Jul 24, 2009

Talking with Chris Lowney, Author of Heroic Living

A Jesuit seminarian walks into J.P. Morgan. . . . If that sounds like the start of a joke, in the case of Chris Lowney, it's not. This one-time Jesuit, by his mid 30s, was a managing director at J.P. Morgan. And the question is: how does a Jesuit seminarian, a guy trained to listen for God, do on a floor of MBAs trained to leap at the opening bell? Chris answers that in two books: Heroic Leadership and Heroic Living.  Both books take St. Ignatius of Loyola into the cubicles, trading floor, and boardrooms of investment banking. 

The result, for anyone in business, can be blood-stirring.  If you find no spiritual growth in spreadsheets . . . if you'll entertain that a workday is potentially rife with teachable, transcendent moments . . . if practical means to uncover spiritual purpose in your secular career appeals to you—Lowney has something for you. The seminarian economist offers no quick fixes and occasional gaps emerge between his vision and your daily operations.  But Lowney asks the right questions and offers thoughtful, readable answers.

No joke.

Chris, why does a person leave seminary for the corporate world? Did you believe you had another calling?

Most of the time I was a seminarian I was pretty happy. But that kind of lifestyle is, in a way, a gifted one. I realized I could stick it out but at the cost of being somewhat unhappy, and that's an important indicator of what we're supposed to do with our lives.  Many fulfilling jobs are difficult and have difficult moments—but in a deep way, I realized my own path was outside religious life.

That's a relief. I was prepared to envy someone's having, in his mid-twenties, a clear call to serve God in the business world. But you're claiming no master plan.

The last thing I'd done as a Jesuit was to teach economics at a high school.  So to get a job to support myself, I just started sending resumes to big banks.

When did concepts of holiness enter your equation?

I didn't think of holiness at work until much later in life.  I think what the psychologists tell us bears out in my life experience. When you're young, you tend to focus on promotions, money, family. At some point in our 40s, we begin to think, "Does this make any sense? What's the point of my life? What am I trying to accomplish?"  My life, in a way, followed that pattern.  I didn't think in that dimension much until I'd been at Morgan for ten years or so.

People start to feel great frustration between what they believe deeply and their daily work: "I can't connect what I believe to what I do all week."  Lives are split and it's a source of pain—whether they frame it in religious or life terms.  I wanted to take that on and ask: Are there ways to begin to think about what we do to bridge this chasm?

And there you are, a seminary-trained economist working among Harvard business school types. That raises another question: when your associates learned of your background, what reactions did you get?

It would be all over the place.  One of the problems in a lot of investment banking firms is that people with homogenous backgrounds operate in ways that lead to tunnel vision and tunnel thinking.  It's a little tangential to the point, but I think we see some of the fallout of that in the crises over the last two to three years. They are complicated crises, and I don't mean to oversimplify.  But a contributing factor is crowds of people with the same background, training, and approach to problems.  You slip into groupthink quickly, and things can easily go wrong.  All to say that for some people my background was a curiosity and nothing more profound.  They'd all gone to Harvard Business School and knew what those folks were like. A seminarian was an odd piece. Occasionally but rarely, people who by virtue of what I'd done probably looked at me as an intermediary, someone you could discuss ethical concerns with that they might not have raised generally.

Investment bankers tend not to be reflective people?

One important aspect of their work involves short-term decisions—say in foreign exchange or equities. That style of decision-making and thinking tends to pervade entire companies.  Yet for many kinds of decision-making, most particularly personal life decisions, that's an unhealthy approach.

In Heroic Living, I ask people to consider what mental approach they have to important decisions.  I suggest that the [investment banker] model of decision-making is bad for important life choices.

Do you think business school ethics classes can make a difference in how the students do decisions . . . do life?

I think it's a great dilemma. It's important to put that subject on the table and force people to articulate, in a classroom setting at least, their own points of view.  There was a wave of [ethics courses] after the 2000 series of corporate scandals—Enron, etc.—and a flurry of ethical studies in business schools.  The great dilemma is the difference between what you know and what you do.  A great mystery, not just in business, is what makes people morally courageous. No school course makes people morally courageous. While it's good and important for students to talk about ethical ramifications of what they do for a living, anyone who imagines that [a course] is a panacea for ethics in the workplace is smoking dope.

Are you a special case, then?  Do you think you could find "holy ground" in the corporate world apart from your seminary background?

Probably not.  I was trained to think a certain way and look for certain things.  The book suggests that people must do personal digging to surface what they ultimately care about and stand for.  Nowadays everyone wants five quick tips and the longest part of my book has no quick tips.  The first half is more reflective and time intensive.  That's necessary to transform ourselves into people with an appropriately profound sense of who we are and what we're about.

In Heroic Living, Chris, you refer to Andrew Murray, an employee at a multinational aerospace company. He asked himself how spirituality, life, and work fit together.  His two-word solution:  be holy.  What does that mean?

I used his story because he was serious about his religion and was trying to figure out faith within a sophisticated modern workplace.  In a business setting, the concept of "holy" is provocative and counterintuitive.  One definition is to be aware you're in God's presence—and to have that in mind when we're dealing with annoying colleagues or considering whether to help a person or stab him in the back.  Those are ways to think about the idea of holy as opposed to the knee-jerk notion that holy is when you kneel in church and pray.

That attitude of God's presence can be difficult to sustain. You also speak of a "thy kingdom come" vision.  How does a person, practically, rise from focusing on the next deadline to "thy kingdom come"?

The simplest, most practical thing I can say, which is one of the practices the book recommends, is that people start with a small entrée.  A couple of times a day take five minutes at least—at lunch and evening—and do three simple things:

1. Remind yourself why you're grateful.
2. Consider an objective you wish to achieve or a personal issue to address.
3. Think back to the last few hours and take away a little lesson.

That's a simple practice but profound in that it can get people above the fray of their lives for a minute, and reoriented, before plunging back in.

Mind you, it doesn't get to the questions that require more personal investment and time.  Questions like, "What is my sense of purpose?"  And "What do I believe in?" But it can be frustrating to tell people to start with those questions.  That three-part practice gets people into a reflective habit that might open up to asking more profound questions.

Several times in the book you refer to the Jesuit Father Cizek—an accomplished man who found himself in a tragic dead end and came to some conclusions about God's will.

In some way he's an extreme example, a type A who ends up in a Russian prison camp and can't control his circumstances. And that's the point. One of the pitfalls you find with people is unwillingness and inability to deal with the reality of circumstances.  There are times when what we need is courage to quit a job or to tell the manager where to get off or whatever it is. Other times our circumstances are such that we don't control enough to change things.  The only wise choice is to say, "What do I do in these circumstances I find myself in and can't control?" 

That segues to the idea of wisdom.  You say it's both spiritual and worldly.

This is a personal observation.  In the last 20 years especially, we've grown in love with technology, fast decisions, mathematics, science—and we tend not to believe there's such a thing as wisdom. People can learn wisdom over time, and a body of experience gives advantages in approaching problems.  We tend to undervalue that.  "Wisdom" has become an esoteric, religious thing.  To me, if the last two years on Wall Street illustrate anything, it's the importance of people with the good judgment who say, "I know what your math model tells me but are we running appropriate risks?"  All those insights and judgments!  Religious traditions have valued wisdom, and wisdom is spiritual.  But it's also a practical gift—the kind of gift all people but especially spiritual people should try to cultivate.

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