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pope and the ceoTo be honest, in the world of business and personal development books there is a lot of what I call fluff! Over the last two decades I would have genuinely lost count of the sheer number of books I have read in these areas and unfortunately, so few really stand out.

I guess that many of the principles have coalesced into my broad understanding of business and personal development but to be clear, so few really stand out. So I’m pleased this week to be sharing with you some great insights into a book that i think does stand out and does communicate some insights that will really stand the test of time.

Why? What makes this book so different. I think it’s simply because the insights that the book shares are built on much more than latest management, business or personal development theory. There can often be so much noise around the latest theory or the next big thing – but when you dig down its often not that remarkable. What makes this book different is that it is built on insights based around integrity and character and these two crucial aspects of both success and what it means to be a truly authentic human person – can’t be faked. It’s easy enough to write a business or personal development book based on your PhD thesis or a subject you might be teaching in an MBA program. It,s much harder to write a book out of principles that have taken you 30+ years to figure out and put into practice. It’s also a book where the author talks a lot about how he failed to live the insights he shares and how those failures reinforce the veracity – or richness and accuracy of the insights themselves.

Ok. so enough with the long-winded introduction. What is the book and what is it all about? This week I am going to be sharing with you insights from a book called The Pope and The Ceo by Andreas Widmer. It’s different, it’s moving and it simply makes you want to become a better human being, leader, father, mother, spouse, – whatever situation you find you are living there is something in here that will simply make you want to become more human, more authentic and more focused upon making a very genuine contribution to others and to the world around you.

The Pope and The Ceo is Widmer’s retelling of his real life experience of becoming a Swiss Guard personally assigned to protect Pope John Paul the Second. He shares some truly powerful and moving insights into what he learned from living with and observing John Paul so closely but the book does a lot with those observations in a very practical way.

After his time as a Papal Guard, Widmer goes on to become a successful CEO with a broad and fascinating corporate journey. From time with small but hyper successful tech startups to being involved with massive global philanthropy organisations focusing on providing real poverty alleviation strategies in the developing world through philanthropic funds established by billionaire Sir John Templeton. Widmer shares the reality of success and failure and the classic traps of building a life purely focussed upon success and wealth.

As the story unfolds we see him constantly reflecting upon the lessons learned from John Paul II and how those lessons learned from simply observing the Polish Pope transferred over time to his experience in the corporate world. Regardless of where you sit in a religious perspective it’s not often that you get to spend two years living and working with a person who has leadership responsibilities for over a billion people.

What I want to do here is mention the key chapters where Widmer unpacks each main lesson learned and what that can mean for your life and mine.

1. In Chapter one Widmer explores the concept of vocation, a term that has lost a lot of its meaning in modern culture but is incredibly important. For Widmer, vocation, is about knowing who you are. Observing John Paul he sensed that the Pope’s deep sense of vocation and purpose made everything else in his life less complex from a decision-making point of view. Widmer argues that a deep sense of vocation and purpose is central to both success and contribution in life and business. If you think back to the review from week one on the book The One Thing you will remember how crucial it was that purpose be allowed to drive so much else of what we do. I cannot stress this enough. In my own life I wrestle with this every day. There are always so many distractions but we need to keep coming back to this core sense of vocation and purpose. We need to keep revisiting this core question of, “What are my skills? What am I passionate about? Where can my skills and passions meet the deepest needs of others?

2. In Chapter 2 He talks about the power of knowing God. Once again, wherever you are in your spiritual journey this can apply. He talks about the need for prayer and meditation to be able to make good decisions. All the great faith traditions talk of this need to make time for a sense of spirituality.It is something that is at the core of what it means to be human. It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what the world would be like if more global business and political leaders were prayerful or took time for meditation and their spiritual lives. If Wall Street CEO’s were men and women of prayer and spirituality would we have had the global financial crisis?

andreas widmer

Andreas Widmer

3. Chapter 3 is all about the ability to know what’s right. Widmer calls it Ethics and The Human Person. At the basis of this chapter is his awareness that for the pope everything was about the value and dignity of each every human person. For Widmer, going into corporate life this became a central paradigm. First, it relates to how leaders see employees – as people rather than as just as inputs into a business system. It also translated powerfully into how work with poverty alleviation in the developing world. He argues that the model for reducing poverty that he encountered all the way from the UN down to NGOs on the ground was the idea of simply giving money to people.

