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What is Ignatian leadership and why does it matter?

Apr 18, 2022
10 min Read
Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74
St. Ignatius Statue Creighton Phoenix Campus

Nearly 500 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola quietly started a spiritual revolution that reverberated through the ages and has found fresh dynamism at Creighton. The founder of the Society of Jesus initiated innovative teaching and learning methods through the Spiritual Exercises and developed tools and practices to form leaders empowered to change the world.  

Today, fostering Ignatian-inspired leadership is at the core of Creighton’s mission in a multitude of ways, and especially in the development of students — both in and outside the classroom.

What exactly does Ignatian leadership look like? Is it possible to learn it, and employ it in your own life, even long after you have graduated from Creighton?

At its root, Ignatian-inspired leadership development provides a structure and context for people to learn more about themselves and those they serve.

“Ignatian leadership does not begin from anything other than our relationship to God,” says Tom Kelly, PhD, professor of theology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“It is not based on outcomes or money gained,” says Kelly. “One can be immensely successful according to the dictates of the ‘world’ but if we lack love, what does it benefit us? This is our driving question in Ignatian leadership.”

Ignatian leadership faculty
From left, Tom Kelly, PhD; Nicole Piemonte, PhD; Matt Seevers, PhD; Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD; and Charles Thomas Jr., MS’09, EdD’14.

A Focus on Reflection

A primary component in Creighton’s Ignatian-inspired programs — including those in the undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, student advising and programs through the divisions of Mission and Ministry and Student Life — is reflection, just as it was for Ignatius and his followers.

That means before, during and after experiences that promote Ignatian-inspired student leadership development, students are asked to reflect — to look within themselves for the movements of God. Faculty and staff who work with the students also engage in the same type of reflection.

Who our students are becoming as people matters just as much as who they are becoming as physicians.
— Nicole Piemonte, PhD

For example, Nicole Piemonte, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs for the medical school in Phoenix, assistant professor of medical humanities and the Peekie Nash Carpenter Endowed Chair in Medicine, says written personal reflections are embedded throughout the medical school curriculum.

“I spend time discussing with students the idea that being a future Creighton doctor means being an advocate for the marginalized, underserved and disenfranchised, in addition to being a competent and compassionate clinician,” Piemonte says.

In Creighton’s Heider College of Business, the mission statement and the entire undergraduate curriculum, called the Heider Mindset, are shaped by Ignatian values.

The Heider mission statement reads: “Guided by our Jesuit heritage, we form leaders who promote justice and use their business knowledge to improve the world.”  

The Heider Mindset undergraduate curriculum came about through the work of dozens of the college’s faculty members through a task force that began in the summer of 2017 and completed its work in 2020.

“We felt it was vital that any revisions to our undergraduate curriculum both reflect and strengthen the mission of the Heider College,” says Matt Seevers, PhD, professor of marketing, associate dean for undergraduate programs and a member of the task force.

We want our graduates to see business as an opportunity to be for and with others, and to seek justice, especially for the poor and marginalized.
— Matt Seevers, PhD

“We want our graduates to see business as an opportunity to be for and with others, and to seek justice, especially for the poor and marginalized,” says Seevers. “And we want our students to see leadership in business as an opportunity not just for personal gain, but to be an instrument to positively transform society.”

Like Seevers, other Creighton faculty are eager to discuss the difference they see in Creighton students because of the emphasis on Ignatian leadership principles.

“Who our students are becoming as people matters just as much as who they are becoming as physicians,” says the medical school’s Piemonte. “We are committed to their character formation and virtue development so that our students can continue to grow into people who advocate for and care well for patients when they need it most.”

She says Creighton medical students are being prepared to be leaders who expect more from the health care system: “Leaders who believe that actions should be aligned with values and that patients should always be at the center of every decision.”

Bringing Something More

It’s because Creighton seeks to impart Ignatian values in each student, including Ignatian-inspired leadership values, says Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD, an associate professor in leadership in the Graduate School, that Creighton graduates bring something more to their professions.

Moss Breen is an expert on leadership and has been tasked with leading the effort to gather data on Creighton’s commitment to leader development and leadership education for the public good. (See the story about Creighton being one of only 13 institutions invited to participate in a new Carnegie Foundation leadership classification pilot process.)

Moss Breen is also the author of the recently published book Women Courageous: Leading Through the Labyrinth, a collection of experiences of women worldwide leading in the political, academic, nonprofit public and private sectors. She says while students who choose Creighton are aware it is a Jesuit university, they are not upon arrival necessarily familiar with Ignatian-based ideas or pedagogy.

“Students who choose to attend a Jesuit institution such as Creighton may be familiar with the Jesuit mission, but it is just as likely the Ignatian tradition or Ignatian leadership are completely unfamiliar to them.

It only requires one short step toward this curiosity, and suddenly, the desire to grow in Ignatian spirituality and Ignatian leadership is fostered.
— Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD

“Some students may be surprised with discussions that, on the surface, seem to not contribute to advancing in their chosen field. They might even present a sort of ‘push back’ when discussions of faith, St. Ignatius or spirituality are meshed with concrete knowledge and application of field-based topics,” she adds.

But when lessons are created and delivered in a manner akin to that of St. Ignatius, which asks faculty to adapt to the needs of students, she says students see Jesuit education in “a new light.”

Creighton students have many opportunities to engage with, and be curious about, leading in a manner like St. Ignatius. “It only requires one short step toward this curiosity, and suddenly, the desire to grow in Ignatian spirituality and Ignatian leadership is fostered,” says Moss Breen.

Students and graduates then bring this to life every day in their work. “They invest their lives in serving others, building communities and promoting social justice. And through their work, they can ‘set the world on fire’ indeed, as St. Ignatius encouraged his followers.”

