Staying faithful in a secular business world: Advice from Andreas Widmer

9 mins read
Andreas Widmer is the founder and director of the Art & Carlyse Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business where he loves to teach and mentor students to find their true calling. (Courtesy of the Heroic Men Summit)

Andreas Widmer, distinguished by his achievements as a former member of the Swiss Guard under Pope St. John Paul II and his role as an instructor and mentor at The Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, where he serves as Director of the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, is eager to impart the wisdom of “The Gospel of Work” at an upcoming conference for Catholic men. The virtual summit, sponsored by the Catholic Men’s Leadership Alliance, focuses on how men can do more to engage their faith in the workplace.

Widmer passionately asserts, “Work can be liberating. It should infuse you with purpose. It is a means of sanctification. This is the good news that we want to shout from the tallest skyscrapers and into the deepest valleys.” In a recent exchange with Our Sunday Visitor, Widmer took the time to reflect on today’s challenges to masculinity and faith. He considered what makes a good leader, how the Gospel shapes Christian leadership and more.

Lessons from the Swiss Guard

Our Sunday Visitor: How has your experience as a former Swiss Guard shaped your understanding of leadership and masculinity? How entrepreneurs incorporate those lessons in their lives?

Andreas Widmer: Working as a Swiss guard has taught me “other-directedness.” When you are focused on the safety of another person, you have to practice a great amount of empathy and foresight on behalf of the other person. This other-directedness is not only in the physical sense — the protection — but also in the sense of the direction of your life, the way you use your time. In the Guard, we were not allowed to go beyond a certain radius of the Vatican so that we would be available if anything happened. We would also sleep in different places in the papal palace to be part of the reserve. And then, of course, we had to be on formal duty at all different times of day. This is where I really learned the value of using my talents to create value for others.

Once I entered the workforce and started to work in entrepreneurial companies, helping to bring technology products to market, it was not difficult for me to see the parallel. Entrepreneurs use their talents to create value for others; in doing so, they direct their lives in such a way as to most benefit their clients to employees, investors and even society.

John Paul II modeled for me not toxic masculinity, but –again– an other-directed, protective and caring masculinity that chooses its own sacrifice and suffering over that of others.

John Paul II profoundly re-shaped my understanding of masculinity, as well. At 19, physically powerful but unsure of myself, I had a superficial understanding of manliness as mere toughness. John Paul II modeled for me not toxic masculinity, but — again — an other-directed, protective and caring masculinity that chooses its own sacrifice and suffering over that of others. Just watching him from the privileged position of a Swiss guard, I became profoundly inspired to imitate him. If you are a man, it is through your masculinity that you exercise your faith in the Lord and your determination to love. As John Paul often said, “Love is a decision.”

This kind of masculine attitude, if you wish, although it’s not practiced by men only, has a connection to entrepreneurship as well. Entrepreneurs are often depicted as selfish, wealthy, and greedy folks. But I don’t think that’s true in the main. The entrepreneurs I know are small and medium size business owners who struggle to grow a company and create jobs for others and goods for their customers. These are the people who pay themselves last. I have a good friend right now who hasn’t taken a salary for six months. I’m not talking about a mom and pop shop owner, I’m talking about a man with a company of several hundred people. He doesn’t pay himself so he can meet payroll as he’s getting his business through a hard time. In my experience, it is common behavior for heads of companies to shoulder the risks themselves so that others can thrive.

Our Sunday Visitor: The Swiss Guard is known for its dedication and discipline. How do you translate these qualities into principles that modern Catholic men can apply to excel in their personal and professional lives?

Widmer: You use the word “dedication”; I prefer “loyalty.” This is actually the word used in the slogan of the Swiss Guard: “Faithful and loyal.” Loyalty to me is a particularly god-like virtue, because it adds a dimension of affection or love to the virtue of fidelity. God is loyal to humanity, even though humanity keeps turning away from him. This is because God loves us for who we are, not simply for what we do. It should be the same with us: we should recognize in each other the image and likeness of God, our innate dignity, and not just what we do —  our utility.

The love element in loyalty is what makes discipline possible in the long run, I think. It’s important to train our wills in ways similar to training the body physically: voluntarily taking on challenges, stretching ourselves, growing in virtue by training for it day in and day out. But few of us can maintain discipline if we’re pursuing material goals for their own sake. It’s when we add the dimension of love for an ideal that we’re able to persevere.

The love element in loyalty is what makes discipline possible in the long run.

When you lead a business, those two virtues can’t only be talked about, they have to be modeled. No amount of writing or slogans on the wall will inspire anyone to practice them. But your example will. I was blessed to serve several officers who made me want to imitate them in their loyalty and discipline. They were noble and I wanted to be like them.

Practicing these virtues is straightforward: start small, and be consistent. And stay connected to your motivating ideal.Choose something you can practice to be loyal to several times a day. And then exercise discipline to both stick to it, and more importantly, to pick back up every time you fall short. Don’t choose major things to begin with, start small for practice.

Faith in a secular business world

Our Sunday Visitor: In a secular world that sometimes challenges traditional values, how do you help Catholic men stay faithful and advance in a business culture often opposed to those values?

