While sitting in my eye doctor’s office a few weeks ago, waiting for my eyes to dilate, I began to ponder vision and sight–words we use interchangeably. It occurred to me that, despite their common usage, they are really quite different. Sight enables one to evaluate what is visible, whereas vision is a quality or talent that allows us to view the unseen. Or, to put it another way, sight allows us to see what is; vision enables us to see what could be.

Sight enabled Columbus to chart a course to the new world–but it was vision that started him on the journey. Everyone could see birds in flight, but it was the vision of the Wright brothers that propelled man into the age of flight. Most of the great inventions have been products of someone seeing the unseen–a vision of what could be.

The same can be said of most enterprises. Today’s large corporations and other organizations are the products of yesterday’s vision by their founders. Sometimes that vision is captured by successor teams of leaders, and the organization prospers long after the founders are gone! More often, however, the talent to properly visualize does not survive, and leaders focus only on what they can see on the latest financial statement. One does not have to look far to note the great names of our corporate world that lost the vision of their unique mission and are no longer with us.

Some years ago at an industry meeting, I was impressed by the presentation of one of our leading companies’ CEOs. In speaking about his company, he declared his objective was not to create the largest insurance company but rather to create the best company. At the time, I wondered what the “best” company would look like and what it would accomplish. So I followed the progress of the company for several years, paying particular attention to its advertisements.

In retrospect, I realize that there was little or no vision in that CEO’s stated objective. It was obvious that his idea of the best company was almost entirely defined by its financial strength and how the billions of dollars of policyholder funds were managed. In all likelihood, this CEO felt he had reached his objective because he could see it on the balance sheet. In the years that I observed, I do not recall any speculation about “what might have been” in terms of being the “best.”

This may seem harsh, but my sense is that this man, as capable as he was, never had a true vision of what his company was really about in terms of the lives of the people we call policyholders. I sometimes think the company was viewed as a sort of warehouse for money–money that arrived in small increments and was occasionally accessed by its rightful owners in times of distress. The job of the CEO at that kind of company was to protect and manage the funds while they were in his care. The connection to Wall Street was more important than the connection to “Main Street.”

I mention this because I do not believe this CEO was or is unique. While I understand perfectly the priority that safety and soundness must occupy in good company management, I do not believe it should crowd out other considerations that enable it to be more than a mere custodian of money.

Where is the vision that is needed to restore life insurance to its former market share of the thrift dollar? Even as we were growing by double digits, we were losing market share. Our warehouses are filling up with money–but so are our competitors’.

One answer has been to switch or add products–and in so doing we changed the face of the business. Much of this has been in response to critics who have ripped us apart with half-truths and lies. Where is the vision that our companies and their products exist to help people realize their dreams and ambitions and to solve some of life’s most pernicious problems? The LIFE program has been helpful, but more is needed because independent studies show that the “other side” is still winning the war of words. The vision of what we could be is still blurred.

We often assume the public knows more than it does. People do not buy life insurance; they buy solutions to problems and to achieve objectives. Frequently the solution is funded by life insurance. Proclamations about how great a company is are fine when it comes to reassuring policyholders about the safety of their funds. However, that is not what gets the agent into the door of a prospect.

The expectation that an agent can solve a prospect’s problem or help fulfill a dream is the only thing that will open the prospect’s door and mind. It will take vision to find ways to raise that expectation in the public mind. Bottom-liners who believe only what they see will never move us forward.

A stonemason and a sculptor gaze at a large block of marble. The stonemason thinks its best use would be the cornerstone of a great edifice. But the sculptor has a vision of a great statue within the marble that he or she can bring forth.

Two CEOs view a large insurance company. One sees a financial colossus, important to the economy and one that must be nurtured and protected. The second CEO has visions of the hopes and dreams of millions of policyholders guaranteed by the strength of the company. Both views are important, but it is the vision of the second CEO that captures the interest of the public.