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Great Leaders Avoid Isolation

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While Harry Truman was president, he was invited to speak at a Pan-Hellenic group’s annual convention. The president was preceded on the program by an array of influential speakers, all of whom catered to the audience by praising the contributions to Western civilization made by the ancient Greeks.

Truman, not being one to pull a punch, took a different tack. He started his speech by saying he also knew something about Greek history. He went on to point out that because the Greek city-states could never agree on anything or unite in common defense, they were an easy mark for the Romans, who toppled them one by one.

Not only did the Greek city-states not unite–rather, they fought each other continuously. The most remembered such conflict was the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. After 27 years of fighting, the victorious Spartans had absolutely nothing to show for this long and debilitating effort.

I had long since concluded that our industry had learned a lesson from the ancient Greeks, and, having at first hand experienced the value of being united, would always strive to remain that way. One does not have to venture far into our history to find examples of damage wrought by disunity and also positive achievements when we faced opponents with a united front.

Today, I am having to re-think that conclusion, for the signs of our industry straying into isolated spheres of interest seem to be growing. I hope you noticed that I used the term “spheres of interest” rather than “spheres of influence.” One does not accrue much influence when positioned in isolation.

Perhaps the most visible sign of our industry splintering is the loss of important memberships in the American Council of Life Insurers. Some of those who have left are the very people (or companies) one would naturally look to for leadership.

It is interesting, I believe, to note that when the plastics industry came under fire from environmentalists and consumerists, it was the largest companies (Dupont, Dow, et al) that led the industry into a massive public relations campaign to win back market share and to dampen criticism.

Our business cannot afford the loss of leadership that can only be provided by large and powerful companies. In like manner, such companies need the support of strong industry associations, but all too often they dont realize it until it may be too late.

There is a tendency among some large companies to view themselves (and their interests) as larger than the industry itself, thereby moving to a position of isolation. This can be a lonely spot when you speak only for yourself, for it may be a big deal to members of Congress from your state of domicile, but you dont count for much in the other 49 states.

An association can cover all the bases–the loner covers but one. One of the reasons that agent groups are effective is that they live, work and carry spears in every congressional district in the country.

I well remember Senator Russell Long in 1980, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, delivering this same message to a roomful of somewhat shocked company CEOs at a meeting in Baton Rouge. Sen. Longs message was not ignored by the CEOs present at that meeting, and relations between the ACLI and National Association of Life Underwriters improved dramatically following the meeting.

It is easy to achieve consensus when you have all your pals (or subordinates) helping you. But consensus itself is not enough, for it could be flawed in many ways and tainted by self-interest. Consensus is much more difficult when you are seated with other industry leaders–many, if not most, of whom are your competitors.

But when the leaders concentrate on that which unites us rather than focusing on the issues that divide us, we are much more likely to develop a strategy that succeeds against our opponents, whoever they may be. Leaders, who believe their company will survive while the rest of the industry suffers, may be living in a fools paradise. A disunited industry is an easy target for legislative foes, predatory law firms and outside competition.

It is realistic to assume that other insurance companies represent competition, but they are not alone. Tennis pros understand that the player on the other side of the court is a competitor. But they also realize that their biggest competitor (or obstacle) is the net that divides them. Only a strong association can minimize the damage from the nets that divide us, and it is worthy of the support of all.

Over the years, companies large and small have found themselves in difficulty. Some of them survived; others did not. On a few occasions, even their bigness did not save them, rather it just made for a harder fall and bigger mess to be cleaned up. But in virtually every instance the problems were created when the leadership took the company off the beaten path– just another word for isolation.

The noted historian Will Durant said that the ultimate form of competition is war. War between the city-states of Greece did not work for the Greeks and it will not work for us. Who knows what challenges lie beyond the horizon, but whatever they are, we will be better served by leaders who appreciate the value of unity.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 24, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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