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Leadership That Empowers: A Partnership Program Between Georgetown McDonough and the Jesuit Curia

Chiedza Chimhanda knows that, now more than ever, leaders need to take time for themselves — to rest, refresh, reconnect, and recharge. He now tries to incorporate self care into his demanding schedule, which currently requires managing a global restructuring plan for an organization that spans Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Malawi.

Meanwhile, more than 7,000 miles away in Rome, Noelle Corscadden seeks to balance the rare time she has in the office with her never-ending travel, as she oversees more than 90 schools and institutes across 23 countries. After just two and a half weeks with her team in Rome, she will spend another four weeks on the road. 

Both Chimhanda and Corscadden hold executive-level positions in the Catholic Church. To strengthen their leadership skills, while learning to better balance their management acumen with their spirituality, they turned to an innovative program commissioned by the Jesuit Curia in Rome in partnership with Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. 

The Discerning Leadership Certificate offers an executive-level curriculum for senior leaders within the Catholic Church that focuses on discernment, adaptive leadership, strategy, and communication. For leaders who spend most of their time helping others, the program provides participants a critical opportunity to concentrate on their own development. 

“We are giving them the ability to keep renewing themselves over time — not just their organizations and other people,” says Paul Almeida, dean and William R. Berkley Chair of the McDonough School of Business. “It’s an important part of Ignatian spirituality. Otherwise, they can lose hope when they run out of tools or ideas. We give participants an approach to deal with the world, rather than solutions.” 

Almeida teaches in the program with McDonough management professors Robert Bies and Brooks Holtom, as well as Jeanine Turner, who has a joint appointment in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture & Technology program and the business school. Together, they teach strategy, organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, building coalitions and alliances, and courageous conversations in courses on Ignatian leadership. 

“This program empowers noble women and men with the skills required to lead the significant changes needed for their organizations to make a difference in the world,” Holtom says. “Leading change is hard — especially in an institution that is more than 2,000 years old. Learning together in this collaborative environment also builds a powerful network that will sustain these leaders through the challenging days ahead.” 

David McCallum, S.J., founding executive director of the program, worked with other members of the General Curia of the Society of Jesus to teach participants about making space for grace, leadership for change, the perils of leading, and reflective practices for leaders. 

“As leaders within the Church, we have to learn to provide conditions in groups and teams that build trust, make space for active participation, and invite people to share their gifts in creative and generous ways for the greater good,” says McCallum, who was vice president for mission integration and development at Le Moyne College when he first became involved in the program. “This collaborative, discerning approach to leadership is the way to co-create the future together, rather than focusing on individual leaders alone.” 

The Discerning Leadership certificate was inspired by Pope Francis’ own reflections on leading a complex global organization. He has called for Church leaders to exercise discernment: gaining unbiased insights to develop insight, find guidance, and deepen understanding. Just recently, the Pope announced a two-year “Synod on Synodality,” which invites the whole church to engage in a process of listening and hearing one another as they journey into the future. 

“Pope Francis’s celebration of this synod focuses on a decentralized church where communication and leadership practices emphasize listening and collaborative decision-making,” Turner says. “The Discerning Leadership program contributes to leader formation to support this effort.” 

Investing in the development and growth of the Discerning Leadership Program three years ago positions the Jesuit Curia as servant leaders in this movement. Since the program’s inception, there have been 150 participants who are now putting the calling of the Pope into action. A fourth cohort will begin their journey in Rome in June 2022. 

Chimhanda, the Jesuit community in Cape Town, and their partners in mission after a discernment exercise in Cape Town, South Africa
Chimhanda, the Jesuit community in Cape Town, and their partners in mission after a discernment exercise in Cape Town, South Africa. 

Understanding Discernment 

Understanding the concept of discernment within the context of leadership and management became the mission of John Dardis, S.J., then general counsellor for discernment and apostolic planning for the General Curia of the Jesuits, who the Society of Jesus tasked with educating leaders throughout the Church in this approach. After initial training with business consultants fell flat, Dardis realized he needed to look within the Jesuit community for expertise in leadership and business to ensure the nuances of leading within the spiritual community were not lost. 

“Our dream is that the Church needs to change and renew itself and learn from the business world and at the same time, not lose its soul,” he says. 

For Bies, the main benefits of the program are around building trust in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. 

“Building trust may be the most important leadership skill for a VUCA world — whether it is trust in their personal leadership or the courage to trust the process of collaboration and cocreation of change,” he said. “Building trust is a central theme woven throughout the program — and key to the long-term relevance and effectiveness of their organizations and the Church for the next 2,000 years.” 

Georgetown McDonough’s Custom Executive Education team and professors, in partnership with McCallum when he was still at Le Moyne, worked with the Jesuit Curia to launch the Discerning Leadership certificate program in Rome in May 2019 with 28 participants from 15 countries on six continents. These women and men represented a mixture of senior-level leaders, with one-third each coming from the Jesuit ranks, other Catholic religious congregations, and lay people working at the Vatican and elsewhere. They, too, were seeking combined insights from the secular and spiritual worlds to solve issues of great importance. 

Since that initial cohort, the program has grown, adding a Spanish-speaking track in partnership with Esade Business & Law School and Deusto in Spain and working to launch an Italian speakers program. They also have launched an international network of leadership coaches, spiritual directors, and organizational consultants to support participants and integrate their learning into their daily work, ranging from team development to strategic planning.

