Why the Society of Jesus can teach us something about organisational excellence

Today, most managers or leaders know this: an organisation or a company is a complex thing. Having a nicely engineered blue print of how things should go is simply not enough. Intervention on an organisational level is tricky business. And contexts are continuously changing. So, no surprise that the world of organisational experts and academics today is trying to find the ‘Holy Grale’ that can provide us with the right knowledge on how to steer and intervene on an organisational level in such a way that the organisations’ or companies’ performance is maximized and compliant with its mission and goals.

Erik Vanleeuw, lay collaborator of the Flemish Province of Jesuits, recently graduated from Vlerick Business School (Executive MBA) with a research project on the organisational design of the Society of Jesus and its aptitude to change. Together with his promoter, professor Ralf Wetzel, he visited the 9th EIASM Colloquium in Essen (Germany) in September where they presented the results of Erik’s research to an audience of researchers, consultants and PhD-students from all over the world. And guess what: the Society of Jesus is being perceived as a highly interesting case study since it obviously managed to survive plenty of extraordinary turbulent times. Apparently the organisation of the Jesuits seems to have a range of unique organisational tools that turn out to be highly suitable and efficient to proceed in a complex and continuously changing conditions, like the one we are faced today.

Vlerick professor Ralf Wetzel: “Usually, in-company projects are strongly focussed on the organisational needs of the hosting company on the one hand and on turning course content into visible business impact on the other. This fosters the perception of limited academic potential of such projects. Erik’s work in this respect is a gift, showing impressively the general capability of these projects to fruitfully combine researching with learning and managing. And, if I may add, it was truly eye-opening to me with sheer fun being on a learning ride myself.

Johan Verschueren, Provincial of the Flemish and Dutch Jesuit provinces, fully agrees: “Erik Vanleeuw’s study was a pleasant surprise. It provided us with extremely interesting reading keys to enlarge the self-understanding of our activities and to improve them where vulnerable Achilles heels have been exposed. The study also helps to examine and valorise an ancient reputable global organisation by means of a contemporary and relevant language game. This is very creditable. So, I have recommended the study to several colleagues in the Society of Jesus.

The following (selection of) features of the Society of Jesus as an organisation were highlighted during the presentation at the EIASM Colloquium in Essen: 

1/ From the very beginning, the Society of Jesus developed a highly sophisticated mechanism of exchange of information which enables wise and well informed decision making: information goes top down, but also bottom up and cannot be ignored. From the very beginning Jesuits were writing letters to Rome and to each other. Superiors have been travelling a lot, visiting people and places, a provincial normally sees every individual Jesuit once a year and is supposed to listen very carefully and so on… The formal and the informal level in the Society of Jesus are in a continuous dialectic process of writtenness and orality. 
Many companies/ organisations today struggle a lot with connecting the formal with the informal level.  

2/ Hierarchy and obedience enable strong leadership, but cannot be seen as absolute conditions (standing on their own), since they are always accompanied by a process of individual and collective discernment. The Spiritual Exercises provide each Jesuit with a unique tool to discern and to make healthy decisions on an individual, but also on a more collective (organisational or managerial) level.  It enables a Jesuit also to ‘obey’ a superior, but not as a soldier or a robot.  The account of conscience enables the person to open his heart to change and tries to find a match between the persons’ own vocation and the mission of the organisation that is  being guarded by the superior.  
Many companies/organisations today struggle with the connection between the mission of the company and the individuals’ ambitions and needs. Human Resources departments are in urgent need for tools that facilitate what is called for instance Organisational Civic Behaviour (OCB). Or they try to find ways to uncover hidden competences, skills and needs of their employees that fit the organisations’ goals and ambitions. 

3/ A strong formation (or indoctrination) and the so called ‘contemplation in action’ enable Jesuits to operate and to improvise in highly complex, alienating and quickly changing environments. Jesuits are not living in monasteries. They deliberately and consciously choose to operate in the world and in many cases at the borders. It means that they often have to sail in choppy waters. The Spiritual Exercises, a strong intellectual formation, the Daily Examen and the so called contemplation in action provide them with a strong compass to continuously discern and to act an react at the appropriate time. They improvise a lot, but always in connection with their mission (that comes from God and his Holy Spirit).
Many companies/organisations today struggle with finding the right orientation and maintaining the connection with their mission since they cannot handle the choppy waters and the quickly changing circumstances they find themselves in. 

Source: “Change readiness of a religious order. An exceptional organizational story…” by Erik Vanleeuw; Executive MBA Leuven 2014. (0032 16 39 84 77 or directeurddhlv@kuleuven.be)

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