As we contemplate a slowdown or end to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are talking about getting “back to normal.” But others, wisely, are instead using this moment to recalibrate, reset, and reinvent.
The global crisis — and its personal ramifications — have presented us all a unique opportunity to find new identities, roles, and jobs more suited to our talents, ambitions, and purpose. For those who want a life of excellence and impact, it may be time to forge a new path, and I’d like to offer some advice on how to do it.
When mapping the future, it often helps to look back to the past. One of my favorite trauma-to-triumph stories — which I’ve studied at length — concerns Ignatius of Loyola, founder of The Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. In 1521, however, that legacy was yet to be established.
On May 20 of that year, Ignatius, an orphan who’d become a military man active in Spanish court social life, was literally shot down by a cannon ball. With one leg broken and the other wounded, he convalesced only to find that his fractured bone hadn’t healed properly so it would require rebreaking and resetting in an anesthesia-free procedure that left him seriously ill. At the same time, Ignatius’s stand-in father and master, the chief treasurer of the crown, lost his privileged position.
Hurt, sick, jobless, and without a mentor, Ignatius could have lowered his ambitions. But, instead, he expanded them. From his recovery bed, he committed to get healthy again and make a difference in the world.
Over the next several years he first worked on clarifying his purpose, spending almost a year of soul-searching in a cave, after which he wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a religious text that emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and choosing the path of greatest good. Having decided to become a priest, but without any knowledge of the required preliminary Latin, he went back to school at age 33, first studying grammar with young boys in Barcelona, and then looking for the best academic training in Alcalá, Salamanca, and the University of Paris, where he also focused on recruiting and training an amazing group of high potentials for his mission. Then, in 1540, with little start-up capital, he founded the Jesuits, a religious order with the special vow to travel wherever in the world they were most needed.
Within a decade, he and his fellow members managed to get more than 30 colleges up and running, creating the world’s largest higher education network. The Jesuits became confidants to European monarchs, China’s Ming emperor, the Japanese shogun, and the Mughal emperor in India. And the work continued well beyond Ignatius’s death in 1556. By the late 18th century, Jesuit institutions numbered more than 700, sprawled across five continents, and, even today, they continue to have a major impact around the world.
During my more than three decades as an executive search consultant, I often counseled people at pivot points like the one Ignatius faced after his accident: situations in which regular people (just as the Jesuit founder was before he made his mark) must decide what to do next. Each day, I made a point of supplementing my official work duties — advising companies on talent acquisition and leadership development — to meet with someone who was either without a job, frustrated by their current one, or eager to start a completely new phase.
I had the privilege of engaging in deep discussions with more than 4,000 people aiming to redefine their future, and I learned from each of their journeys. I’ve discovered that those who, like Ignatius, used those pivots to progress toward richer, more meaningful lives — full of sustained personal success, excellence, and happiness — did so by paying attention to and aligning six critical dimensions, what I have come to call the six Cs.
The Six Cs
The first three are capability, credibility, and connectivity.
This refers to not just to your ability to perform certain jobs or roles, but also your competencies. Some of these will depend on your specific field or preferences, such as specialized knowledge in operations, marketing, or finance. For Ignatius’ new ambitions and career, for example, learning Latin and theology became absolute musts, and he committed to do it with students half his age. These are “threshold” competencies: the “hard” skills needed to play and stay in the game, such knowing accounting for anyone pursuing a business career.
There are other general capabilities that are increasingly valuable for any leadership role, including keen self-awareness, emotional self-control, drive, empathy, social and political awareness, inspirational leadership, teamwork, influencing skills, and conflict resolution. These are mostly emotional and social intelligence-based competencies related to our ability to properly manage ourselves and our relationships with others.
Ignatius himself, while working hard with his companions to study the initial required curriculum, had no doubt that the key for their long-term success was to master these “soft” skills. Indeed, the Exercises (still practiced today massively all over the world) are an effort to “conquer oneself and to regulate one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.”
As Daniel Goleman famously showed in his 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence, research has conclusively demonstrated that these capabilities matter more than IQ, and are by far the most important differentiating competencies of senior leaders.
A good reputation (that is, what people say about you after you left the room or Zoom) is also important. You first need a solid track record of achievement.
