition I don’t mean Jesuit tradition but faith-based tradition.” And one important part of leadership is to develop others to step up and take responsibility. Not just politically or in the business world – Lowney says people always assume leaders are prime ministers or generals – but also in families and communities.
He says beyond the traditional concept of stewardship is the more fundamental matter of having a sense of direction and the ability to develop. “We live in a strange paradox which is that on the one hand, at a theoretical level every company and organisation understands ,that they need to have leadership broadly displayed throughout the organisation.
I’m sure at ACU every company that every graduate of ACU goes to work for, there are phrases like 'well, we need people who show leadership …' As parents, teachers, bosses, we can look beyond those who naturally shine and encourage those who have something to offer but might be overlooked."
Another career reinvention saw Lowney leave JP Morgan in 2001, and find a new\ direction for his skills and interests through writing and continuing to help others through board membership (he chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives) and the establishment of educational support for those in need (launching Jesuit Commons- Higher Education at the Margins and the Ignatian Camino).
His three books Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, Heroic Living: Discover Your Purpose and Change the World, and A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain have won many awards and have been translated into multiple languages.
Chris Lowney will give a one-hour presentation in Melbourne on Tuesday 8 October. To find out more, visit the ACU website