Category: Leadership


In an age of weak leadership, perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise that the UK seems a little bit obsessed with Winston Churchill at the moment.  Whether it be the scary future of Brexit or just the nostalgic wallowing in a glorious past, or a bit of both – this monumental and heroic character’s history is being rewritten and reinterpreted again and again.  At the weekend I enjoyed seeing the latest effort – ‘The Darkest Hour‘ – the Oscar-nominated work of Joe Wright (Atonement). I don’t think I watched a film that has so little action and is so dialogue-driven, yet also so absorbing.  Obviously, the stakes are high, its 1940 and Britain is alone in standing up to Hitler.  Churchill has just been elected leader and it is his toughest year – everything looks lost, a German invasion imminent and monumental pressure is put on him to enter some negotiations with Herr Hitler.  The film is cleverly ambiguous, Halifax & Chamberlain are given a fair showing in the film and peace talks seem very reasonable. To qualify as a ‘just-war’ it needs to be a war of last-resort and Thomists and just-war theorists may quibble about who was right, but I think the wonderful line of Churchill, ‘ You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth‘ wins the day.

For me its a great study in leadership – Churchill standing at the dispatch box, with his Tory peers sitting in silence behind him, seething in passive aggression.  In their eyes his failure in the Dardanelles in the First World War and his flip-flopping to the Liberals is unforgivable. When leaders are ‘stress tested’ like this, its make or break time.  Its at times like this when a leader finds out who has ‘got their back’.  The two outstanding supports for Churchill, as portrayed by the film, are his wife Clement and King George VI.  A turning point is when the King, suspicious of Churchill at first, eventually says to him that he has his unequivocal support as he was the only man who when elected as leader struck fear in the heart of Hitler.

There is something lonely about authentic leadership – having to make key decisions that have big impacts/effects on people and living with the consequences.  There is a powerful image of the leader who is edging out onto the ice with everyone cheering them on from the sidelines. This support is flattering but of no use when you fall through the ice and there’s no one there to pull you out!  Ronald Heifetz in his very interesting book on ‘Adaptive Leadership’ has a lot of wisdom to share  –


Don’t do it alone – Sounds easy and obvious, but we have seen over and over again how people who are trying to do the right thing end out on a limb all alone. It is not only lonely out there; it is dangerous.  Those who see your good works as a threat will find you a much easier target if you are out there by yourself …. your opponents will do whatever it takes to make you vulnerable…. a much more subtle danger comes from your friends, you enjoy the plaudits that comes from being on the front line… but they say to themselves, ‘if the ice is strong enough we will follow him’, they clap harder as you inch your way across the frozen lake so you think they are right behind you, but when you look back you see them still onshore, wiating to see what happens… to keep you motivated they say things like ‘you are indespensible‘ …. which makes you feel good all over… Want to hear it again? Just inch out further onto the ice…. to avoid making this mistake, when someone tells you how wonderful you are, listen for that little voice inside yourself that says ‘I know I am terrific, but I’m not that terrific’



When we were Jesuit novices we read the autobiography of St Ignatius together. It was explained to us that Ignatius had been badgered for years to write down about his life.  It was only when he life was coming to an end that he agreed to do so and dictated his memoirs to Luis Gonsalves de Camara, a young Portuguese Jesuit.  In an age of hagiographical writing, were saints lives were often written with an undue reverence, and sometimes it was difficult to get to the history underneath the exaggerations, Ignatius was keen that his autobiography would show young Jesuits how he had learned from his mistakes and how God had patiently accompanied him through times of excessive zeal and superficial outward displays of ‘holiness’ and ‘penance’.

It seems that the first Jesuit Pope wishes to follow in his footsteps.  Whether he is talking about his time of painful ‘inner purification‘ in Cordoba in 1991, or his period of ‘therapy’ after stepping down as Provincial in the 70’s.  In 2013 he sent a letter to a Brazilian priest, Fr Alexandre Awi, who had acted as his interpreter on his first foreign visit as pope, to Rio de Janeiro. Discussing the ‘culture of encounter’ which as Pope he is so eager to promote, he talks about the traumatic experience of his mother’s side of his family where there was a lot of conflicts,  “In my family there was a long history of disagreements: uncles, cousins, fought and separated. As a child, I cried a great deal in secret when these fights were talked about or when we could see a new one coming. Sometimes I offered a sacrifice or a penance to try to prevent them occurring. It hurt me a lot. Thank God that at home Dad, Mom and my five brothers lived in peace…. I think that this marked me a lot as a kid and created in my heart the desire that people stopped fighting, that they stay together. And at least if they fight they are friends…. I am bit embarrassed after rereading what I wrote, but I think that in this story there is a germ of what over the years and in a conceptual way I called “Culture of the encounter”. It’s a craving that I’ve been since I was a boy” You can read excerpts of the letter here on the website Portaluz (in Spanish) – Link.

