St Ignatius and leadership

To be an effective leader, we each need to fully know ourselves first. Saint Ignatius laid out leadership qualities that are still highly relevant, almost 500 years later.


By Fr Tom Renshaw SJ, Rector, Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview

On Monday 31 July we celebrated the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, with our first whole school Mass in four years, held in Ramsay Hall. As part of my homily, I invited the students and staff to reflect upon the person of Ignatius, especially during the time when he recovered in the family castle from injuries to his legs from the cannonball at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521.

Over the next 10-11 months, he learnt much about himself, about his emerging hopes and dreams, as well as the beginning of his ability to discern the movements of the different spirits within himself. Ignatius came to realise that the path to life and blessing is one where we focus on the service of our God and others rather than ourselves.

Illustration by Society of Jesus Global.

On Wednesday 2 August we celebrated the transition of student leadership and this took place on the feast of St Peter Faber. Peter and St Francis Xavier were the two roommates of Ignatius at the University of Paris in the 1530s. Faber was a gentle person, the son of a shepherd from the Savoy region in France. He was the first to respond positively to Ignatius. Peter learnt a lot about himself and about God from Ignatius and he was the first one of the three roommates to become a priest.

Francis Xavier was much more resistant to Ignatius; he had his own dreams and desires, centred around his family’s pressure to restore their name and fortune. But over a number of years, he too, underwent a transformation, with Ignatius inviting him to reflect upon the words of St Matthew’s Gospel: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Matt 16:26).

It is helpful to recall the friendship of Ignatius, Peter Faber and Francis Xavier because it is an important aspect of leadership. A person, or a group of people, will always lead within the context of a community. In many ways, Ignatius was a reluctant leader. His experience of God had been so profound that he wanted to share it with others. When Ignatius and his First Companions, including Faber and Xavier, decided to form the Society of Jesus, everyone voted for Ignatius to be their leader, except Ignatius. He reluctantly agreed to accept the decision and then spent the next 16 years sitting behind a desk, as an administrator, writing the Constitutions of the Jesuits, when what he wanted to do was to be out among the people, helping and serving others directly.

St Ignatius of Loyola, St Peter Faber and St Francis Xavier. Art by Br Podsiadky SJ, Society of Jesus Global.

In preparation for the Student Leadership Assembly, I spent some time re-reading part of the Constitutions of the Jesuits, in particular the leadership qualities that Saint Ignatius outlined for a person to be elected the Superior General, that is our worldwide leader. Ignatius talked about the following important leadership qualities. He said a leader needs to be:

  • a person of magnanimity, that is, to be large-hearted, to be a person who can see the good in others, and who is patient with the weaknesses and failures of others; 
  • a person who has a large horizon, who can dream big about what is possible and does not become easily disheartened when obstacles emerge;  
  • able to mingle well with others, and to be known for their virtue, kindness and charity. They are a person who builds others up, while maintaining their own humility; 
  • intelligent and to have good judgment; they need to be able to make good decisions, to be able to discern well and to be known for their discretion. This is an important part of leadership, knowing what to share and what not to share with others;  
  • one who perseveres, having the ability to see a task through to completion with energy;  
  • closely united with God as a person who prays regularly, asking God for help and guidance each day.

This final point is the most important one. It is one of the reasons why we pray the Examen each day at school. To be an effective leader, each of us needs to know ourselves. By spending time in reflection and prayer, we develop a deeper understanding of our gifts as well as our shadows. This was the process Ignatius learnt while he recovered from his injuries. Over time, it completely changed him and his life evolved to be completely focused on sharing his experience of God with others and helping them come to a deeper understanding of themselves and the magnificence of our God.

This article was originally published in a recent edition of the ‘Viewpoint’ newsletter for Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.