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What entrepreneurs should learn from Blessed John Paul II

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 20, 2011

In an era of global enterprise, when some overweight financial firms are deemed “too big to fail,” how should an honest Christian entrepreneur behave? Can the abstract principles of Catholic social teaching be applied to the practicalities of life in the business world? Andreas Widmer tackles those questions in The Pope and the CEO.

Widmer, a former member of the Swiss Guard, saw Pope John Paul II at close range, and was inspired by his example as a leader as well as a teacher of Catholic doctrine. When he announced that he was leaving the Swiss Guard, the Pope gave him a final order: “Go and bring Christ to the world.” After years in business, Widmer does his best to fulfill that order with this book.

After leaving the Vatican, Widmer frankly admits that he made a series of mistakes. He plunged headlong into the corporate world, made a great deal of money, and very nearly ruined his life. After a series of jobs that left him financially secure but emotionally unsatisfied, he risked his fortune on a new venture, lost, and crashed. After a period of soul-searching he realized that he had forgotten both the Pope’s exhortation and the lessons he had learned by observing that great man in action.

So Widmer started out again—this time, trying to maintain his unity of life, and live out the principle of Catholic social teaching in his business dealings. Today he works with the SEVEN Fund, a charitable organization that promotes entrepreneurial approaches to the fight against poverty.

In this anti-poverty work, Widmer disdains the organizations that “patronize the poor,” and warns against those who use world poverty as an excuse to establish their own fiefdoms. To work effectively for the poor, he insists, one must understand their needs, unlock their abilities, and help them to generate new wealth by themselves.

Helping people to realize their potential: this, Widmer argues, is the key not just to anti-poverty work, but to any successful enterprise. He uses Blessed John Paul II as an illustration of his point. The late Pontiff touched and inspired countless millions of people because he cared for them: genuinely, deeply, consistently. A great leader succeeds by serving others.

The lessons in leadership furnished by John Paul II are inextricably entwined with the Pope’s spiritual teachings, Widmer points out. A good leader—in the business world or in any other line of work—should exhibit the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. It takes humility, too, to recognize one’s own limitations and to recognize good advice. And Widmer, following John Paul II, takes the extra step to say that prayer is essential as well, to help keep everything in proper perspective.

The Pope and the CEO is not a textbook of Catholic social teaching, but an innovative sort of management manual, which could be enjoyed by non-Catholic and non-Christian readers. The author makes these points not by citing dogmas or listing formulas, but by relating short stories about the work habits of John Paul II and showing how the Pontiff embodied the qualities of leadership. Widmer is a good story-teller, and he draws out the morals of his stories gently, without preaching.

In the process, the former Swiss Guard includes a number of interesting stories about the life of the late Pontiff, including a few that were new to me. I had not realized, for instance that Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was delivered shortly after the American president met with Pope John Paul. Was that a coincidence? Nor was I aware that the late Pope lost a long battle over the spelling of his name on his tombstone.

While it is primarily a book about management, The Pope and the CEO includes enough of these little tales, and enough other different elements, to satisfy readers who have no special interest in economic affairs. Any reader with an appetite for stories about Blessed John Paul II will enjoy this book, as will anyone who would enjoy a taste of life in the Swiss Guard, or the recollections of a young entrepreneur, or some sound spiritual advice. This book has enough interesting facets to appeal to a wide variety of different sorts of readers—which, come to think of it, might make it a solution to some last-minute Christmas-shopping problems.

In fact, the most charming anecdote in the book is a Christmas story. With a vivid personal memory, Widmer lets us know that while Swiss Guard are pledged to take care of the Pope, sometimes it is the Pope who takes care of the Swiss Guard. The story—I won’t give it away; look for it beginning on page 73—beautifully illustrates a central theme of the book: that a great man and a great leader is never too busy to notice the people who serve him.

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