Understanding conflict and turning it into a creative experience has been a life-long concern of Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis.  His unpublished PHD is on the Italian- German priest philosopher Romano Guardini and his 1925 work, ‘Der Gegensatz’ (Contrast).  For Guardini contrast did not necessarily mean contradiction. He was interested in the whole range of human life: art, politics, ethics, religion,  science, in particular, the emerging field of psychology. Guardini’s thinking lead him to a deeper type of wisdom about the mystery of Life. He had a vision that gives things space, where opposites are brought together, the same space from where they emanate and where they return – which he called God.  The younger Bergoglio was particularly interested in how individuals related to groups, especially after his difficult experience as provincial and was attracted to Guardini’s thinking.  Understanding conflict, not being threatened by it, wanting to engage creatively with it but also realising how destructive it could be – as he recently said in his meeting with the Schoenstatt movement.

AMDG arguably is changing the world now more than Google or Facebook.  The online retailer is now more akin to a conglomerate, having long left behind just being a place to go and buy books. Now it is the world’s leading provider of cloud computing, this year it will spend twice as much on television as HBO, a cable channel, and developing its own range of Amazon-brand physical products including batteries, almonds, suits and speakers linked to a virtual voice-activated assistant.  This last product, Alexa, has a ‘must-buy’ buzz around it, many of my friends got it for Christmas. Alexa can control, among other things, your lamps and sprinklers, ‘she’ is your own digital personal assistant. However, before I start pontificating about the technological dystopia we are heading into, at least we can acknowledge that Alexa has some theological literacy as this great story shows.

Of course, the ‘tech-lash’ is just beginning, with grave concerns about Amazons growing dominance, it being both marketplace and retailer has an anti-competitive feel about it, and its ability to steamroll future regulators is worrying.  However more than the other tech giants, I think to understand Amazon you look no further than its intense bordering on sociopathic founder.  One of the most disruptive companies, it has been dreamt up and run by one of the ‘disrupters in chief’ Jeff Bezos. It’s revealing that the original name he dreamed up for his company was, in fact if you put that into Google you are taken directly to Amazon.   That one word, relentless, says something about Bezos that explains his success but also sums up something about his unsettling dark side.

I have recently finished reading a fascinating book, ‘The everything store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon‘.  The author Brad Stone has done a good job portraying the strength of this character – his unbounded drive and ambition, his unnerving search for truth at whatever expense. Stone recounts one incident which sums this up and is chilling and compelling. He describes how Bezos publicly humiliated one of his senior execs by calling Amazon’s number during a team meeting, in front of his colleagues, to check the man’s assertion that its phones were being picked up promptly. “Bezos took his watch off and made a deliberate show of tracking the time. A brutal minute passed, then two … Bezos’s face grew red; the vein in his forehead, a hurricane warning system, popped out”

What I found most poignant about the book was the narrative around his two fathers. His biological father was a circus unicyclist, Ted Jorgensen, who abandoned his mother when he was only one. His stepfather was a Cuban-American Miguel Bezos who was rescued from Cuba by a scheme sponsored by the Catholic Church, ‘Operation Pedro Pan’.  From December 1960 to October 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban youths arrived alone in the United States, it was the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.  It puts the current British governments’ paltry response to the refugee crisis to shame.  Miguel Bezos left the Jesuit school (that, ironically, Fidel Castro had also attended) and was relocated and educated in the United States under the leadership of a young Irish priest, Fr Bryan O Walsh.   The Diocese of Miami organised the program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami in December 1960 at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination.  O’ Walsh died in 2001  and was an old boy of the Crescent, the Jesuit school in Limerick.

When you hear the backstory of his stepfather, meticulously researched by Brad Stone, you get an insight into this relentless drive. The stable and aspirational background Miguel and his mother gave him, with a strong awareness that all could be taken away from them at any stage. However most poignant, for me reading the book, was the courage it took the now famous Jeff Bezos to track down his real father – maybe it is that wound of abandonment that explains his uncompromising search for truth. Jeff Bezos is a disruptive leader and Amazon has ripped up the retailer’s rulebook in many ways.  Not least because it was the first online company to allow hostile reviews of products that it sold.  Relentless and truth at any cost – but perhaps driven by deep and disruptive events in his own childhood.