Desperately needed wisdom

Although the virtues are unified, according to an old chronology, dating back to Aristotle, we are meant to acquire them in a certain order.

Courage is for young men, who may need to stand in battle. Moderation is for someone starting a career and a family, who needs to delay gratification and stay on the straight and narrow. Justice is for someone entering the prime of life, who, in his success, needs to treat others fairly. Finally, prudence or wisdom is for someone who has attained fullness of years and, accordingly, is asked by his society to take on a role of leadership.

In a traditional society, the elders would govern. The young guys, even if they had "better ideas," would just have to wait their turn.

Very different is the modern market-based society in which we live. It is common that a young person with a single innovative idea, who uses modern business methods of scaling, finds himself within a couple of years to be the leader of essentially a small society--a "business enterprise"--which controls hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth. Such is the modern CEO.

If anything like the old chronology of the virtues is correct, he'll find himself in that position having some degree of courage -- he's a risk-taker, after all -- but with little moderation and justice, and almost no wisdom.

What to do, then, if our economy will fail unless leaders in business act wisely?

The commonly accepted solution is to regulate the heck out of businesses. But that solution would eventually impoverish everyone. Also, the regulators are usually no better men than the regulated. And, besides, regulations can always be gamed.

Christianity provides a better solution, as it has always offered a quick path to wisdom. By meditating on the Word of God, and imitating the saints, aided also by the grace of the sacraments, a young person can attain a wisdom beyond his years. That is the sort of wisdom offered by Andreas Widmer's new book, "The Pope and the CEO" (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2011).

Widmer was born in a small hill town in Switzerland, joined the Swiss Army to become a Swiss Guard, and served at the Vatican, as one of the John Paul II's bodyguards, in the late 1980s, where he observed the pope close up and directly. He left the guard, married an American, took a degree at local Merrimack College, and then found himself on that fast track that I described, taking the ride up with an internet start up venture.

"At the age of twenty-eight," he writes, "I had over a hundred employees and managed over 100 million dollars in revenue. I flew first class, stayed in the best hotels, and lived in a luxury penthouse in Munich's most exclusive neighborhood."

He made his millions and lost his millions, over and again. He lost a small fortune when his stock in a company called Dragon Systems became worthless, after it was purchased by a larger entity which almost immediately thereafter went bankrupt from accounting fraud. This was before the current financial crisis, but the causes were similar. So Widmer suffered first-hand from inept leadership, and his book, proposed as a remedy, speaks directly to us now.

Widmer's pain from that loss set him on a path of conversion. He is the first to tell you that he was not exactly a model business leader during his early years of success. So he also speaks as someone who knows all of the temptations and pitfalls from the inside.

Each of the nine chapters in the book covers a single "lesson" of life, for example, "The Importance of Vocation" or "The Importance of Prayer." Widmer avoids any trace of preachiness in conveying his "lessons." Rather, he tells stories, taken from his experiences of John Paul II and his own experiences in the Swiss Guard and in the world of business.

My favorite concerns Widmer's first Christmas ever away from home. He is assigned the lonely job of standing outside the papal apartments. Earlier, when he had called his Mom, she cried because Andreas, her "baby," was not with her. Although Widmer was calling from a phone booth with a dozen tough Guards standing in line behind him, waiting their turn, he could not help crying himself: "I don't know about you, but when my mother cries, I have to cry with her." Later when he was on guard, he received an unexpected call that the pope would be coming out the door he was guarding, on his way out to celebrate Midnight Mass. "You're new! What's your name?" the pontiff asked, and, noticing Widmer's reddened eyes, walked up to him, took his hand, and said, "Andreas, I want to thank you for the sacrifice you are making for the Church. I will pray for you during Mass this evening." This leader of billions was "sensitive enough to perceive the emotions of a 20-year-old guard whose sole job was to blend into the background as he passed."

Three years later, when Widmer told the pope he was planning to leave the guards, John Paul II said, "Go out into the world and bring what you have learned here with you: I have great hopes for you."

As I turned the last page of the book it was as if I could hear the Beatus saying even now, "Euge, Helvetice!"("Well done, Swiss soldier!")

Michael Pakaluk is Professor at Ave Maria University and author (with Mark Cheffers) of "Accounting Ethics."