A partnership program between Georgetown McDonough and the Jesuit Curia focuses on balance, decision-making and discernment in leadership for senior leaders in the Catholic Church.
Chiedza Chimhanda knows that, now more than ever, leaders need to take time for themselves — to rest, refresh, reconnect and recharge. Chimhanda, a Jesuit leader in southern Africa, 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 for a Catholic institute in Rome. 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.
“They realize this doesn’t have to be a divided life. 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.”
— David McCallum, S.J., founding executive director of the program
The 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, finding guidance and deepening understanding.
For leaders like Chimhanda and Corscadden, who spend most of their time helping others, the program provides participants a critical opportunity to concentrate on their own development.
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 to manage the transition to one province for all the Jesuits in southern Africa. The new Jesuit Province of Southern Africa was inaugurated on March 25, 2021, with Leonard Chiti, S.J., 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.”
“Building trust may be the most important leadership skill for a VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous] world — whether it is trust in their personal leadership or the courage to trust the process of collaboration and co-creation of change. 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.”
— Robert Bies, Professor of Management
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-plus 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.”
Corscadden 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.
“We are giving them the ability to keep renewing themselves over time — not just their organizations and other people. 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.”
— Paul Almeida, Dean and William R. Berkley Chair of the McDonough School of Business
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 did 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.”
Looking to the Future
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. There have been 150 participants who are now putting the calling of the Pope into action, and a fourth cohort will begin their journey in Rome in June 2022.
Corscadden felt a strong benefit of the program was the diversity of the participants: women and men from different geographies and areas of the Church.
“We had a whole mix of different leaders from the Church. I remember the very first day that difference was evident, but by the end, it wasn’t,” she says. “It was ideal to be able to bring all of those different traditions together. I would love to see the program flourish in many ways, in places that don’t have opportunities. The developing countries that don’t have opportunities for these programs and leaders are really struggling.”
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 fellow 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. “As a leader, it’s something one doesn’t need to think about. Sharing with others is something one needs to do.”
Editor’s Note: This story is adapted from a forthcoming article in Georgetown Business Magazine, the alumni magazine of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business highlighting alumni and community accomplishments, business trends and school news.