A Fresh Look at Corporate Power

      In my experience, religious are skittish when it comes to talk of power. It's odd, when you think about it, because they love to talk about mission. And being on a mission --- something quite different from having a mission statement, after all --- is about collective power: the ability of a body of people to imagine and achieve things together that none of them could achieve in isolation. How can power be bad and having a mission be good? In order to untangle this misunderstanding, we need to explore some basic assumptions about power.

       Let us begin with a foundational assumption. Power, in Ignatian language, is a creature: good in itself, given to created beings by a trusting God. Of course, it is obvious that power (like all other creatures) is capable of being abused, but that tragic reality does not take away from its basic goodness. This is an important anchor for the discussion that follows, because many people have experienced such abuses of power in their lives that they draw the false conclusion that the possession of power itself is evil. Much spiritual mischief has been sown through faulty presentations of the virtue of humility, which are actually based on this unexamined assumption. To identify the abuse of power with power itself, and as a consequence to avoid assuming and employing the power with which we are endowed as creatures, is to reject the gift of a loving creator. It is an act not of humility but of a subtle form of pride.

      We might be inclined to view power as bad for another reason. As Americans, we are culturally conditioned to conceive of power only in terms of political or economic structures: to have power involves either making the decisions that affect the life of the community (whether that community be small or large) or managing the resources by which it carries out those decisions. We can hear the results of this conditioning in everyday expressions. Common complaints of ineffective people in both societal and ecclesial settings are "I can't do anything; they make all the decisions" or "What can I do? They control the purse strings." When people assume that political or economic structures are the only source of power and find themselves excluded from those structures, it is easy to conclude that power is bad because "they" have it.

      Such limited perspectives on the nature of power overlook a much more fundamental reality. The power of any organization --- its ability to make a difference in its world --- is ultimately imputed to it by its members and the outsiders who are touched by it. The corporate enterprise has only the power that people are willing to concede to it in their lives. And people concede such power in virtue of their perception of its meaning for them. If an aborigine were to see an American football game for the first time, he or she would experience the same non-impact that the aborigine’s rituals would have on a First- World person who had no sense of their meaning. The Ku Klux Klan loses all its power if those around it treat it with scorn or if its own members begin to find it meaningless and opt out. The way a corporate enterprise is perceived becomes the key to its actual power,

 The point becomes clear if you imagine someone inviting you into some collective experience. If you perceive it to be beneficent in your regard, you welcome it and give it scope (read: power) to have an impact on you. If you view it as noxious, you withdraw and shield yourself from letting it affect you. Finally, if you perceive it as meaningless, the other projects that do give you meaning will fill your personal screen, and the venture in question will in effect become nonexistent for you, having no power in your regard.


      All well and good, but where do we find all these perceptions that are so important to a group’s actual power? When a host of people perceive and experience a particular group as helpful and are therefore willing to support and promote it, where do they put all those perceptions? How do their positive (or negative) valuations coalesce? In its name.

      As a biblical people, we have been schooled to relate power and names. We understand, for example, the transfer of power that takes place when God, for example, renames Abram, or when Jesus calls Simon Peter "Rock." We know that the name bespeaks a conferral of power. It is important for us to move beyond those individual names and reflect on the rich implications of the names we bear collectively, as Christians, as Catholics, or as members of the Brothers of Holy Joy. Genuine power accrues to the individuals in a corporate enterprise, such as a religious community or even the church itself, through the name of that enterprise.

      How can that be? Because corporate endeavors acquire the power to affect people through networks of human communication, and in those networks the group's name is crucial. Say "IBM" and a whole host of responses are inevitably evoked in people (as is easily seen if, instead of IBM, you were to say "the XYZ Corporation"). A group's name has all the power of an icon, because it sums up and holds within itself all the actions of the present members as well as those of their predecessors, as perceived by the surrounding society. A group’s name is like an atom into which a whole host of energies has been bundled, or a diamond that is capable of so many hues because of a solidifying process that took place over centuries.

      In order to put in a more experiential form what I am trying to express in these inadequate concepts and images, I trust that the reader will allow me some first-person narrative. While talking concretely about myself and the Jesuit community of which I am a member, readers can make the necessary applications to their own experiences.


      When I meet another person or group and am asked to identify myself, I respond by declaring that I am a Jesuit, and an extraordinary thing happens. Consciously or unconsciously, and depending on the person’s range of experience with Jesuits, I can be seen as one with a whole host of enormously significant persons, known and unknown. In the psyche of the people I am meeting, I may be associated with a Francis Xavier or a Peter Canisius; perhaps more immediately with a John Courtney Murray, Pedro Arrupe, or Horace McKenna; perhaps with some confessor or spiritual director who accompanied one of these people through some life-transforming conversion; or perhaps with a teacher who saw potential in one of them and patiently enabled the young woman to believe in her gifts or the young man to put his pain at the service of someone else.

