The Foundation of Heroism: Magis

By Chris Lowney
From Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World

In Heroic Leadership, Chris Lowney explains the foundation of heroism, the magis, as he discusses how the Spiritual Exercises work as a leadership tool: “Of course, Loyola’s personal commitment was to Christian service, and the Exercises’ thrust and subject matter are emphatically Christian. But they work as a leadership tool not because they are grounded in a religious worldview but because they build the personal resources required for freely chosen, powerful, and successful human commitments of all sorts: to religious goals, but equally to work, life aspirations, and personal relationships. Over the course of a month, trainees deconstruct themselves in order to erect solid personal foundations of self-awareness, ingenuity, heroism, and love.”

runner at starter's block


Loyola described indifferent Jesuits as “poised like a scale at equilibrium,” balanced to consider all strategic alternatives.

They don’t remain poised for long.

In another meditation, recruits imagine a king preparing for battle. His ambitions are not modest: “My will is to conquer the whole land of the infidels.” He issues a call for followers: “Whoever wishes to come with me has to be content with the same food I eat. . . . So too each one must labor with me during the day, and keep watch in the night . . . so that later each may have a part with me in the victory, just as each has shared in the toil.”

The meditation continues with “Christ the Eternal King” replacing the earthly king and waging a similarly ambitious spiritual battle. His cause is described as so worthwhile, so motivating, and so inspiring that “all those who have judgment and reason will offer themselves wholeheartedly for this labor.” Well, actually, they’ll do more than just offer themselves wholeheartedly. The meditation continues: “Those who desire . . . to distinguish themselves in total service [will] go further still.”

Go further than wholehearted service? How is that possible?

Strictly speaking, of course, it isn’t possible. No one can give more than wholehearted service. But just as great athletes learn to play “beyond themselves” at peak moments, Jesuits learn through the meditation on the two kings and others like it that it is possible to give more. A heroic Jesuit is as much “coiled” as “poised” at equilibrium. And only heroically ambitious goals will inspire him to spring. Total victory is always the goal. And total victory demands more than total commitment: it requires going further than wholehearted service.

Early Jesuits captured this aggressive drive, this relentless energy, in a one-word motto plucked from elsewhere in the Exercises: magis, Latin for “more.” Jesuits are exhorted to always “choose and desire” the strategic option that is more conducive to their goals. But the simple motto captures a broader spirit, a restless drive to imagine whether there isn’t some even greater project to be accomplished or some better way of attacking the current problem.

Motivation is personal. And the meditative exercises transformed Jesuit company goals into personal ones. The meditation on the two kings presents an invitation, not an order. Accepting that invitation is a personal decision. Moreover, the metaphorical meditation lacks specific shape. It doesn’t explain what one does to achieve the heroic goal. That detail comes as each recruit mentally shapes the mission and the magis to his circumstances, not only during the Exercises but throughout his life.

What would so motivate you that you would go further than wholehearted service to achieve it?

Few can answer that question. Most have never even asked it of themselves. But asking oneself, and coming up with an answer, all but guarantees motivated, imaginative engagement.

Excerpt from Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World by Chris Lowney.

Related Links

Magis-Driven Heroic Leadership Is a Daily Personal Pursuit by Chris Lowney
The Two Standards by Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ
What Does “Magis” Mean? video