His well-paid profession allowed him to save, for one thing. And Lowney, the New York City-born son of 1950s immigrants from West Cork, got to travel. Appointed a managing director at the corporation in his 30s, he spent the last six years of his 17-year career at postings in Japan, London and Singapore.
By the end, however, he’d begun to question the meaning of it all.
“I knew that if I keeled over one afternoon, people would feel bad,” he said, “but then they’d drag me out and someone else would be doing that job two days later.”
Lowney gave it up in 2001 before anything like that could happen. He wanted more control over his own time and work, he said. He also wanted to become actively involved in the international development area and so founded Pilgrimage for Our Children’s Future, which doesn’t retain donor money to fund overheads or administration.
“It’s not that I’m painting myself as a saint. If I thought I’d be chairman of J.P. Morgan in five years, I would’ve stuck around,” he said.
A real saint, as it happens, has figured in his post-J.P. Morgan story, one who earlier had a profound effect on his life, particularly the six years from age 18 when he was a novice with the Jesuits.
A few years ago, he wrote a book about how the order became a powerful worldwide organization. His latest book, “Heroic Living: Discover Your Purpose and Change the World,”
draws on the Spiritual Exercises of its founder, St. Ignatius Loyola.
Every few weeks while working for J.P. Morgan, someone would gave him a new book on leadership or self-help. He said of the genre: “A lot of them are wonderful and a lot of them, it seems to me, are complete junk — without any substance at all.”
They provided “quick fixes,” he said, that didn’t grapple with very deep questions.
The “very shallow” and “very superficial” approaches suggest that your dreams can come true easily. “In a way, I’m saying exactly the opposite: to have a satisfying, fulfilled life is a difficult thing that takes lifelong practice and work,” he said.
“It sometimes struck me, while I was at Morgan, that the training, the ideas that we received in the seminary had more relevant substance than some of this junk,” he said.
“I wondered if I could somehow translate into a set of humanistic principles or ideas things that for the Jesuits, of course, would have very deep religious roots and motivations,” he added.
Lowney, who remains a practicing Catholic, was raised in Blessed Sacrament Parish in Jackson Heights, Queens. His father, who was originally from Bear Island, worked with the phone company. He died in 1981. His mother, now an Upstate New York resident, made the journey from nearby Castletownbere. She also got a job later on in the company as a directory assistance operator.
“I guess they knew each other [in Ireland], but they really met and got married here,” said the author, who has a younger brother and sister.
When he went to Regis High School in Manhattan he admired the commitment of the younger Jesuit teachers. “It probably struck me as a worthy way to spend one’s life,” he said.
He was quite happy during most his time as a novice. He went to LeMoyne College and then to Fordham, and then taught at Fordham Prep in the Bronx.
“Eventually I began to feel it was going to be a difficult and maybe not very happy life for me, he recalled.
Lowney said he’d given rather more thought to the decision to leave than to what he’d do afterwards.
He said that he fallen into his finance career because of circumstances and location: he’d been teaching economics to seniors at Fordham Prep and he was in New York with its big banks and management training programs.
His post-J.P. Morgan career led him back to Jesuit schools of learning. He has spoken at 25 out of the 28 third-level colleges run by the order in the U.S.
His latest book is structured as a strategy for life. “First you have to figure what you’re living for,” he said. “You have to have some sense of purpose, some sense of life direction.
“We’d think somebody who owned a company was lunatic if they didn’t have a strategy,” he added.
The world is complex and very fast, and it’s very hard to improvise as a business, Lowney argued. “And all of these things are true of our personal lives, in some respect,” he said.
The second part of the life strategy concerns the need to make important choices well, whether about marriage or a career or a business deal or buying a new car or property.
In this regard, Lowney spoke of “attachment,” a concept that was important to the Jesuits’ founder.
“What sometimes happens is that in very subtle ways we are attached or hung up on the unhealthy drivers, like our own egos, status, greed, fear of failure, and that these things cloud our judgment and lead us into making terrible choices,” he said.
As someone who has many years’ experience in investment banking, he uses the recent global financial crisis as a case study.
“It’s a many tentacled problem. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but part of it was, for example, we had chief executives who were unwilling to ask the questions they should have asked,” he said.
When things are going well, people don’t want to ask difficult questions. “You don’t want to know the answer,” he said. “People did deals based on the attachment to the size of the bonus they were going to get.”
Meanwhile, big mortgages and fancy cars were linked to people’s status.
The third prong to his strategy concerns effectiveness in every day of one’s life.
“In terms of juggling our time, that’s a difficult, complicated problem that frankly I have no solution for, and I’m not trying to sell one in the book, because it’s a dilemma for any thinking modern person,” he said.
“What I do raise is that we tend not to think: How does our whole life make sense?” he said. If one stands for certain values – excellence, hard work, honesty and integrity, for example – one should stand for them at home as well as at work.
Lowney doesn’t refer to famous people in his book. When he talks about “leaders,” he thinks about everyday people, particularly some he knew growing up.
One dictionary definition of leadership, he said, is to point out a way or direction or goal, and to influence others toward it.
“I’m trying to invite people or challenge people to say: Let’s each try to take on our own leadership opportunity and responsibility; let’s each be conscious of the impact we have, the change we make, instead this disempowering notion that thinks only about the person on television,” Lowney said.
“Heroic Living” is published by Loyola Press. For more information go to www.chrislowney.com.