When Mitt Romney was serving as bishop of his church in 1981, one of his two counselors wrote home to his mother with a prediction: This guy could wind up in the White House.
In the then-34-year-old Romney -- who would put in long hours at his consulting job at Bain & Company only to spend early mornings, late nights and weekends visiting ward members in need and administering church business -- Philip Barlow said he saw the marks of an unusually effective leader, and someone who “epitomized Mormon culture.”
“I found his executive ability so extraordinary that I remember writing home to my mother that this guy could be president of the United States,” said Barlow, now a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University in Logan. “He’s got a strong dose of Mormon can-do optimism -- an optimistic confidence and resilience about overcoming challenges. I almost got a sense that he was ready to jump out of his chair and leap to action.”
Romney, now 65 and the presumed Republican presidential nominee, often speaks about the experiences that have shaped his leadership skills and business acumen -- which he cites as his prime qualifications for the White House -- including his work at Bain Capital LLC, the private-equity firm he founded, his turnaround of the scandal-plagued 2002 Olympic Games, and his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.
Yet Romney hardly ever names his religion or discusses his service in the church in public. He shuns questions about the beliefs and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying he does not want to be its spokesman. When he visits Salt Lake City today for a fundraiser, he’ll hold no public events, save for an airport photo-op, in the spiritual and organizational home of Mormonism.
That silence is testament to the political risk his campaign sees lurking as Romney seeks to make history by becoming the first Mormon president.
It’s striking to those who have worked with Romney in church and business because they say his faith offers valuable insight into his leadership style, his success in the corporate world, and what drives him to seek the presidency.
It also undercuts the portrait President Barack Obama and his campaign are painting of Romney as an uncaring corporate raider bent on profiting in business at the expense of workers.
“He was in leadership capacities in the church roughly for a period of 14 years, and during that time he would spend from 10 to 15 hours a week doing nothing other than confidentially meeting with, and trying to help do what he personally could, or calling on the resources of other people in the area to help with the everyday problems of life -- whether it was unemployment, whether it was a wayward child, whether it was an illegal immigrant, whether it was a marriage falling apart,” said Grant Bennett, another one of Romney’s counselors and Bain co-workers, who succeeded him as bishop in Belmont, Massachusetts.
It was just one of the ways in which Romney’s world view and business approach have been defined by the teachings of his church, say friends, former associates and experts on the Mormon faith.
The Mormon church, which has no professional clergy, puts a premium on individual leadership. Boys as young as 12 or 13 give sermons and men at 19 or 20 years old undertake two-year conversion missions -- Romney’s was in France -- during which they face adversity, experience rejection, and learn to persevere.
“Young men and young women have a number of opportunities to serve in leadership roles where they learn to speak in front of people, they learn to think about agendas, they learn to think about accomplishing things, and about success,” said Gary Cornia, the dean of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
There is also a premium placed on being industrious and tenacious, Barlow said. Those are traits referred to in the Book of Mormon as “deseret,” which means honeybee -- a symbol among church organizations and on Utah’s state seal. Barlow saw that in the way Romney once rushed to shed his business suit and don blue jeans to help a ward member with a leaky roof.
Geoffrey Rehnert, who worked with Romney at Bain Capital, noticed similar tendencies in the workplace. Romney “just went a million miles an hour -- he just had this energy level and vitality that just didn’t slow down,” Rehnert said. “At first, I’d say to myself, ‘Well gee, this guy’s really wired today,’ and then after a while, I realized this is how he is all the time.”
Romney’s way of constructing his business also had parallels with the Mormon church, whose volunteer ministry prizes consensus building, teamwork and a bottom-up leadership style.
“He created an organization without him micromanaging the other people who were in the organization like me, who were junior to him, where it was kind of a mix of Mitt being the CEO and a partnership arrangement,” Rehnert said. “He was never a command-and-control guy.”
Romney’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview and referred questions to the church.
Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said while scripture is full of leadership lessons, one teaching unique to Mormonism states: “that men and women ‘should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.’”
The aspects of Mormonism that have shaped Romney and a prominent list of politicians and business leaders of the same faith have been well-documented. In his 2007 book “The Mormon Way of Doing Business,” journalist Jeff Benedict profiled successful Mormon executives and leaders, including David Neeleman, the co-founder of JetBlue Airways Corp.; Kevin Rollins, former chief executive of Dell Inc.; Deloitte & Touche LLP Senior Partner Jim Quigley; former Madison Square Garden Chief Executive Officer Dave Checketts; and former Citigroup Inc. Chief Financial Officer Gary Crittenden.
A section of the book also is devoted to Romney, whose estimated wealth is as much as $250 million, according to his campaign.
“Mormon scriptures suggest that God created a plan for mankind that would ultimately make them all successful: You will succeed in business, you will succeed in church work, not without adversity, not without hardship, but you will succeed -- and Mitt has that in spades,” said Rollins, who worked with Romney at Bain. “He believes there’s a destiny here that he can fulfill.”
The former Massachusett’s governor’s faith remains a political challenge in part because some evangelicals, who are a force in the Republican Party, believe that Mormonism is a cult or otherwise at odds with Christianity.
The Reverend Robert Jeffress, a Baptist minister from Dallas who supported Rick Perry during the Republican primary, said while introducing the Texas governor in October that Romney was “not a Christian.”
A study released May 21 concluded that Romney is encountering a political “stained glass ceiling,” based on the public’s inability to accept his Mormon faith, and said his religion was “a formidable obstacle” to his campaign.
“His Mormon faith, in particular, makes many people uneasy,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio who co-authored the study. “And that unease has political consequences.”
After much debate among his advisers during his first presidential campaign, Romney made a speech in December 2007 designed to confront such concerns in which he pledged that as president he would answer to “no one religion.”
“I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it,” Romney declared then, yet he said it would be inappropriate for him or any candidate to become “a spokesman for his faith.”
He’s unlikely to reprise the speech during this run, his advisers say, preferring to keep his focus on the economy and jobs and discontent with Obama. In a May 12 commencement speech at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, Romney touched on themes of faith and family yet never uttered the word “Mormon.”
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