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Blind Leadership

I was recently asked to do a critique of our industry’s leaders for publication. Even after I said an emphatic no the notion was put forward that I could do it anonymously. I really did not want to do anything anonymously since I take my writing seriously. Well, at least I like what I write and I have never shied away from taking any critique given. It was like taking cod liver oil. Made one cringe all over but it was good for the long cold winters. Trying to write a critique of our leaders would be suicide assisted by stupidity — I would have to go back to dairy farming at which I was utterly ill prepared!

The request, once turned asunder, made me ponder the word leadership. My nurturing parents never gave me a course in leadership and more recently most courses in leadership failed to change my ingrained style of dealing with human emotions and thus leading. Of all our industry leaders, be they good, bad or nondescript, which of these leaders were the product of genetic manipulation and environment versus some business school. If I had but the time and money it would be a fascinating exploration to get into the childhood development of these men and women who control the life insurance fortunes (perhaps fortunes is not a good choice of words given the controversy over demutualization’s benefits) in Canada.

Not aspiring to the label “industry leader”, but merely recounting my own experiences as an ancient in the business, I tried to recollect what events shaped my persona beyond the nurturing of parents and siblings. Since the subject at the front of my memory is leadership, all events must build that cornerstone of my career. I recognize the danger of digging up the past — lawsuit from someone wanting a cut of my meager pay since they put me where I am today, demands from irate friends who feel they were my mentor or frustration from my spouse who wonders who would even care.

While at a Boy Scout composite (everyone was from a different troop in Ontario and thus total strangers) camp I learned that leaders are sometimes blind and the blind are sometimes leaders. Within an hour of arrival at the camp I was picked as patrol leader probably because I had more badges than anyone else (I used to love passing tests and getting a tangible reward!) and I had matches to start a fire. Suffice to say this put an onerous responsibility on me to lead 7 other Scouts through the trials and tribulations of a two-week wilderness experience.

My first few days were full of me being full of me. Orders barked. Demands commanded. The little tyrant at his worst, striving to have the best patrol in Haliburton. The adults running the camp (not much older than my 15 years) gave me lots of rope and liberty to make life hell for 7 other 15 year olds! I was learning nothing about true leadership. Looking back it is probably at this juncture that many of the more ruthless leaders of our industry (wherever they may be; wink, nudge, wink) and other industries never recovered from that overbearing power surge.

I believe my lucky day came when, while on an island and living off the land (well sort of), I suffered an allergic reaction to the smoke of a particular pine tree (true second hand smoke). My eyes were swollen shut and without vision I felt doomed as a leader. I heretofore had used a style that meant pointing the index finger at work undone, giving the evil eye to slaggards and watching every move for fear of my patrol screwing up an assignment. Leading would be an impossible task given I lacked sight. The most important sense I possessed as a leader had been rendered temporarily out of order. I envisioned a relinquishing of power and with it my summer would be a failure.

I had a heart to heart with my adult leader who did not strip me of my responsibility of leader but instead coached me and made every effort to help me. He knew the right approach and was a true mentor on how to be a leader. He said you must trust your team to do the right thing after delegation of the action. Think through the team players and use the individual strengths therein to move forward. Listen to everything and “feel” the emotions to judge whether my direction was correct and was being carried out. Above all else you have to a team player.

Over the next 48 hours my sight returned gradually and so did my confidence at being a leader. I now understood the importance of listening to my “staff” and then delegating work in a meaningful fashion that best utilized their unique talents. My mentor probably went on to be a leader in his own right given he comprehended the role so well and was able to communicate the lesson so well. On the other hand he may be a consultant to any of today’s political or industry leaders needing the unthreatening counsel of a wise and worldly man or woman.

I did not go on to have the winningest patrol but I was part of a team that gave first place a run for their money right to the last inspection. If I could only have stopped “Bugsy” from having a nocturnal piddle behind the tent I am sure I could have won all the ribbons.

I smile when I recollect the lesson learned that summer. I should say lessons since I also learned how leeches can cover one’s body in mere minutes if you don’t take the right precautions. One of our other leaders took pleasure in putting us through a “mud portage” knowing it was full of leeches that would have made even Humphrey Bogart cringe more than in the African Queen! This is akin to the leader’s yearly change in company strategy or tactics

Every time I hear a speech or read an article where our leaders are questioned, quoted or highlighted I wonder where they got their early lessons. Did the pattern of their style emerge in youth or adulthood, home or school, club or gang?