Creating Other Leaders

One graduate who is thoroughly steeped in Ignatian leadership principles is Charles Thomas Jr., MS’09, EdD’14, who holds two degrees from Creighton — a master’s degree in negotiation and dispute resolution and a doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership.

Today, Thomas is CEO and co-founder of Clear Cloud, a cloud engineering company that offers specialized cloud services to intelligence community customers.

Thomas says that while he doesn’t wish to discount other leadership models, he finds Ignatian-based leadership training has served him well, largely because of “three salient components” that are pivotal in his desire, willingness and ability to lead:

Freedom from attachment. This Ignatian principle taught Thomas the importance of focusing on the process and not the outcome. “As long as I take the necessary steps to achieve the desired goal, I can confidently look at myself and say that I did my best. The outcome is less important than the system/process.”

Magis, which is Latin for more. Says Thomas: “Ignatian-based leadership teaches us to learn more so that we can do more and be more for ourselves and others. If I do not put in mega effort to make myself better, how can I be of value to others? If I don’t take the necessary steps to reach my potential, how can I ask that of others?”

Cura personalis, which translates as care for the whole person. “We live in a world in which a deficit model seems to reign supreme,” says Thomas. “An individual could do 99 things right, one thing incorrectly, and we focus on the one negative. I prefer to consider the whole person. I know they are flawed vessels, traveling in unknown waters, just like I am. As such, I choose grace. I am neither superior nor inferior to anyone and lead accordingly. I ask for patience and flexibility from others and I do my very best to offer the same to them.”

I take St. Ignatius’ challenge to ‘go set the world on fire’ seriously. One of my desires is to create other leaders.
— Charles Thomas Jr., MS’09, EdD’14

Thomas says he doesn’t panic when he starts to move into uncharted territory. “My Creighton education taught me I don’t have to know all the answers right away. When I’m not sure what to do, I simply make the next right decision, and that is usually a small step in the desired direction. As long as I can do that, I can lead myself and others to our desired destination.”

As one of the leaders of Clear Cloud, he says his “entire focus is to lead well. Every day, when I engage a customer, current or potential teammate, or a teaming partner, I take that as an opportunity to offer value. I take St. Ignatius’ challenge to ‘go set the world on fire’ seriously, and as co-founder and CEO, one of my desires is to create other leaders. It is a leadership mandate, in my opinion, to lift others as we climb.”

He adds, “Leading is not about telling people what to do. It is about creating a vision, being thoughtful, leading by example, and pursuing excellence as a demonstration of human potential.”

Shaped by Ignatian Principles

Faculty who impart Ignatian-based principles to their students find that they, too, are shaped by these same ideas. If they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Theology professor Kelly says teaching, for him, is a way of serving God and others. “I do so in light of what the students need, not what I need. This may mean continually revising and changing how I teach theology, so that my students can grow and become the people they are supposed to become. I listen to them and often reflect on whether my teaching is meeting their spiritual and intellectual needs.”

Heider College of Business’ Seevers says Ignatian principles greatly influence all aspects of his work. “I believe my work is a calling. My roles as a teacher, advisor and mentor are an opportunity to reflect God’s love for me and to extend care and love to others.”

And Piemonte, in the School of Medicine, says Ignatian principles deeply affect both her teaching and her work as assistant dean for student affairs. “Promoting social justice is core to so much of my teaching, especially the importance of reflection, cura personalis and social justice.

One can be immensely successful according to the dictates of the ‘world’ but if we lack love, what does it benefit us? This is our driving question in Ignatian leadership.
— Tom Kelly, PhD

“I love that Ignatian values allow us to be bold when it comes to caring for those who may be less fortunate, or less privileged. And in my role as assistant dean, I am guided by cura personalis, not only encouraging students to see patients as whole people, but for me to see, address and care for students as whole people.”

And for Creighton alumni who may have graduated without as much awareness of the leadership framework that is so prevalent today, the Graduate School’s Moss Breen has some advice.

“Applying Ignatian leadership into our daily lives is a lifelong practice, but there are some simple actions you can embrace that can inspire it within you,” she says.

“Creighton alumni likely were exposed during their time on campus to the Jesuit practice of daily reflection. Reflective practices, especially those related to transcendent values, are reinforced through Ignatian leadership.

“Reflective styles such as anticipatory (What do I expect to happen?), in-the-moment (What is going on right now that I can impact positively?) and retrospective (What happened and how could I have done things differently?), just to name a few, offer leaders insights into their own thinking and how they’d like to lead, particularly in an effort to promote justice and service to others.”

Creighton pursuing leadership classification

Creighton has successfully completed a Carnegie Foundation pilot application process for a new Leadership for Public Purpose Elective Classification. Creighton was among just 13 universities, and the only Jesuit institution, invited to participate in the pilot process.

The new elective classification recognizing colleges and universities for leadership for “public purpose” refers to how well they prepare educated, engaged graduates who contribute to the public good in their careers, communities and broader society. The Carnegie project is a partnership with the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University.

The elective classification process requires rigorous self-study by universities in order to receive the Carnegie designation. Successfully achieving the Leadership for Public Purpose Classification would elevate Creighton to an even greater extent as a national leader in leadership education and development.

Jennifer Moss Breen, PhD, associate professor in the EdD in Interdisciplinary Leadership program, is leading Creighton’s University-wide self-assessment in the year-long elective classification application process, with the full support of Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, and Provost Mardell Wilson, EdD.

“Everyone involved with the pilot process is grateful to Fr. Hendrickson and Provost Wilson for supporting this important initiative,” Moss Breen says. “Going forward now with the formal application and self-study helps Creighton fully define our deep commitment to developing leaders for the improvement of our world.”