Former Swiss Guard recounts papal lessons on leadership

Andreas Widmer was just 20 years old when he left his native Switzerland in 1986 to join the illustrious ranks of the Swiss Guards — the regiment of men tasked with protecting the pope at the Vatican and around the world. He remained in the Guards for two years, then moved on to a career in the software industry, a career that was, at times, blazingly successful and once, heartbreakingly disastrous. 

It was in the midst of that disaster, after making and losing millions, that the televised words of the pope under whom he’d served — Pope John Paul II — reached out across space and time, reminding him of all he’d seen and learned during his years as a Swiss Guard. From that moment, Widmer’s vision of life and work radically changed. He abandoned the leadership models given to him by the corporate world and began following the model given to him by Pope John Paul II. He has never looked back. 

In his first book, “The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard” (Emmaus Road, $12.95), Widmer hands on the wisdom he acquired watching Pope John Paul lead the Church in order to help leaders of businesses both big and small apply it to their lives and careers. He also has launched a website, www.thepopeandtheceo.com, which offers additional practical exercises and lessons for business leaders. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Widmer about some of those lessons and the difference leaders who learn from them can make. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What was the most fundamental leadership lesson you learned from Pope John Paul II? 

Andreas Widmer: Probably, the most fundamental lesson was the concept of servant leadership. It comes out of John Paul’s idea of love. As he saw it, love is desiring the good of another and doing what you can to help them realize that good. When it comes to servant leadership, this idea of love goes hand in hand with his idea of loving in truth, basically that love doesn’t allow for a lie. So, as a leader you need to be honest in love. That doesn’t mean everyone holds hands and sings “Kumbaya,” saying everything is fine when it’s not. Rather it means being positive and honest with your employees and co-workers in a way that affirms them as human persons and seeks what is best for them. 

OSV: In your book, you stress having a correct understanding of your vocation. Why is that so critical to good leadership? 

Widmer: Because living your vocation is all about doing God’s will — not because he’s an autocrat who tells everybody what to do, but rather because that means being the best you can be, being who you were designed to be and using your gifts as they were meant to be used. The leader of a business has a responsibility to know and understand his or her vocation so they can lead well. But they also need to lead with a view of the vocations of all the people who are put in their care. They should want them to grow as human beings and employees. If they can recognize their employees’ vocations, what they’re suited for or called to, that makes it easier to promote someone into a position for which they’re suited or move them into a different position, or even a different company, if that’s what’s best for them. 

OSV: How did the pope’s prayer life affect the way he led? 

Widmer: Here, I think it’s important to distinguish between formal prayer and spontaneous prayer. Traditional prayer or formal prayer — the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary — all that is something he did on schedule. Doing that kind of prayer in that kind of way trained the muscles of his will. But that kind of prayer was combined with a habit of contemplating everything he did all day with an attitude of prayer. He made his work a prayer. There really was no aspect of his day or work that wasn’t in some way a prayer. And that had a profound effect on all his decisions and interactions with people. 

OSV: How can business leaders imitate him in that? What difference will that make? 

Widmer: Well, formal prayer is a help because it trains the will to do things it might not necessarily want to do. We all need help with that. More importantly, however, when you’re leading a business, you need to look at yourself as a steward of people’s careers. That’s something for which you have to give an account at the end of the day. God gave you the care of this person’s career, and you need to ask yourself if you were honestly helping them excel. Were you expecting too much or too little? Were you not honest with them? Approaching questions like that through prayer brings God’s perspective into your life. I don’t know a company who couldn’t benefit from that. If you make your work a prayer, it’s beneficial to everyone — to you, your employees and the bottom line. 

OSV: That’s another point you raise — that running a business from a Christian or Catholic point of view doesn’t mean you don’t care about profit. 

Widmer: Exactly. If you look at the parable of the profitable servants, you see that God wanted them to be profitable. The servants who made a profit with their master’s money were rewarded. The one who didn’t, lost the little he had. The question is not to make a profit or not make a profit: It’s clear you should make a profit. The question is, is the person for profit or is profit for the person? Is profit an end or a means? It’s a means. But you shouldn’t pretend profit doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. It’s an important measurement that shows you have allocated your resources efficiently. 

OSV: You talk about the importance of moral vision to John Paul II’s leadership. It’s easy to see why that matters to a pope. Why should it matter, however, to a toaster manufacturer? 

Widmer: Moral vision integrates into the world what is true. If you have a vision of what is true, a vision directed toward building a culture of life, you will go farther than if you have a vision of what is false, a vision directed toward building a culture of death. That matters in the big picture, but it starts small. Our moral vision shapes everything we do all day long. All decisions are decisions deciding between a culture of life and a culture of death. That can sound scary, but it’s actually comforting. If you know what the culture of life is and you make decisions according to it, then you know you’re on the path to prosperity and true success. 

OSV: Do you think in looking at John Paul II, we can find the answers to many of the problems in leadership we see on Wall Street today? 

Widmer: I do. It’s the core point of my book. Democracy is a messy process. It doesn’t always work as well as we would like. But it’s better than any of the alternatives, and it’s better still when you have an educated and mature population voting. The same is true of the free market economy. It may not be perfect, but if not this, what else? The alternatives are highly statist or managed economies. When you look at examples of how those types of economies have worked out in the past, it becomes clear you don’t want to go down that road. The downsides are so large that they outweigh the downsides of the free market. So, like with democracy, it comes back to the need for a strong public moral culture. Ultimately, that’s the only real check that can keep the free market being used for good. There should be laws, of course. That goes without question. But you can’t depend solely upon laws. People find ways to obey the laws and still do evil. At other times, laws are blatantly violated but no one enforces them. Too few laws did not cause the problems we have right now. The cause was a lack of personal and public morality. As a society we need to acknowledge that there is truth and that there are things moral people do and don’t do. We need to teach that in our schools and promote it as a society. If we do that, then we can count on the people who lead these companies to know right from wrong. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.