Learning Business From a Pope

Entrepreneur and Former Swiss Guard Reveals Lessons From John Paul II

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, SEPT. 29, 2011 (Zenit.org). Whether Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or the «Oracle of Omaha» Warren Buffett, budding business leaders often try to emulate famous industrialists in their quest for commercial success.

But what about looking toward Blessed Pope John Paul II as a leadership model? To former Swiss Guard-turned-successful-entrepreneur Andreas Widmer, the great Pontiff may have never run a business, but his life offers anyone involved in heading up a business, looking to get into commerce, or leading any enterprise, a valuable example.

Based on his knowledge of John Paul II and his closeness to him when he served as a Swiss Guard in the 1980s, Widmer has written a fascinating new book called «The Pope and the CEO.» Highly readable and filled with wise tips as well as anecdotes of his time spent in the apostolic palace, it is aimed at business people and students interested in the intersection of business and faith, business ethics, and lessons in leadership derived from John Paul II.

«John Paul’s influence made me understand that business and faith go together — they are not opposed to each other,» Widmer writes in the introduction. «Business can be a wonderful school of virtue and faith. What’s more, faith and virtue make a business and the economy truly prosperous.»

«The late Pope,» he adds, «is a great inspiration and example for business leaders.»

Widmer says he wrote the book principally for two reasons: firstly out of a willingness to share the great privilege and blessings he has enjoyed, beginning with the Swiss Guard and then in business; and secondly because he sees through his work as an entrepreneur and philanthropist a «great thirst» for morals and ethics in the free market.

Serving in the Swiss Guard «is just a blessing that comes out of nowhere,» he explains on the phone from his offices in the U.S.. «It’s not that I did anything to earn the privilege, but because of this association, a status is conferred on you because you have worked with the Holy Father.»

He is also grateful for having had the opportunity to work high up in two leading software companies over the past 20 years. Such privileges and blessings, he says, invite a response. «It’s like if you have wealth or any other blessing,» he explains. «God is happy to give it to you but he’s asking: ‘OK, now what are you going to do with it?'»

His second reason for writing the book goes deeper. Through his work nowadays as the co-founder of the SEVEN Fund, a foundation that promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to poverty, he says he meets so many business leaders who are thirsting for morality and ethics in the workplace. «The moral conscience of people, and this longing for knowing what is right and wrong, is programmed into the human heart,» Widmer argues. «But because the world doesn’t give it, our people are confused and, in a sense, have a heartache.» For this reason, he says that when he gives talks on this subject, «they hang on every word.»

And because of his background and experience, he is also able to get through to them in ways others couldn’t. «I’m one of them,» he says, adding that he can explain these issues «in a language they can understand.»

«The Pope and the CEO» outlines nine principles for business leadership. These include chapters on knowing who you are, knowing God, knowing what’s right, and knowing how to live a balanced life. But the chapters aren’t just words: They also have a «how to» guide and exercises, too — an approach that derives directly from John Paul II.

«There’s something to do for you at the end so it’s not just an idea; it translates into action,» Widmer explains. «That’s what I love about John Paul, and it’s one of my points: that an action is an extension of your soul.» He also marvels at how John Paul II achieved the goals he set out to achieve. «If you read Redemptor Hominis [his first encyclical], he achieved everything written in there in 30 years,» he says.

In the book, Widmer goes into the nitty gritty of daily management, such as dealing with employees, how to guide them, and hiring and firing. He says that what he is promoting is «servant leadership,» explaining simple things to managers, such as «you should be a coach not a critic.» To illustrate these principles, he uses stories of John Paul II, or those from his business background, then explains them «in a very straightforward manner.»

As an entrepreneur, he is keen to stress that the spiritual beauty of work and entrepreneurship is that «it’s about co-creation with God, that God creates the world.» God gives man the power to keep creating, he says, «and so if you’re a manager or CEO of a business, you have this great opportunity and responsibility that you lead a group of people that are continuing to create the world.» The importance of vocation and discovering a person’s call in life is also a focus of the book.

With its emphasis on the benefits of the free market, what does Widmer say to those, also within the Church, who continue to argue that capitalism doesn’t foster morality but rather promotes greed and self interest? «The free market is just like a knife, and you can’t blame the knife if it’s being used as a weapon,» he answers. «So a morality is required for the free market to function, and if we can only see what is legal and not legal, if we only have to deal with what is in the law or a contract, the transaction costs would be so high that no one could do any business.»

For this reason, «we have to be able to trust each other,» he says. «You can’t have the free market and capitalism without morality, but with morality, it’s actually the best system there is because it allows for human freedom.»

Widmer hasn’t always been so religious, nor had such a devotion to John Paul II. What woke him up to the faith and strength of the Pope’s example was when he fell on hard times. During the Jubilee Year, he sold his company for $600 million, only to find out two months later that the European company he sold it to was fraudulent. «The Nasdaq took the stock off the market and I ended up with zero,» he recalls.

But instead of feeling perpetually angry and depressed, John Paul II «re-emerged» into his life. «I was on the brink of saying something was wrong with our system, with free market entrepreneurs and capitalism,» he says. «But John Paul II’s view is that prosperity rests on a tripod: It needs democracy, free association [and] a public moral culture. And I knew the public moral culture was lacking.»

And it’s this which Widmer is convinced must be tackled if the world is to recover from its current economic woes, and if businesses are to be properly led.

«What we need is a conversion of heart,» he says, «If we find leaders, business leaders and Church leaders who have a true conversion of heart that leads to servant leadership, most of our problems are going to go away.»

«These are not systemic and legal problems,» he says. «These are problems of the heart.»

«The Pope and The CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard» is published by Emmaus Road, with a foreword by George Weigel.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.

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