Ignatius learned this the hard way when he was put into jail twice for delivering the Exercises without being a priest. After that, he decided to not only go through the formal studies but also pursue the highest levels of academic excellence with his followers, moving from Salamanca to the University of Paris, in those days one of the most prestigious higher education institutions attracting the best and brightest from around the world. Educational and career experience bolster our credibility, and we should work very hard in these areas.
So does excellence, which according to management scholar Peter Drucker, comes to those who focus on their strengths and passions. In today’s hyperconnected world, where new employers, clients, and customers are only a click or friend request away and everyone has become more comfortable with remote relationships and work, it’s now even easier to do what you’re good at, what you love, and what people will pay you for because you’re not limited by your immediate social circle or geography. In my early days I worked in Argentina for a local corporation. Then I worked in Europe. Then, with modern communication, I returned to my home country while working globally for a professional service firm, mixed with frequent travel. Today I happily work on my own mostly from home (save a few sporadic trips) with clients spread around the world on projects I deeply care about.
Another pillar of credibility is independence: staying intellectually honest and eliminating all potential conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived. Years ago, a good friend of mine told me that I would never be seen as a fully credible thought leader on talent while still serving as a partner in an executive search firm. I realized I had to gradually reduce my involvement with a company I loved before finally ending it. It was a difficult decision, but in the end it brought me much more freedom, independence, and credibility.
This involves generating new opportunities, spreading your work, and learning from the best.
There are, of course, times when we may want to dramatically expand our networks — for example when unemployed or unhappy and looking for a new job. My advice is to do this systematically: make a list of 100 strategic contacts (including both potential employers as well as sources) and plan your outreach. This article explains how in more detail.
In normal times, however, I recommend a much more targeted approach, focusing on one or at most two networks to spread our work and generate new opportunities. In my case, for decades I worked primarily through the 69 Egon Zehnder offices spread across 42 countries. Then I gradually but decisively shifted to cultivating my network at Harvard Business School, periodically reviewing my key contacts, and making sure to stay close to them.
And these relationships should go deeper than social media messages. In an era when we can instantly connect electronically with almost anyone, it is easy to waste time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other online activity. But, apart from strategic use of LinkedIn, those platforms rarely help you build lasting and meaningful professional relationships. The best leaders I’ve known spend a huge amount of time both writing and talking to their most important connections, wherever they are.
Almost 500 years ago, Ignatius was a master at this. Though his handwritten letters would take months to reach his intended recipients, historians have recovered nearly 7,000 of them, all the way from Asia to South America.
These first three Cs strongly reinforce each other, creating a powerful virtuous circle: connectivity generates opportunities which further develop our capability, in turn enhancing our credibility and opening up a new possibilities through better connectivity, and so on.
Even as we align and develop these three Cs, which should in turn lead to more career and even financial success, there’s a risk that we still struggle to find meaning at and passion in work. Time and again I realize that so many seemingly high achievers are not truly happy. Thus, three additional Cs — contemplation, compassion, and companions — surround the three I’ve already mentioned.
Given the frenetic pace at which we operate today, it is more critical than ever to take the time to think deeply about one’s life, career, relationships, and the broader world. But it was important in Ignatius’s time, too. On March 25, 1522, he arrived at the city of Manresa, close to Barcelona, in his pilgrimage towards the Holy Land, planning to stay just for a few days. However, he ended up spending 11 full and transformative months. Working in a hospice, he spent several hours a day in solitude, praying and meditating reflecting on best practices for finding and following one’s inner moral compass. These included then-revolutionary concepts, such as not prescribing specific times of the day for prayer and meditation (as most major religious orders still do), while practicing mindfulness in all we do, wherever we are.
We, too, need to stop and listen to our deep inner voice, amid the busy, noisy world around us, but different practices work for different people. For example, I’ve committed to not looking at my smartphone first thing in the morning – not easy, but highly effective for reducing stress and enhancing focus. I’ve set my smartwatch to prompt me into breathing meditation a few minutes a few times a day, which helps me recenter, and, as a devout Catholic, I also meditate on the Gospel for additional inspiration. Finally, I take brisk walks at least once a day to keep me energetic and optimistic. Any type of contemplation, whether spiritual or secular, can benefit your mood, energy, performance and even your immune system.
