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Sember Ubi Sub Ubi

Life is full of twists and turns, lessons and examples, memorable events, and the quickly forgotten. Recently, I came across an article in The Globe and Mail (much improved with the Wall Street Journal pages) that made me realize that what I have witnessed in some large companies was not unique to my eyes or sensibilities. It also made me realize I should step back and decide which group of leaders I wanted to be associated with if anyone would associate me with anything.

I will not bore the reader with a repetition of the article. Suffice to summarize it as follows. From a leadership perspective, incompetent people can successfully and expediently ascend the corporate ladder by being exceedingly proficient at nurturing senior officers. Others with leadership skills fail miserably at nurturing senior officers. Said again, the latter group, too, can be classified as just as incompetent as the former.

“Hello! Nothing new in the above diatribe,” you say. “Has Ross succumbed to altitude sickness?”

Okay, you’re correct. There’s nothing new there. However, it just points out that sometimes we have to be hit over the head with something before our minds can fully assimilate the reality before our eyes.  There were those in a previous life that tried to convince me that only I was out of step. My reluctance to join the political quagmire of office politics was looked on as a betrayal of what working is all about — keeping your job, regardless of how well the employer makes out from your employment. Some referred to it as the “me syndrome”, not to be confused with the “we syndrome”.

Big companies (100+ employees) go to great lengths to build teams, even though the majority of leaders in the organization are not and never will be team players or team leaders. Organizations like Outward Bound caters to the phenomenon labeled as team building. They do a “Marvelous, simply marvelous!” (didn’t Billy Crystal say that?) job of getting all the senior execs to paddle a canoe or climb a mountain through co-operative expenditure of energy. People have a good time, laugh at the foibles of other peers, get down and dirty, and accomplish something memorable — at least until Monday, given the living of this legend started on Friday (Monday brings them back to reality).

I was asked two questions after my memorable near-death experience with this outdoorsy frenzy. The first question was how it felt — you know, “Tell me how you really feel?” The second question was, “What new leadership skills did you learn?” I erred grievously in my response. I should have learned Lesson One — give the questioner the answer they want to hear, especially if they are both a senior, senior officer and well-positioned next to the chief officer.

Those who know me well have already leapt to my answers or a reasonable facsimile. Jumping in with both feet, I replied that the day was fun but contrived, especially breaking for a gourmet lunch with imported beer and water. I also made the bold and, as I was to be informed later, erroneous response that I learned all this from Baden-Powell, first as a Cub and then as a Scout. The face of the inquisitor said it all.

The correct answer (to feather my nest) would have been that it was, indeed, a profound experience that I would treasure in my ascension up the corporate ladder. Additional superlatives were needed like, “Never have I witnessed a learning experience that so deeply ingrained leadership examples.” After all, only the truly inane and wicked of heart could raise even a modicum of criticism for the two day event that saw 50 executive officers frolic in the fall sunshine!

Perhaps Scouting should join the gurus of management hype and either sell their tremendous lessons in life or modify them into the much cherished ways to succeed without being a leader. This could be an optional route through the Scouting school of reality. At a young age, recruits and/or their official guardians could opt for the Scouting curriculum that best gives the youth a foundation for corporate success.

Are there any natural leaders in the insurance industry of either persuasion (politically astute or naturally a rallying point for aspirants to lofty positions) — leaders who not only guide their companies but steer the industry? Who out there is unpretentiously sought after as a spokesperson for all companies?

In my days of full hair, I remember seeing and hearing key people from the upper echelons of insurance speak boldly and spontaneously about the what’s, where’s, when’s, whose and how’s of industry. At the same time, the whole industry applauded these spokespersons who were so on the mark. Today, it is the hired gun, the lobbyist, who speaks up for the association of companies, but not without getting the blessing from those who control his salary.

The historical leaders gave the semblance of spontaneity and the essence of untethered strength. Was this because of their self-confidence and the traditional security of their status both as CEO and as a stalwart of the industry? I think so. Today, honest and spontaneous leadership for the grand old institution of life insurance must be tempered by referrals to legal pundits, public relations gurus and meetings to secure recorded support. Otherwise the would-be spokesperson can be ostracized by the insurance community, or worse still, be quickly replaced at the helm by the first mate or, even more commonly, by the `outsider’.

Honest, sincere and quick response can often lead public sentiment and outside scrutinizers to believe in your message. Honest verbiage often disarms the inquisitor (usually in the form of the media) and antagonist (often special interest groups). It can backfire but I believe that in a corporate setting, time rewards the voice of integrity.

In fact, as I experienced in my 10th grade of education, blatant honesty can occasionally be so powerful that it removes the threat of reprisal for an innocent error in judgment. I was deeply immersed in the boredom of my mandatory Latin class when the hormones of my teenage body spurred me into an act that, even today, my closest acquaintances and I find far out of character for the farm boy from Harriston. Sue (not my beloved spouse, Sue, but another), sitting in front of my desk with a button undone on her blouse (buttons at back, before you get too carried away) seemed to get the devil in me to do wrong. I impulsively and irrationally reached over and pulled the bra strap, let it go and smiled at the ensuing twang.

The mild mannered Latin teacher quickly concluded from my sanguine complexion that I had done something wrong. However, he had no idea what perpetrated the twang. Foolishly, or just plain naively, I blurted out the answer to his question, “Mr. Morton, what did you do to disrupt the class?”

At that moment, the class was abuzz with what had transpired. Yet my answer did not generate a further response from my Latin teacher. I even escaped without a trip to the office or a detention.

My direct and unfettered response was so absolutely honest and probably so shocking that my teacher thought it must be something less in nature. He did not want to follow up the answer to ascertain its validity for fear of the embarrassment that was rising in him, too.

The lesson in that Latin class was that truth is sometimes so powerful that it rolls over those who are its recipients. What I had said was that, “I pulled Sue’s bra strap but I don’t know why I did it.” This was tantamount to pleading temporary insanity today. The sharp slap from Sue was all the justice meted out to me, but it had quickly returned me to my senses.

This lesson was reinforcement by something my mother always said, “Sember ubi sub ubi.” In truth, she didn’t use such antiquated language but rather the farmer’s wife version. Strange how such a simple statement can remain imbedded within one’s mind for so long while all other arcane Latin was knocked out of me by Sue and time.

Will our insurance industry see a leader of celestial proportions emerge in the difficult years ahead? I hope so. As I look at CEOs around, I have some reason for optimism. Scouting, Latin and my Mom taught me to be prepared and that I am. Just as I am prepared to wait for the leader to cement our industry into a new institution able to meet the demands of the future. The Globe and Mail can carry its stories on leadership types but we will have to wait and see if it runs a profile on the leader we need to carry our industry beyond its current status.

Remember what my Mom always said. Her words may pay off, even when you are being examined in a hospital. Your Latin is a little rusty, too? O.K., sember ubi, sub ubi simply means always wear underwear. This was important to my Mom who was also a nurse. You never know when you will be caught with your pants down.

She would have added the appropriate “clean” sub ubies if she had known the Latin word.