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.