      I am empowered by all these preconscious associations; the gifts, the accomplishments, the commitment and zeal of these brothers of mine accrue to me. The name introduces me into this new setting, not as some lonely autonomous individual having to break into the situation on my own, but as a bearer of a heritage. The corporate history wrought in all these men is present with me as soon as the word "Jesuit" is spoken. All that bundled energy I mentioned earlier is present and active in the interchange.

      I may not personally know the individuals whose lives and deeds are creating this space for me. I may not even know who is being referred to when I hear their names mentioned. Their life in the Society of Jesus may have ended long before or after mine began. There is a high likelihood, given our mobile society, that I have never lived under the same roof with most of these men who lend power to my impact. I would be less than honest if I did not add that I am also, as a result of this association, identified with men with whom I would probably disagree violently on all sorts of issues; with men whose basic ideologies are inimical to my vision of what God is about in our world; and with oddballs, cranks, and assorted neurotics whose certifiability depends only on who does the certifying.

      I need to add that it is cause for great joy that, as a result of many different efforts to invite those attracted by the Ignatian vision to join us more visibly as colleagues and partners, the gifts and labors and accomplishments of many who are not Jesuits are also riches at my disposal. I am canonically "Jesuit," but I also draw power from the broader circle of all those with whom I identify as "Ignatian." The point is that through this mysterious process, I am more than myself. Those persons or groups who meet me under the designation "Jesuit" (or, as the experience is broadened, "Ignatian") are predisposed, are ready to grant me a hearing, an initial acceptance, a chance --- some sort of new possibility of making an impact in their world. The name not only gives access to power; it is power.


      Names, such as "Jesuit," are not neutral quantities. They can open doors or close them. A name like "Society of Jesus" is not just some collocation of letters or sounds. It carries the deeds of countless men who bore it; their vision and the ways they incarnated it or failed to; the effects, for good or ill, that they have had on individuals and the social systems to which they have belonged. We should view such a name as being on the

order of an icon, bearing all the energy that a physical icon is mysteriously capable of containing.

      The name becomes crystallized, within the collective psyche of the surrounding publics, as a reputation that precedes the entry of the individual upon the stage. It generates in people expectations that are subtly different from those the same publics might have of anyone not identified with the particular corporate body so named.

      And those expectations, like all expectations, are a form of power. If the person’s or group’s experience of me confirms their predisposition, the icon "Jesuit" becomes all the stronger; if not, the power of the name is diminished. The easiest way to grasp the connection between expectations and power is simply to imagine what happens when expectations have been built up but the subsequent performance fails to measure up to the anticipation generated. In such a situation, people are disappointed because they were already "appointed" in a particular direction; there is an experience of disorientation. The world they had unconsciously created for themselves turned out to be illusory (we also say people are ‘dis-illusioned’); reality was less reliable than their anticipation of it. They had not read the situation accurately and will now be a bit less sure of their judgments in approaching new individuals carrying the same name.


      We need now to situate more carefully the kind of power we are talking about --- what it does and what it does not do. The Jesuit reputation, arising from this myriad of great and not-so-great men and their countless deeds --- although it is a genuine power that opens doors and creates possibility for the individual Jesuit --- does not substitute for the responsibility that he alone bears for his use of that power, for the way he will perform once the stage has been offered to him.

      The apostolic community of the Society of Jesus does not do the individual Jesuit’s work for him. The group, through its name and the hearer’s experience of those who bear it, confers the power, the potential. It opens a door, as it were. But whether or not the man’s deeds live up to the empowerment provided for him by others depends not on those forebears but on the individual himself. His deeds and the spirit in which he offers them can either live up to the measure already established or, at the opposite extreme, disabuse people of the esteem in which they had held people called "Jesuit." The individual who bears the name enjoys all its benefits but also bears responsibility for its continued meaning and even its enhancement. Having been gifted with such power from his forebears, the individual is called equally to contribute, by his performance, to the empowerment of those Jesuits presently surrounding him and to enhance the potential of those who will bear the name after him. Having received the name and thus become more than himself, the way he carries its energies, either enhancing or diminishing them, will increase or limit the potential of the name.


To review a bit:

1) An apostolic community gathers in order to achieve things that the individuals who constitute it could not achieve on their own.

2) The community achieves this multiplication by creating corporate power, with which it endows each member.

3) That empowerment is located in the common name, which carries the performance of all who have preceded the individual in the community.

4) The surrounding world consciously or unconsciously attributes to the individual the heritage of the group as embodied in the name.