A recent study analyzing more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 employees proved that high rates of compassionate behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency, and lower turnover rates.
As mentioned, although Ignatius had been a soldier, who even on his way to Manresa got into a heated argument with a Muslim man and considered killing him, he soon found himself at the hospice, lovingly caring for the sick and building his compassion muscles. Caring deeply for others is one true hallmark of personal greatness.
It’s equally important to understand and practice the discipline of self-compassion, however. At first, Ignatius was terrible at this. He would obsessively fixate on minor mistakes before confession and didn’t hesitate to discipline himself physically, to the limit, with chains. But with time he realized that instead of carefully looking for faults he and others should instead look for the good. And once you are feeling positive about and taking care of yourself, you will be better equipped to help those around you.
Though I am a student of Ignatius’s life, it took me more than 50 years, and the help of a great therapist, to finally embrace self-compassion. If you don’t properly love yourself, don’t hesitate to look for the best professional help, whether it’s a therapist, coach, or, as in Ignatius’ case, his confessor.
Here, I refer to those few special people we have chosen as close partners (personal and professional, romantic, and platonic) in our life journeys. We never do it alone, and the best leaders I’ve known are obsessively disciplined at surrounding themselves with the best and helping them become better each day. They also keep a close circle of confidantes who keep them honest and push them when needed.
Ignatius excelled at encircling himself with strong and supportive companions. For example, he spent years relentlessly pursuing star recruits, such as Francis Xavier who he would later send to spread the Christian faith to India, China, and Japan. After purposefully seeking out high potentials, he invested massively in their development. Another example is Juan Polanco, who he sent at age 13 to Paris to study literature and philosophy. Nine years later, having gained an exceptional education, Polanco went to Rome, where he became apostolic secretary and, after just two years at age 24, was appointed notary at the Holy See. At that time, Ignatius spent a full year personally coaching and training him, and then immersed him in a best-practice education and job-rotation training that included studying theology in Padua and leading a start-up school in Tuscany. After five years, Polanco became the secretary of the Society of Jesus, where he was an important staff member for 25 years, serving the order’s first three global leaders.
Ignatius’ profile of a “superior general,” outlined in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, included four key characteristics that I have adapted for use in my talent management and development work, as outlined in this article. He wrote about “great intellect and judgment, both for speculative as well as for practical matters — a master at discerning and deciding.” These are the hallmarks of potential that I call curiosity and insight. He also wanted to see strong engagement “both internally and externally, while balancing severity with love and compassion” and undeterred determination — that is, “constantly persevering without losing one’s soul in contradictions, including the most powerful, to the point of giving one’s own life if needed.”
While we invest two full decades in our initial education, few of us engage in a deliberate, determined search for those wise individuals who, through their inspiration and advice, can literally make us new. As I outlined in this article, eight specific practices will help, including proactively finding these key advisors, genuinely helping them, and, like Ignatius, not being afraid to ask them what to do. A large portion of Ignatius’ letters to friends, family, and colleagues end with different variants of his lifelong burning question “Quid Agendum,” or “What shall I do?” Yes, Ignatius asked himself this question and gave advice to other. But he also sought counsel from his most trusted friends and colleagues.
Seizing This Moment
The Society of Jesus was launched in an increasingly complex and fast-changing world that seems somewhat analogous to our own. Just as we are forging new global connections via the internet, in Ignatius’ day, Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the spread of ideas while voyages of discovery established permanent links between Europe, the Americas and Asia. Just as our traditional views of the role of companies and governments in society are being questions today, in Ignatius’ time, established belief systems were also being challenged, most notably by Protestant reformers criticizing the Roman Catholic Church.
Amid all this turbulence, Ignatius was not hit by Covid-19, but a cannonball and the loss of his job, mentor, and career. And yet this man, whose name derives from the Latin word ignis, meaning fire, turned uncertainty into opportunity by reigniting his purpose, becoming a better version of himself, and making a difference.
As the pandemic continues, I would urge you to use this moment to also dig into your purpose by cultivating the six Cs. Following some of Ignatius’ best-known advice, “act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God,” “laugh and grow strong,” and “go forth and set the world on fire.”