He makes the contentious point that one of the reasons the poverty ‘industry’ does this is that is actually does not want people to really get out of poverty at all. He thinks that just handing out money allows big bureaucratic organisations to keep getting funds to justify their existence because it means that nothing really changes so they can apply for the next round of funding. His view is profoundly different.
Deeply impacted by John Paul’s relentless focus upon human values Widmer believed that the real goal was to help people become truly self-sufficient. He argues that poverty is not so much about the lack of money but about a person being alienated from the the means of participating in the economy and of getting ahead. His goal was to help people become entrepreneurial and to start to generate their own wealth. Behind all of it was this focus upon the dignity of every person.

(Andreas Widmer)

I want to make this real for you on a couple of levels. First is the idea that he learned from John Paul that work in itself is dignified and it is a crucial part of what it really means to be human. If we bring a different attitude to the work we do we can actually make it something quite powerful, noble and valuable. So often, we think that work is a chore or a burden but we need to understand that ultimately we are responsible for the attitude we bring to the work in our lives and what it means. Work can be a way by which we serve others and create a better world just by playing our own small part. I think this can be a really powerful idea in your life. First, it is ok to try and make sure that the work you are doing is in the area you want to be working in. You may not have the perfect job but, for start, it needs to be in the right area. For example, if you are committed anti-war activist then working for a defence contractor is probably going to be a bad fit.

So once you have found a place you want to work then it’s up to you to start to realise the dignity and value of work and bring your best to it. I really mean this, starting to think about work as a crucial part of our dignity as human persons is a big paradigm shift. I think if you are reading or listening to this then you are someone who actually does care about their life and their contribution and taking some real pride, or developing a new enthusiasm for what you do is a noble and worthwhile thing.

The final other point about work is that we need to always keep an eye out for the human values. In whatever work you do you are going to have some level of interaction with other human persons so behind that voice on the phone or the person in the office next to yours is not some abstract idea but a real person who has value, dignity and worth and may need your encouragement, support or it might just be a customer who deserves your best attitude or service.

All of this can seem so abstract but I really believe that becoming a successful, alive and happy person is about getting these deeper values and insights in place.

4. In chapter 4 Widmer talks about the simple need to choose what’s right. Its one thing to realise that people have value and are important and its another to make choices that really respect them and also your own value, dignity and worth. Once again, think about all the major issues we have in the world in terms of economics and politics and conflict and think about how all those major crises are ultimately created by the vast numbers of small decisions being made everyday by individual people. What if these people were making different choices? What if they were making hard choices to value other people and to treat them in respectful ways. I hope you can see how all the major issues we face are always about people. Think of issues you may be having in work or personal relationships and it can be hard to realise that they are a case of individual choices having an impact upon yourself and others. This gives all of us, you and me, and incredible responsibility for our lives.

For the quality of our relationships. Widmer makes the point that free will, our ability to make great choices is very much like a muscle that we strengthen over time – quite similar to a muscle we train in the gym. The trick is to make a link between individual choices we make and who we are becoming in the process of making them. Another important point is that making great choices, exercising our free will, can often be really hard. It is almost always easier to do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing. That’s what we need to catch ourselves in the moment and keep striving to make the hard call on ourselves when it needs to be made.

john paul ii

John Paul II

5. The next chapter explores the importance of knowing your team and of putting the right people in the right places within an organisation. So if you are leading people then make sure you check out that chapter. In some ways though, I think it could apply to other areas even within a family. It’s about the ability to recognise people’s talents and be ready to give them chances to use them. This could mean that as a parent you really develop a talent for being really sensitive to the individual skills and talents of your kids and affirming and encouraging them in those talents. It could mean in a marriage or dating relationship you also provide encouragement and affirmation for your partners skills and abilities. I can think of quite a few times when I have been able to help my wife Karen really step out into using her great talents.

