Before joining CUA, Widmer was the co-founder of SEVEN Fund, a philanthropic organization of entrepreneurs investing in business-led solutions to poverty. Before that, he was CEO of OTF Group, which consulted with countries like Rwanda to develop its private sector. That followed a decade as an international executive for several technology firms.
On the occasion of the canonization, we spoke with Widmer, already in Rome for this weekend's events, about what he learned about leadership from John Paul II . We also discussed how the former pope's leadership compares to the humble style of Pope Francis and what it's like to be a bodyguard to the Bishop of Rome. The following is a condensed version of the discussion, which has been edited for space and clarity.
Q. How did you originally become a bodyguard for the pope?
A. When I was a young man I wanted to become a bodyguard not because of religious reasons, but because I thought being a bodyguard was the coolest thing I could do. It was this romantic notion — "I’m going to get paid to be a bodyguard at 20? That’s pretty cool." You applied by sending a letter, and then had to go through all kinds of tests and introductions. The fact that the pope was the guy I would protect didn’t really matter to me.
But then I met him. This was the most fully alive person I’ve ever met in my life. He just blew me away. He was about as alive and vibrant and joyful as you can get. I was this secular kid, but he impressed me so much that I thought "whatever this guy has, I want." That was my experience with him. It turned out what he had was his faith. I started to have exchanges with him, and also listened to him, which eventually led me to have my own experience of God and finding my faith.
Q. So your first experience with him was more as a leader, someone you'd like to follow, than as a religious figure?
A. Yes, well he was the boss, and I was one of the employees. Swiss Guards report directly to the pope. We are not part of the Vatican state, but part of the papal household. We’re not the police force of the Vatican, just responsible for his security. That allowed me to really experience him as a person and as a leader.
In the book I share a story about my first Christmas Eve away. That was my first big encounter with him. In a nutshell, I was having this existential struggle at age 20. He noticed. He realized that I was struggling. He acknowledged my service and my value, and recognized what I was doing was a sacrifice. Being a bodyguard sounds really cool, but you're supposed to blend into the background. It's like noticing the parking attendant or the receptionist and saying, "I see that you’re not feeling good today" and "thank you for all the work you’re doing here."
To be present enough that you would notice this, that’s the greatest gift you can give somebody. As leaders, to be in a meeting and actually be present — not to have an agenda but to be present — how many of us actually do that? The agenda is the person you’re with. John Paul was actually there. He would let you have an effect on him, and then he would respond. That’s very powerful.
Q. Would you have conversations with him? Did he know your name?
A. I would never commence a conversation. That was taboo. But he would walk by and say "I see you don’t feel so well" and I was like, "That’s true." Then he would inquire and instead of telling me what to do, he would either affirm me or say, "I will go and pray for you." Rather than telling me to pray more, he would do something. Often the default is to delegate, to tell somebody what to do. That’s not what he would do. He would meet you and then he would do something.
He would come to the barracks once in a while to have a meal with us and ask questions about our lives. He knew my name. He knew I was the tallest guard.When I introduced him to my parents, he said that and my mother was very moved. He knew what was going on with pretty much all the guards, and there were 100 of us.
Q. What was the job like? I assume a lot of standing around?
A. It’s a bit like being a pilot. A lot of it is boring — then it matters and it’s very intense. The main issues with security are not that the pope gets attacked on a regular basis. Rather, there’s a lot of people who are ill or have a mental issue and end up crossing the line. It's difficult because the pope isn’t like a president. The pope has a ministry. Being the pope means going out there and blessing babies and being with people. If you lock him in a room, he’d be very secure but then he couldn’t be the pope anymore.
Q. This is a man who was larger than life and one of the most pivotal figures of the 20th century. Still, is there a way you would encapsulate John Paul II’s leadership style?
A. The thing that comes to mind is that John Paul didn’t believe in limits. Look at how unlikely it is that this little kid from this very insignificant small town in Poland that wasn’t even on the map ends up being someone who shapes history. He wasn’t somebody who thinks one person is going to be insignificant in achieving anything — not only for himself, but for others as well. That’s the part of his leadership that I’m trying to share.
He had more faith in my ability than I had in my ability. It was the same with his close collaborators. He had more faith in them than they had in themselves. He would say, "I can’t wait to see the great things you’re going to do with your life." That is so pregnant, that sentence. In a way, it is the best approach to management you could ever have. It makes you feel so important, so special. Yet in a way it's also a loaded sentence, because you know you have to live up to that, too.
He hired to his weakness. He would actually let people go and do it, and not be micromanaging, He would meet with collaborators once a week, like the Cardinal Secretary of State, who was a key partner in working with Poland and the Soviet Union and the United States. He was a superb diplomat, and John Paul chose him and then let him do his thing. He chose Cardinal Ratzinger [who became Pope Benedict XVI] as the person who basically dealt with the theology. He would meet with them once a week, and once he was in sync with them, he would let them bring their personality to it rather than doing it his way.
Q. Are there aspects of his leadership that you believe have been misunderstood?
A. He wrote a lot about what it means to be a person. He felt that what we do physically is also a spiritual reality. You’re actually becoming more fully human by doing whatever you do right now. That’s how he saw work and that’s why to him, action — how we act — was so profound. He spoke through his actions. He was the first pope to go into a mosque. He was the first pope to go into a synagogue. He said to everybody that any Christian has ever hurt, "I formally ask for your forgiveness."
On the one hand, people criticize him for doing some of these things and asked how can you take responsibility for 2000 years worth of history. Other people criticize him and say that's a PR stunt. But this wasn’t PR To him, this was a spiritual healing that he was after.
Q. How do you, on a personal level, square his leadership legacy with the church’s child-abuse scandal that occurred during his tenure?
A. This is a significant stain in the history of the church. It is a cause for great concern and sadness. It stands as one of the great offenses that some of the people in the church have committed that we need to repent for and fix. There’s no excuse. But this is not my area of expertise. Who knew how much? I don't know. I was 20 years old when I lived there. But I have seen an authentic, holy man.
Q. What other leadership lessons from the pope carried over for you once you began working in the corporate world?
A. He wasn’t a short-term leader. If you read his first encyclical that he wrote in 1979, he basically defined his papacy in there. You can read it after 30 years, and he did exactly what he wrote in there. It was his blueprint. He was so clear on what he was going to do that once he had that committed, then he could focus on the moment in front of him. That’s part of how he was able to be present in the moment, because he had that long-term plan. He got elected in 1978, and he started to talk about the year 2000.
Q. Did you learn anything about leadership from watching him interact with other world leaders?
A. I was in the antechamber when General Jaruzelski, the military leader of Poland who put in martial law there, was waiting to see the pope. There were people being detained in Poland. He was visibly nervous.
But I tell you, this man treated Jaruzelski the same way he treated [Ronald] Reagan, the same way he would approach any other human being. This was a big act, a beautiful thing.
Q. What do you think of all the attention being paid to Francis’s humble leadership style?
A. It's beautiful. How would it be if an Argentinian were pope? We know now. It should be like looking through a prism and turning the papacy in different ways. They’re different people doing this differently, but the core of it is the same.
Many of us don’t remember the papacy before John Paul II. The pope used to be carried before John Paul. He used to have a tiara before John Paul. When you met the pope before John Paul, you had to kneel. This is all stuff he did away with. He didn’t want to be carried anymore. He didn’t wear the tiara. He told people not to kneel but to stand and to look him in the eye. He paved the way for what Benedict could do and what we can now see that Francis could do.