When I ponder the leadership lessons I have assimilated over the years it is the “how not to do it” ones that immediately jump to mind. Is that because I have worked for inferior leaders? Is that because I assume every leader will be a mentor of excellence? Failing those two, then perhaps my expectations were set too high by a young in age but old in sage scout leader some 36 years ago. The following lessons are glaring and I will use the leap of faith that you can decipher the good examples from the bad.

After acquiring the necessary skill to do one job proficiently I asked to do more, regardless of what to fill my day early in my career. My boss responded by telling me to read the paper or pocket novel to “kill the time” since no one should look like they have nothing to do! On going two levels higher with my demand for more work, I was told to stay with the current regime and no one would worry about the extra time spent on superfluous reading materials.

Asking that my boss “go to the wall” for the department and make sure the recipient of certain information at a very senior level understood its importance was met with a blatant show of selfishness. The boss responded that he/she (trying to protect the anonymity) “would not go to the wall for anybody in the department nor the company if it meant in any way he/she may risk his/her job! “I would never go to the wall for you, any of you!” was not too inspiring.

“His usefulness has finished so why worry about him.” “Why should I give him a piece of the action if he is not smart enough to demand it?” The speaker was one and the same. The former sentence was uttered about what I thought was a valuable contributor to the speaker’s success but immediately of no more use. The later was said after a major contract was won and monetary rewards were enormous and the “him” played a most significant role in winning the day.

At a time of critical financial need after a family tragedy the boss steps in, in absolute confidence, to share the burden between the three of us and uses his own personal money to make sure the human tragedy was not exacerbated by monetary issues. Quietly a real personal gesture from a supreme boss for a staff member he/she had always seemed to loath or chastise.

The inability to give a 10-minute dialogue on the industry they worked in to senior officers and in front of all direct reports spoke volumes on the individuals true understanding of what was going on in the world.

1. “Well, this two day meeting about team building and building understanding is over and it is now best we all get back to the real work world where the work has piled up.” A company CEO/President who inspired his/her team with that wrap up speech at a company off site session.

2. “How’s the wife?” “What are you doin’ for holidays this year?” “We have had a good year at xczvbx, right?” The foregoing is a synopsis of my job evaluation and year-end review. The monetary increases always surpassed my expectations but I never really heard words to help me improve?

3. “I have been told your speech was given in a very monotone fashion and you refused to stand for the speech. This type of behavior is unacceptable.” The foregoing was delivered by a very important person in my career but was delivered after receiving a one sided telex (prehistoric and long ago replaced by courier and then e-mail) from a politically proficient peer at the same company. No question asked as to why. Nor even a question as to why I was on crutches. I had given the speech with a broken ankle in a bucket of ice while seated. Moral — as Yoda or David would say “Martyr I was not, eh.” “Stupid if I try, not.”

4. “The Board does not need to hear bad news and therefore we stripped your report of any references to adverse mortality, reserve shortfalls or concentration of risk. Instead we edited it to read that all issues were under control.”

5. An executive vice president once said to me “My job is to help you with your transition and I am available to you at all hours should you need support, an answer or approval. If you do not make a success of this opportunity then we have both failed but I have failed greater because I let you down.” I didn’t ask him if he was ever a Boy Scout Leader in Haliburton!

Take heart all you rookies. There are true leaders in our industry and some of them will cast you a life preserver but some will beat you to the lifeboat. My history in this insurance industry is far from unique and, although each of the above brief anecdotes will be a full chapter someday, I am sure if I solicited for more management examples the bad would outnumber the good. Perhaps that is what Grandma meant when she said I would certainly learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others in the “big city”.

Curving back to the opening, I cannot write about specific leaders for various reasons:

I would never want at this stage of my life to hurt someone with his or her own leadership/management baggage.

I would have a difficult time on a part time basis truly studying each of our dozens of leaders to insure each was given a fair assessment.

I would like to work for a few more years in the business.

My leadership/management advice is more valuable sold in Asia Pacific and Australia where, since I am this foreigner of large stature (physical bulk), it is in demand. “The grass is always greener.” Never rang truer.

I like my current relationships thank you.

I would have a hard time picking who was number one on the list given all the choices. If I put the Boy Scout leader at top it would be cheating since I do not know if he is or ever did work in our industry.

Sorry to disappoint, but no ranking today but perhaps tomorrow. In the words of Baden-Powell as published in the “Headquarters Gazette, May, 1913”:

“In the Scout Movement the Scoutmasters and Commissioners have won their position in the public estimation by their whole-hearted work in a national cause; every day they are gaining more sympathy and goodwill from parents and pastors, teachers and Statesmen, and thus it is that the boys, in their turn, accord to them a greater confidence and greater readiness to serve and be led.”