Discernment in Action: Compromise in Africa 

Chimhanda began his term as the Jesuit provincial in Zimbabwe in August 2014, and soon had Mozambique added to his purview. He has worked closely with the Zambia-Malawi Jesuit province and the Regional Superior of South Africa in managing transition toward one province for all the Jesuits in southern Africa. This new Jesuit Province of Southern Africa was inaugurated on March 25, 2021, with Fr. Leonard Chiti as the new provincial. 

“My biggest challenge is planning because from the time I came into this job, I have been managing transition. I need to share the vision, manage the transition, and plan within this change,” he says. “My second challenge is that over the years, when we had the numbers, we set up a lot of institutions. Now our numbers have shrunk, and we are trying our best to keep everything going with less Jesuits available. I am learning more about collaboration and managing change with limited manpower and financial resources.” 

He was drawn to participate in the Discerning Leadership course to strengthen his own ability to manage change and lead across borders. 

“As a Jesuit, we talk about discernment. We speak a lot about discernment in prayer. I was fascinated about discerning leadership to discover it’s about listening to others, respecting others,” he says. “Leadership is about teamwork; you get together, you listen to each other, you listen to God because God is at the center. I found that very fascinating. I’m in the business of making decisions all the time; now I can make better decisions.” 

Not long after completing the course, Chimhanda found himself navigating a difficult situation. One of the Jesuit high schools in his region was seeking a loan from a bank to fund its expansion. Instead, the Jesuits offered to directly loan the money to save them the interest the bank would charge. However, a downturn in the economy soon complicated that relationship once the school asked to repay the loan in discounted local currency instead of the currency that was advanced to them.

“We had to do a lot of listening and get beyond our emotions to say to this school, ‘We are one family. You are very privileged. You have benefited a lot, and the province has invested a lot,’” he said. Using the practice of discernment, Chimhanda was able to work with the school and the board over two months to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution where the school would instead utilize their cash to fund a new school in a poor area.

“We were moving from strong emotions to a point where we felt in sync with one another,” he says. “Now that the school has benefitted, we have asked them to give back. That’s a big change for me, but that big change has only come because we’ve mended the bridges.” 

Discernment in Action: Finding Clarity in Rome

Similarly, Corscadden is institute leader of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which manages more than 90 schools and over 700 members in 23 countries around the world. While each institution is managed locally, she has oversight of the network and is required to visit each one at least once in her term of office. Headquartered in Rome, she has a team of five sisters from diverse backgrounds. Corscadden is from Ireland, and her coworkers are from the United States, India, Kenya, and Spain. Just like Chimhanda, her challenges are similar to those found in the corporate world. 

“Implementing change and finding a way to bring people along is huge in today’s world,” she says. “When you are dealing with people, you need to have difficult conversations, you have to challenge people or move people from one position or another.” 

She also cited navigating layers of governance issues as she and her team set up new global projects, as well as regional complications such as poverty, famine, and insecurity, among her concerns. Yet, the career path of Church leaders doesn’t necessarily prepare them to address these challenges, she says. 

“At a professional level, you are trained. You’ve studied and have qualifications,” she notes. “But in leadership in Church organizations, you don’t have any preparation — you’re plucked out of something and asked to do leadership.” 

The course offered Corscadden time to take a break from the office and the churn of her hectic travel schedule to focus on her own development. She finds herself frequently returning to her notes and reflecting on the modules on difficult conversations, spiritual conversations, and the opening remarks from Father General on discernment. 

Recently, she and her team were able to use some of these lessons on discernment when faced with a lack of clarity around an important decision. 

“Not long after the second part of the program, we were struggling with the appointment of a province leader,” she says. “We do a very in-depth consultation with the members of the province and didn’t have clear indication of their choice. That lack of clarity came into our discernment. We engaged in two days of spiritual conversation, and at the end we came to a complete consensus about who to appoint. There was great clarity and unity about the decision.”

Members of the inaugural cohort of Discerning Leadership participants and faculty at the Jesuit Curia in Rome
Members of the inaugural cohort of Discerning Leadership participants and faculty at the Jesuit Curia in Rome

Looking to the Future 

As the program continues to expand, McCallum reflected on the positive feedback he has received from participants, notably connecting them with a learning community of peers with diverse perspectives that can provide creative ways to help them approach their challenges; learning practical frameworks in the areas of leadership and organizational studies, communications, conflict management, and team building; and the deepening integration between their leadership and spiritual lives. 

“They realize this doesn’t have to be a divided life,” he added. “These dimensions of spirituality and leadership are integral to one another. That helps affirm and strengthen their understanding of themselves and their ability to support others.” 

He added that the benefit of connecting those who operate within the Vatican to other Church leaders from around the world and the lay people who work for the Church has created a sense of community across a global organization that has traditionally been very stratified. 

Almeida also hopes the connections forged in the program will continue to positively affect the Church. 

“The community we are creating will last for years,” Almeida says. “The world will continue to change long after our participants complete the program, yet we are teaching them to learn as a community. They will continue to work together, hire one another, and collaborate over time.” 

Chimhanda also hopes to share his newfound knowledge with others throughout his province. Over the last few months, he also has been part of a team of lay partners in mission and follow Jesuits undertaking a discernment exercise on the future of Jesuit apostolates in one of the big cities of the new province. The participation of the laity in this exercise and the presence of a non-Catholic on the team have been greatly appreciated by all, he says. 

“I hope we are able to give back in the institutions where we are working,” he says, adding that he already has changed local meetings to incorporate both talking and listening as he shares these skills with others. 

“Bob Bies challenged us to think, ‘As you leave, what are you taking away, what are you going to do?’” he says. “As a leader, it’s something one doesn’t need to think about. Sharing with others is something one needs to do.” 

This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2022 Magazine.

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