Saint Joseph's University Magazine, Spring 2018

The Ignatian Way to Solve the Busyness of Business

By Ronald L. Dufresne, Ph.D.

If leaders are to be thoughtful, they need time to think. For those of us who can’t find a full, uninterrupted hour, it’s possible to realize the benefits of reflection in a mere five minutes each day.

In my work with executive leaders, I stress the importance of carving out time from our hectic schedules for contemplation. I share with executives how St. Ignatius, as the founder of the Jesuits in 1539, was essentially the CEO of a worldwide enterprise and set the example for his fellow and future Jesuits by making time to contemplate — all while “setting the world on fire” (in a good way) by engaging in world-changing work.

One of the core aspects of the Ignatian “way of proceeding” is to operate as a “contemplative in action.” This means that leaders need to have a bias for action and producing results. At the same time, leaders need to engage in contemplative practice: to reflect both on what their strategic purposes are, as well as how their daily behaviors are moving them closer to (or further from) fulfilling those purposes.

When I challenge executives to find at least one hour per week to be contemplative in the midst of action, they routinely dismiss the idea. A common response is, “I have a lot of work to do, so much that I tend to work late at night and typically on the weekend. I cannot afford to spend an hour not doing anything.”

This reaction, I think, stems directly from the incomplete American assumption that leadership is about doing. If a leader is not in the midst of action, this thinking goes, then he or she is not really being a leader. However, without reflecting, how will one know if he or she is engaging in the right action and doing so most effectively?

To break through this paradox — that leaders need to reflect to ensure they are doing the right thing in the right ways, yet they feel they don’t have time to reflect — I suggest the approach of St. Ignatius for breaking away from the busyness of business. For Ignatius, the key to being a contemplative in action was to engage in a twice-per-day Examen, a form of intense yet brief reflective practice, once at lunch and once in the evening.

While countless versions of the Examen are available, I advocate the following steps:

  • Remind yourself of something for which you are grateful.
  • Review the work in which you have been engaged.
  • Reflect on what is going well and what is going poorly
    (in terms of what things you are doing and how you are doing them).
  • Make a specific commitment regarding what to
    continue and what to change.

Ideally, leaders should set a predictable time each day to engage in this reflection, whether it’s at midday or on the commute home. This form of contemplation in the midst of action might only take five to 10 minutes each day, and with practice, it is sure to grow our ability to be more thoughtful leaders.

Photo of Ronald Dufresne

Dufresne, an associate professor of management and the faculty senate president, researches and teaches leadership. He also engages in executive education and leadership development across many industries.

Photo: Luke Malanga ’20