Recently I completed reading David McCulloughs best-selling book “John Adams.” While the book is about President John Adams, it also provides insight into the founding of our nation well beyond anything contained in our school history books.

McCullough details and documents the struggle, suffering, intrigue and even the treachery associated with the events leading up to the creation of the United States, and the events associated with some of the first presidencies. It was a time when the challenges of leadership were formidable.

But there were lighter moments that were uplifting as well. Early in the book McCullough relates that among Adams most cherished moments were those times when, in the evenings, he could sit with his clay pipe and a glass of Madeira and a good book. In fact, it sounded so good to me that I went out and bought a bottle of Madeira and a couple of fine cigars (clay pipes not being readily available) so that I might create a similar experience.

Adams was right; as I finished the book, with cigar and Madeira, it sort of put me in touch with him as I read of his trials and tribulations here and abroad.

For the most part, though, McCulloughs tome dealt with more serious matters. There are many lessons to be learned from the life of John Adams and this book. But there was one particular point that impressed me as being of great importance to us today. In the beginning, our nation was–to say the least–precarious. The people were divided into three very diverse groups insofar as the kind of government desired. The leaders were squabbling among themselves and self-interests were inhibiting progress.

But there was one person who was able to hold himself above the fray and, by dint of his own conviction and prestige, was able to pull the fractious parties together to form a nation. That person was, of course, George Washington who historians, as well as McCullough, credit with doing what no other person could have done.

The key element to Washingtons leadership was that, as much as he loved his home state of Virginia, he believed that the nation was more important than its individual colonies. While others were tending to local or self-interests, he held the vision that the “union” was the more important institution. Absent that kind of leadership, we may never have become the nation we are today.

There is, I believe, a lesson in this, which can be of value to our business today. We are not, as an industry or business, struggling in a formative way, as were the colonies in 1776, but we are nevertheless in a precarious state. Their problem was to become united. Today our problem is to stay united. There is ample evidence to support the notion that we are drifting apart and are on what I believe to be a destructive course. Indicators of this are:

–The decline in membership in the American Council of Life Insurers. The ACLI has lost powerful members who heretofore provided great leadership. CEOs of member companies are delegating too much of ACLI activities to their deputies. This gives the appearance of a lack of interest.

–The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors has lost 50% of its membership (presently at 72,000, down from a high of 144,000). Reports indicate their finances are in disarray, largely from this obvious drop in support.

–The American College and the Life Underwriter Training Council report a drop in students.

–Other of our institutions face problems of membership and income.

–The strong image of life insurance is slowly disappearing into a mosaic called financial services, resulting in some confusion in the minds of both consumers and agents.

Why this abandonment of institutions that have served the industry and the insurance-buying public for more than 100 years? What happened? Perhaps a clue can be found by looking elsewhere.

A reason often given for the high divorce rate today is the fact that couples simply did not feel that they needed each other. Perhaps as a product of affluence, people have become so independent that they do not need the support, emotionally or financially, of others. Often it was the struggle that held couples together and developed their sense of need for one another.

Many institutions report a similar attitude among their constituents. A pervasive feeling of “I can go it alone,” or “My company is big enough to go it alone” is causing institutional neglect across a broad front. It is, I believe, a direction that could conceivably take us back to the chaos that confronted the founding fathers who could not set aside their personal interest for the common good.

There is still a lot of wisdom contained in Ben Franklins admonition upon the occasion of his signing the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or surely we will all hang separately.”

Unfortunately, we do not have a George Washington today, or anyone else who has the individual prestige or ability to pull together what was once an industry committed to unity even when faced with disparate interests or issues. But we do have potential, and it is time for them to step up to the plate.

People and organizations have made mistakes, and my personal preference for a leader is one who is not too proud to admit such mistakes. Additionally, one definition of insanity, as it relates to leadership, is doing the same things and expecting different results. We can do without that also.

I fervently believe that our institutions offer the surest bet for keeping our business viable and serving the best interests of the insurance-buying public. Institutional neglect can destroy a business as surely as rust can bring down a steel structure.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 23, 2002. Copyright 2002 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.