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The Difference Leadership Makes

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This month NAIFA has turned a new page in its 117-year history. The hiring of John Healy as its new CEO marks a departure from customs of the past. Healy is a professional association manager and unlike previous CEOs does not come to NAIFA with previous experience in the field of insurance. NAIFA/NALU has over the years employed many talented professional association people in key roles and they have contributed greatly to the success of the association–but this is the first for its top staff position.

The MDRT has been well served by competent and dedicated professional association managers like Rod Geer and John Prast in their top staff positions. My hope is that NAIFA will also be the beneficiary of that kind of leadership at this critical time. Everything that I have heard about John Healy indicates that the prospect for this happening is bright.

The people who have previously been in charge of the NAIFA/NALU headquarters staff and its mission have come from very diverse backgrounds. There have been lawyers, a college professor, agents, general agents and company executives who have provided top leadership to this vital organization. They have borne a variety of titles including: Managing Director, Executive Vice President, Executive Director, and for the past 20 years Chief Executive Officer. Regardless of their title they have each, in one way or another, left their mark on the organization’s history. Several have served as long as 15 years, a few five to 10 years; and there are a number who were there only briefly.

Some of these past leaders, like Woody Woodson, Ed Zalinsky and James Rutherford, have left this post at NALU and have had distinguished careers as the top executives of some of our largest life insurance companies.

Along the way there have been many critical periods and significant challenges to this organization and the industry it serves. Most of these leaders have risen to the particular challenge of the time and the organization has endured. Needless to say leadership styles have been just as diverse as the people–but always directed in the best interest of the people who buy and sell life insurance.

I thought about this parade of leaders recently as I was reading an article in the May 7, 2007 issue of the Forbes magazine. The article by Paul Johnson, an eminent British historian, was entitled, “Needed, Leaders of Courage.” He started the article by saying, “When he was at Oxford studying history 60 years ago, the fashionable approach was to discount individuals and stress the importance of forces and classes. Everything I have learned since–reporting in the real world–and what a violent, complex and dangerous world it has been–has proved how important outstanding individuals are, for good or evil.”

He cited examples such as Harry Truman and George Marshall for their effort in rebuilding Europe after WWII, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who raised a malaria-infested colonial village to a powerhouse of trade, finance and transportation and did so despite the fact it had no natural resources–other than brains. Mentioned also were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who joined to help bring down the walls of a crumbling Soviet Empire. His point being that in all these cases individuals were of supreme importance and the world is a different place because of them. How true!

My own observations of leadership have not been of the magnitude or scope of those of Paul Johnson’s but are nonetheless important to organizations that play an important role in there respective arenas. This may be an oversimplification but I have observed that most leaders at the managerial level tend to fall into one of two categories: Those that manage people and those that manage things.

Managers of people understand that their primary job is to provide the environment and motivation that will allow employees to fully develop their own potential. They regard every employee, from the janitor to the top exec, as a team player and able to contribute to the mission of the organization. The “things” that the organization must do are left in the hands of people as well as decisions on how best to do them. Managers who do this well breed loyalty and dedication: Both prerequisites for an effective staff.

Managers who insist upon managing “things” (sometimes called micro-managing), are obsessed with the notion that their ideas and means of carrying out a mission are always the right way. Telling talented people how they must do their job and in what priority, can drive valuable employees nuts and more often than not drive them to look for other job opportunities.

Perhaps the best example I can point to is Warren Buffet the “sage of Omaha” and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. In a recent TV interview, he said he and he alone makes the decisions as to what enterprises to buy or sell–but once he buys a company he leaves the running of that company entirely up to existing personnel. It would be hard to argue with Buffet’s success and his aversion to micro-managing.

And so we wish John Healy great success as he takes on the tasks of leading NAIFA back to former levels of prominence. He will need more than luck for the challenge is daunting. Most of all he will need a loyal and dedicated staff and boards that are supportive.