Widmer: In the current wave of virtue signaling, it is really difficult to stay out of the culture wars. It’s easier if you are in a private company than if you are in a public company or institution. Some debates are clearly fads, and you really can stay out of them and just keep running your business. If you are working in a secular context where you can’t avoid some issues, my advice would be to not insist on an either/or approach. Instead, try to move the debate and actions in the right direction. You may not achieve the full traditional value all at once, but you can be moving the dial in the right direction. I would call that the choice of being part of the solution rather than the problem.

This calls for quite a bit of heroism, but also some finesse, and not everyone has both the fortitude and ability to do it. Certainly if you feel you can’t be at peace with your conscience, you may need to walk away. And sometimes there are moments when, no matter how winsomely you explain yourself, no matter how fair and how gentle and respectful you are, the other party just cannot or won’t accept you. We have to be realistic about that.

Our Sunday Visitor: Technology has transformed communication and relationships. How do you address the role of digital interaction in the lives of Catholic men, while fostering authentic connections and spiritual growth?

Widmer: Digital interaction, like any tool or technology, has its benefits and drawbacks. To use a powerful tool like the Internet for one’s growth in holiness requires a good amount of virtue! But this is true of life in general. Temptation is all around and, to refer to the previous question, loyalty and discipline are paramount. Maybe it’s not obvious to everybody, but to me, the greatest danger of electronic communication is loneliness and disconnection. It’s funny that we call it “connectivity” when what it can produce in the worst case is the ultimate disconnection.

I would encourage men to have intentional relationships. Really give time to your marriage and to your kids if you have them. I have belonged to a small men’s prayer and accountability group for over 20 years and we meet at least once a week. Deep friendships — the kind where people love you as you are but will give you a good kick in the pants when you need it — take work, and you can’t have them from scrolling through posts, even if you only follow uplifting accounts.

Virtues for Catholic leaders

Our Sunday Visitor: The Catholic faith emphasizes values like humility and compassion. How do you teach Catholic men to balance these virtues with the assertiveness often required in leadership roles?

Widmer: Humility and compassion are essential in business. But sometimes not the way you might think. One of the key objectives of business is to pursue excellence. Settling for, or institutionalizing, mediocrity is not a virtue, it is a vice. Sometimes people falsely see it as humility to settle into mediocrity. But I would say that settling for mediocrity can be a form of arrogance — it can be a sign I don’t think others are worth my best. In leadership, allowing someone to get away with less than living up to their individual, God-given potential, is not compassionate, but corrosive.

But it’s not compassionate not to challenge or to just accept whatever you get — from yourself or others.

True humility entails knowing and accepting yourself as you are and allowing your colleagues to shine where you don’t or can’t. And, again, it requires you to be other-directed, and to act selflessly. It may mean putting other people’s needs ahead of our own or delaying gratification for the benefit of the common good.

True compassion in the workplace of course includes kindness and understanding and common courtesy. But it also entails believing in people and not letting them fall off the path of their own excellence. Of course you can’t berate or humiliate a person into excellence. It’s a matter of walking beside them, encouraging them — and maybe at times stepping aside to let them grow. But it’s not compassionate not to challenge or to just accept whatever you get — from yourself or others.

Our Sunday Visitor: Catholic social teaching emphasizes care for those in need. How do you guide Catholic men to be socially responsible leaders who actively contribute to the betterment of their communities?

Widmer: There are two kinds of issues with poverty. On the one hand, you have humanitarian disasters, which call for charity. If someone’s hungry, we ought to feed them, clothe them and so forth. The characteristic of such situations is that they are time-limited. Hence the terms disaster, emergency, crisis, etc… We should all play a role in helping out when the earthquake hits or someone is in real emergency need in their life. It’s a Christian non-negotiable.

Keep in mind, however, that charity of this sort does not help create prosperity. It does not help people to achieve their personal excellence. In most cases, what’s needed for that is a job: work. And jobs –the kind that are not make-work, but which allow people to develop their own talents in the service of others– are created by business, not the government or the church. So what we as Christian business people need to do is to create new jobs that pay well and are secure. There is nothing you can do to benefit the prosperity of a community that is more effective than that, because employment has more than a material significance. There comes with it the ability to develop skills and serve, to find meaning in work, to have the kind of stability that enables family formation. Business practiced virtuously even builds a form of community so people feel less isolated.

Our Sunday Visitor: The concept of servant leadership is integral to Catholicism. How do you inspire Catholic men to lead with a servant’s heart while still effectively achieving their business and leadership goals?

Widmer: Your question about the relationship between servant leadership and the pursuit of excellence is a good one. I believe that a Christian leader finds a way to work with people to establish stretch goals, and to elicit genuine desire to reach them. In my Guard days, St. John Paul II used to tell us, “I cannot want for you.” This has turned into one of the most insightful leadership lessons he gave me. Unless we find a way to encourage our employees to want to reach the goals we have for our company, it is futile to think that we will ever sustainably achieve them. There’s a lot more to be said in this regard, but excellence and servant leadership aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re more like “rival values” that bring out the best in us when we pay attention to both.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."