5) By virtue of the name, the individual enjoys, even prior to his own first action, genuine potential he would not have possessed without the enjoyment of the name.

6) What he does with the empowerment created for him by the name will affect the level of empowerment granted to those who will bear the name after him.

      Given these premises, one can reasonably conclude that a prime responsibility of the individual apostolic religious to his or her companions (whether they belong to the canonical body or are identified with the same charism) is serious commitment to the development and enhancement of the member’s capabilities for whatever apostolic work the member is called to engage in. Work at the increase and development of one’s apostolic competence is not merely a matter of personal choice; it may be the defining requisite for demonstrating commitment to the community of apostles one has joined. Other men's or women's labors have empowered the individual member; that member's basic contribution is to provide the same service for companions present and future. The life and work of this individual become the vehicle through which the other members too can achieve more than each might through his or her own autonomous efforts.

      To name one programmatic consequence: "continuing education and formation" is not simply a personal luxury for an apostolic religious; it is the member’s contribution to a corporate imperative. If the quality of service offered by the individual members of the group declines, so does the power entrusted to the collective body by its publics --- and so, accordingly, does the body's capacity to open doors for its future individual members.


      The focus I have placed on empowerment, and therefore on the individual’s responsibility for untiring effort at developing his or her competence, should not be misread as an example of some sort of American fixation on success. It is simply a recognition of the nature of corporate enablement of the individual: through the phenomenon of a name and reputation, we members will inevitably affect one another, for good or ill. But the possibility that one might hear "success" in all this does suggest that it might be profitable to explore the dynamics of empowerment at a deeper level.

      When people initially welcome, say, a Jesuit with a readiness to identify him with Jesuits they have personally esteemed, what are they recognizing and celebrating? The question invites us to the recognition that our reputation, the expectations people have of us, can be based on two different sources.

      In the case of people who have no personal history of interacting with any particular Jesuit, we are of necessity dealing with that larger reputation grounded in the exploits of Jesuits who created significant public impact, either globally or at least in their own country. The Xaviers or Riccis or Bollandists or Hopkinses --- men recognized and celebrated for accomplishments of great distinction in their field of apostolic expression; for success, if you will. A similar thing can be said of the great institutions that have enhanced the name of the Society of Jesus for centuries. Although the individuals who taught in them are now largely faceless, they accomplished together the creation of works that had significant effects on the lives of many. In that sense they were successful, effective. That effectiveness and societal impact is recognized by people who know of these works, and it shapes their initial openness when they actually meet a Jesuit for the first time.

      Another dynamic is present in the case of those who have had prior personal contact with individual Jesuits and transfer that experience to the accord they give in an encounter with a new Jesuit. Here it becomes clear that we are dealing with something more subtle than successful or effective performance, much less with things like brilliance or panache.

      When someone meets and interacts with a Jesuit, they are not encountering simply a talent or skill, or even a collection of talents or skills, although those things are ingredients in the experience. What is encountered is, of course, a whole person. And that includes inadequacies and shortcomings and bumbling, underdevelopment and stuntedness and tragic flaws of all kinds. Most important, it includes the way the individual Jesuit deals with such things.

      Listen to people recalling a Jesuit they knew, someone who clearly made a positive impact on them. The particularities of the story may include references to things like style or success in some field of endeavor, but behind the particularities you will hear things like integrity and authenticity, a genuine struggle with the human condition, confrontation with failure and inadequacy and sinfulness, a care for others that takes precedence over the Jesuit’s own personal issues of consolation or desolation. To use terms that are at risk of becoming glib clichés, we might with cautious temerity say that people see in such a Jesuit a "man for others"--- someone who knows he is "a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus."

      Individual Jesuits, then, empower their brothers --- open doors for them --- by bringing to those they meet their flawed-but-hopeful selves and their attention to and service of others, which include the competence to be of service. Each of the Society's members should not only work at being a better teacher or spiritual director or researcher or pastor or artist; he should also always try to be a more genuine companion to the pilgrims met along the way. Each time the message of companionship rather than achievement gets through to another person, the name "Jesuit" is enhanced and the rest of the brothers have greater possibility, greater power to advance the mission we all share together.


      Apostolic religious in today’s church direct fewer and fewer institutions owned or even sponsored by their community. For some, that is cause for lament; for others, reason for rejoicing. The question can be matter for good debate; on such things reasonable people may differ. But whether or not we carry on our mission through corporate works, we need to be aware that ultimately, what makes all the difference is the empowerment that we as individual members create for one another through the way we embody all the expectations contained in our name. It is at once our rich privilege and our weighty responsibility. We are more than our isolated selves.


Father George B. Wilson, S.J. (e-mail: gbwilson@choice.net) is an ecclesiologist who does organizational consulting with Management Design Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.