6. Widmer, in the next chapter then talks about the importance of Living As A Witness or what he calls The Testimony of Right Action. How many times have you turned on the TV and seen another public figure or politician go down in flames? I am no one’s judge but I think I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older and read and learn and watch people that living a deeply moral and honest and other-centred life is really hard. But….the fact that it’s hard should not make us run from it. We need to do the best we can to act and live with authenticity and integrity and we need to ask for forgiveness when we screw up. So let me ask you some tough questions. Are there are areas of your life where you are not ‘living as a witness?” I know that in my own life, especially as a parent, I can get it wrong sometimes and need to say sorry. Also, I think that if you can try and walk a straight line and live with integrity and authenticity you just become, over time, a happier and more joyful person. Often, when you encounter people who are living double lives or acting poorly when people are not watching then they are often pretty bitter or aggressive or hard work to be around. So lets try, as best we can, to try and make sure that we are modelling for others the values we hold dear. There is always an audience for your life. It could be your kids, or your work colleagues..whoever. We need to remember that people really are watching us and we need to try and show them the best of what can do, be and offer.

7. In one of the final chapters Widmer talks about an issue that we are all interested in. The issue of trying to find and sustain a work life balance. That is a topic that gets talked about so much. It’s like the holy grail or some shimmering mirage in the desert for many of us. I once went to a conference and heard a very successful businessperson argue that work-life balance did not exist and that we should all get over it. Widmer makes some good general points in that any leader needs to always be sensitive to the fact that the natural tendency is to make work the focus of life and then family comes a very distant second. He makes a good connection back to the earlier chapter here on vocation. For Widmer, the hierarchy of values goes God/Spirituality then marriage, relationships and family and then work/career. He makes the point that for many leaders they run that process backwards and put work at the top, family a long distant second and then make no time for God or spirituality or nature or fun at all. He says that this was his most common observation in years of working at the top levels of major corporations – one leader after another seemed to lose their marriages and families in the process.

Another key point in this chapter is the need to find time to have fun and do the things in life that really bring you joy. This is a big one for me and one that I talk about a lot. I do that because I was terrible at living it for years. I drove myself into the ground for about ten years in airports and had to be taught how to enjoy myself again. I now play a lot of golf and am pretty much addicted to road cycling. You need to make it a huge priority that you stay connected to the things that have always brought you joy. As Tony Robbins use to say, the goal in life is not to be the richest person in the graveyard. Balance is about finding your joy again but also finding work that has some meaning for you, though keep in mind we can probably all do ourselves a favour by realising that work in itself will never be the source of our happiness. There is a trend in much of our modern culture that work should be an endless source of joy and excitement. Life experience tells us that the world doesn’t quite work that way. Our goal should be to find work that is meaningful and brings us lots of fulfillment but not to develop the idea that work will be everything to us. So that’s the lesson. Balance is about managing both the need and desire to work but also managing the fact that you’re human and need to enjoy the journey.

Widmer tells a great story in the book of the time that John Paul decided to have a pool built at the Pope’s summer residence outside Rome. Some people complained and the Pope is meant to have said, :”Well, either I can have a pool or you can have a dead Pope.” He realised that even when you are leading a billion people you’re still a human being. He also noticed after a while that no one else used the pool as they thought it must be only for him. He then made a rule that the pool must be used by everyone! Another example of the human values.

John Paul II

John Paul II

So I hope you grab a copy of this book. It’s an important one. As I said at the start, its not about the latest fancy ideas. It’s about deep principles of how to be human and how to live a deep, rich and authentic life that impacts others. No matter where you stand on spiritual matters there are just a series of powerful and simple ideas that you can apply to your life. In essence, the big takeaway ideas for me were all about recognising the value and dignity of other people and building our professional lives around understanding that value and seeking to make a contribution to the world through that paradigm. It can apply whether you are a Pope, a principal a parent in the corporate world or a student. I also really liked the idea that its not enough to know the principles we actually have to live them and sometimes living them can make us stretch our decision-making free will muscles in the process. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.