Power is not a characteristic most life insurance agents would ascribe to themselves, but it is an inborn quality that is critical to our success in achieving clients’ goals and dreams.

Power has conventionally been understood as defined by John Stuart Mill: “A man’s power means the readiness of other men to obey him.” But our leverage over other people is always limited. The seeming power of the large landowner in your town is subject to the grace of bankers and the capriciousness of occupancy rates. There is nothing quite so corrective to the vanity of power than to learn of the prominent businessman whose house has been foreclosed.

The power I speak of is the ability to influence and motivate other people. And for those of us who are life insurance agents, it’s also the freedom to choose who we’ll work with and how and when we’ll work with them.

The empowered life insurance pro is the successful entrepreneurial agent Dan Sullivan has profiled in “The 21st Century Agent.” Captive agents, bank employees and wire house stockbrokers often do not have the freedom and discretion to act for the client and themselves that is the heart of the fundamental power I describe.

Although I have been in the financial services profession for 30 years, my focus is life insurance because life insurance is the primary asset of financial planning. Life insurance, in the right amount and kind, is by itself a financial plan. All other assets — equities, real estate, tax programs — are embellishments to the bedrock of financial security. As legendary life insurance salesman Ben Feldman wisely stressed, life insurance should be called time insurance. If we can be certain to have enough time, then all our needs and goals may be met.

But we never have enough time. Only the uniqueness of quality life insurance can make up for the folly found in many lives and make the client’s family whole. In this sense, the life insurance pro possesses power tools that are corrective and creative.

But as I describe this power that no other profession has, I also acknowledge the powerlessness many of us feel from time to time. If you have driven an icy two-lane road in freezing rain, through valleys of chicken houses and tight pine forests, to meet late with a physician and literally wrest a check from him to achieve his stated goals and sustain your business, then you have been my fellow traveler. It is amazing what we have to do to get people to do what they should do on their own initiative.

The fickleness of position power

As a former Army officer and executive, I have brooded a good deal about power. In my more cynical moments, it seemed the one quality that was missing from our profession. But consider the example of a high-ranking Army general. His span of command may include several countries. He is accorded tremendous respect and holds power over thousands of lives. But is position power genuine power? This Army general will move 23 times in 35 years. For long stretches, he will be away from his family, incognito and at great risk. When he retires, he may be set financially, but to re-enter the world, there will be no staff to set the stage. He’ll have to find or create a job.

A patchwork of personal experiences has crystallized my insight into the nature of power. When a major client of ours died in an accident, I was asked to sell his successful exporting business, as I was his primary advisor and on his company’s board of directors. I declined an offer to be the president of the company to avoid conflicts. But nevertheless, I became the de facto CEO of the business.

The six months that followed were exhilarating. I negotiated the sale of the company to foreign buyers, and every morning, I directed the company’s employees from my cell phone while driving to my office. I had position power again, according to Mill’s terms, as employees, vendors, other advisors and prospective buyers sought to obey me.

In retrospect, I was fulfilling my perceived obligations to my close client and friend and his family. But at least part of my endeavor was a misguided distraction that damaged my own practice. When the keys to the sold company were exchanged at a downtown Atlanta attorney’s office, my illusory power disappeared.

In this era of restructuring and executive turnover, another experience is all too common. As a successful CLU with a nice office in a prominent downtown building, I received a visitor whom I immediately recognized. He was dressed very casually, not like he was many years before, when I waited in the outer offices of the company where he was the successful CEO. I was offered an executive position with the well-known company, and I recall its well-appointed corporate offices, the solicitous staff, the Harvard Business Review on a vestibule table.

The former CEO sitting now in my office was still loquacious, and after a few moments, he asked if I could give him $50. He quietly mentioned the loss of his former position, his inability to find anything comparable, and the damage wreaked upon his family. I gave him a $50 bill. When the executive who had believed in me left the office, there was the faint, sour smell of the beverage of the day and a hole in the back side of his jeans.

An agent’s clout

True power is not a function of position but of the ability to influence others’ lives. A poet, a revolutionary in a library with an idea, can have influence. Power implies influence and the skill to implement, to motivate action. The millions of dollars in tax-free benefits we deliver are guaranteeing family income, paying college tuitions, completing the lives of loved ones. This is fresh, leveraged capital injected into communities precisely when it is needed.

The life insurance pro is the ultimate capitalist. How many widows are supported today by your efforts? Critics of our profession will never understand how important a check for $40,000 can be to the owner of a fledgling startup business.

The cynic will say, “But your client had to die for this money to materialize.” Putting aside the value of living benefits, that is the point. The best life insurance agents give serious, responsible people the confidence to engage in the often selfless and noble act of purchasing life insurance. Leo Petrini said it best: “We purchase life insurance not because we’re going to die, but because others are going to live.”

Self-interested critics also argue that life insurance is just another asset in the financial services Lazy Susan. We have unwittingly contributed to this evasion with our embrace of holistic planning, where we waste our time on minutiae and have little energy left for life planning. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that no other asset can do the job or has the power of life insurance. Are we too sophisticated to say and mean, “With the stroke of a pen, you can change the future of generations to come forever?” Power is the ability to form a partnership with your client, to teach and coach and lead him or her to predict and assure the future.

As Howard Wight has written, “You are one of the most important people your clients will meet in their lives.” How many have you touched with your power? Reward yourself with a new suit or outfit. As you enter your next appointment, straighten your shoulders, stand a little taller. Though many don’t know it, you are one of the most powerful people in your community. Your power as a life insurance pro is one of what Helen Keller called “the beautiful privileges” that you possess and are obligated to share.

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