Former Swiss Guard Owes Business Sense, and Faith, to John Paul II

In a new book, Catholic CEO Andreas Widmer offers management insights and stories of the late Holy Father.

Andreas Widmer
Andreas Widmer (photo: Courtesy

In these times of economic woe and uncertainty, could Blessed Pope John Paul II be a model for business leaders?

Former Swiss Guard and successful businessman Andreas Widmer thinks so — and has laid out his reasons in a practical and fascinating new book: The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.

In it, Widmer takes the reader through nine practical lessons. He stresses that business and faith go together and that business can be a wonderful school of virtue and faith. The book is published by Emmaus Road with a foreword by papal biographer George Weigel. On Sept. 29, Widmer spoke on the phone from the United States about his book.

Why have you decided to write this book now?

There are really two aspects to it. The first reason is that I’ve had a very privileged background in that I was able to serve John Paul as a guard in the 1980s. And even once you leave the guards, you still have certain privileges. This is just a blessing that comes out of nowhere. It’s not that I did anything to earn it. … So you have all this privilege: What are you going to do with it? It’s like if you have wealth or any other blessing, God is happy to give it to you, but he’s asking: “Okay, now what are you going to do with it?”

You are also grateful for the blessings you have received in business.

Yes, I was also very privileged to live through the high-tech boom. I was able to become an entrepreneur. I worked in two companies which were really crucial in software, one which brought the Internet to the PC [and another] that’s brought “continuous speech recognition” to the market. But then what I wanted to do was bring what I had learned from John Paul, which for many years I actually didn’t implement into my business life. I was a “silo Catholic,” you could say. Jesus was the man of Sunday, and I was the man the other six days of the week. There’s so much of this. I’m the last one to throw a stone at anyone, and so what I’m trying to do is share this journey with people.

What is the second main motive you have for writing the book?

I have a foundation that promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to poverty. Through it, I meet so many CEOs, entrepreneurs, business leaders, managers, and I can see in them a thirst for [a morality in business]. The moral conscience of people and this longing for knowing what is right and wrong is programmed into the human heart, and because the world doesn’t give it, our people are confused and, in a sense, have a heartache. I can see this when I give talks; they hang on every word. But it has to be seen from their side, and I can say these things in their own language; I’m one of them. That’s the hope for this book.

How do you use language in ways they will understand?

One thing I do is use my story, which is interesting, having been a guard. But I am also a successful CEO, so your credibility goes right up. I use these [software] companies as examples in the book. I write about how I deal with employees, hire, fire and guide them. In a sense, what I’m pushing is servant leadership: saying that as a manager you should be a coach, not a critic. And I use stories of John Paul II or stories from my business background to demonstrate those things — and then say them in a very straightforward manner.

You went through a tough time in business. Can you tell us a little about it and how it helped bring you back to the Church?

We sold my last company for $600 million to a European company. In two months, it turned out that the company was fraudulent. The Nasdaq took the stock off the market, and I ended up with zero. So that was a major wake-up (call), and I used that as a turning point to come back. Of course, you have anger and feel depressed and everything, but I wanted to use this positively. It happened right in the Holy Year [of 2000], and so John Paul II re-emerged in my life. I was basically living under my desk — if you lose a lot of money, it’s a very painful experience, especially if it wasn’t your doing. It was a criminal thing. I was sort of at the brink of saying “Is something wrong with our system, with the free-market entrepreneurs and capitalism?” 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.

Many people continue to think the free market isn’t moral, that it’s based on greed. Does your book stress the opposite: that for a free market to really function properly, it needs morality and ethics?

The free market is just like a knife, and you can’t blame the knife if it’s being used as a weapon. So a morality is required for the free market to function. If we can only see what is legal and not legal and 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. So we have to be able to trust each other that our word is our bond, that we are not lying to each other. Those are things that are not necessarily legally based, but morally based. Without it, you cannot run the free market. 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.

How is the book structured?

The book comprises nine lessons. I make one overall heading and then go and do a story about it, then go back and talk about it, and, at the end, I do a summary and then an exercise. If you do an exercise, then there’s an actionable thing coming out of it: It’s not just an idea; it translates into action. That’s what I love about John Paul, and it’s one of my points: that an action is an extension of your soul. You have to understand that when you act, you’re giving birth to an act, putting it into existence — but also the beauty of the whole spirituality around work and entrepreneurship is that it is about co-creation with God, that God creates the world. He says, “Hey, why don’t you keep going?” He gives you the power to keep creating. So if you’re a manager or a CEO of a business, you have this great opportunity and responsibility that you lead a group of people who are continuing to create the world.

It’s a very timely book, highly relevant to the fact that many people are unemployed, and some are turning to entrepreneurship.

I talk about vocation. I think the Catholic understanding of vocation is beautifully rich and profound in its application, so I’m giving the reader an overview of vocation and then helping them along the way.

I’m not going to really help the primary vocation, but the secondary vocation is where I can help: “How should you look at work? How do you find out what the work is that you’re called to do?” I do think it’s timely, but I’m not a critic, I’m part of the solution. Again, it’s about not being a critic, but a coach. So the book is all about “What can we do?” rather than standing there and saying how horrible the world is.

A cynic might say that John Paul II was a great Pope but not so good at governance. Does this weaken some of your arguments in the book?

It comes back to: What defines success? What was he actually trying to do? You find the same thing with Benedict.

John Paul II never had the intention to “manage” the Church. If you read Redemptor Hominis, his first encyclical, there is a blueprint for what he wants to do. He never even thought of doing anything with the Curia; it wasn’t on his priority list. He had a strategy: He wanted to fight communism, put human dignity in the center.

How many people talked about dignity and a culture of life? Today, it’s a common theme that everyone around the world uses. He wanted to properly implement Vatican II, to roll back some of the things that were wrong, and go with those that were not picked up.

At end of the day, he completely achieved his goals. If you read Redemptor Hominis, he achieved everything written in there [during the years of his pontificate].

Looking at Benedict, instead of being a micromanager talking about this or that office, look at what he does. He says: “Let me reintroduce Jesus Christ; let me reintroduce the fathers of the Church; let me reintroduce the truth that God is love and so on.” He’s doing that because, having lived in the Vatican and knowing Italy, he knows he’d be barking up the wrong tree [to change the Curia]. But if he’s successful in increasing the faith, the issues of the Curia are going to go away.

He goes to deeper issues, right?

Yes: What we need is a conversion of heart. The truth is that 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. These are problems of the heart.

Finally, what did your experience in the Swiss Guard teach you?

The truth is: I wasn’t strongly religious when I went into the Guard, so, in that sense, I had a great opportunity [to return to the faith]. John Paul II had such an impact. You’re sort of close by him all the time as a guard. That doesn’t mean you’re interacting with him, but you’re standing there while he does something. I saw him and heard him, and, at times, he did interact with me , and I write about that in the book. What I was left with very early on, before I even found my faith, was that this man has what I want. He was the most fully human person I’ve ever met in my life. This wasn’t a guy who had wings and walked around without making any noise — you know: being holier than thou. ... As a youngster out of Switzerland, screwed up by the catechetics of the 1970s, which were basically absent, I saw this man, and I thought, Wow — that’s how I want to live. And then he points out: “Actually, it’s not me; what I have is Christ.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.