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The Fallacy of Ambition

Don Bailey, Partner at Bristlecone Partners, suggests insurance leaders need to reevaluate their approach to leadership by reverting to the singular nature of priority and the disciplined pursuit of less. 

The global insurance industry has largely been undisrupted for the past 100 years. Industries like healthcare, financial services, and retail have been massively disrupted. They will be increasingly unrecognisable. That dynamic is changing for the insurance industry, and it will change with greater pace going forward. The cost of not leading your organisation through this disruption is substantial. Leadership in the insurance industry has never been more critical. What is at stake? Survival.  

When asked to author a piece on effective leadership, I assembled a long list of skills, qualities, and mindset elements that define a great leader. My list would be impressive in its comprehensiveness. It would leave nothing out. There would be something in the list for every reader. And no one would remember any of it. My long list would convey everything as equally critical. There would be no hierarchy and no learning. Nothing would change.  

Like my ill-fated article, insurance industry leaders fail when they attempt to do too much. Their strategy is too ambitious, their agendas are too long, their speeches are too lengthy, and their meetings are too frequent and lack focus. Their ambition dooms them. They have good intentions but fail to appreciate the science of essentialism and the emotion of pain. 

Leadership in the insurance industry has never been more critical. What is at stake? Survival 

Hopefully, everyone reading this article is nodding their head. Insurance industry leaders embrace a long list of objectives as a personal badge of honor. It is not. To the contrary, a long list of objectives is a recipe for failure. But this approach is standard in leadership circles. This is our default position. We operate in an environment that rewards ambition and confidence over execution and competence. We could easily pivot to a gender discussion at this point as there is ample evidence to validate that the workplace has historically confused confidence with competence.  

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown reminds us that, “the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow, we would now be able to have multiple first things.” 

The companion to ambition is trade-off. As we seek to do too much, we make trade-offs. And we invite others to make trade-offs. As we engage in more trade-offs, execution risk emerges. Our teams don’t have the resources or the attention spans to execute on the list. The trade-off parade commences and the excuses for coming up short emerge. This cycle of failure has been repeated for decades and may be getting more traction as the pace and complexity of our operating environment continues to increase. Somehow, we lose track of the goal which is execute on an organisational imperative. As our list of imperatives grows, so does our probability of failure in each of the imperatives.  

Insurance leaders can transform their team and organisation when they embrace precision over inclusion and prioritisachievement over ambition 

A manager educated me on the two types of pain. There’s the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. In every difficult moment, we have to make a choice between the two. Think about it as piece of cake offered to you after dinner. Eat the cake and accept the pain of regret. Pass on the cake and experience the pain of discipline. The pain of regret lingers and compromises us. The pain of regret is short term and makes us better. Always choose the pain of discipline. Always.  

When we are overly ambitious, we choose the pain of discipline. It feels right in the moment to serve up a long list of goals and priorities. It makes us look good – in the short term. We choose to defer the pain to a later date. We eat the cake. When we eventually come up short on our goals, there will be consequences for us, our team, and the organisation.  

You will need to be disruptive 

Insurance leaders must choose the pain of discipline. Exercise restraint. Commit to a critical and achievable goal. Deal with the scrutiny, queries, and objections of a short list of commitments upfront. The upfront pain will be shorter lived and better for all stakeholders in the end. Don’t eat the cake.  

 What does the pain of discipline look like and feel like? 

  • Fewer meetings with fewer attendees and a clear and singular agenda. 
  • More focused upfront debates on the goal and the reality of trade-offs. 
  • Fewer exhaustive and rambling power point decks. 
  • Team alignment around “one thing” (resources, compensation, etc.). 
  • Team cohesion and optimisation derived from goal achievement and shared success. 
  • Momentum that breeds more success. 

None of this is easy. It takes courage and conviction to rail against the seemingly unstoppable inertia of an ambitious list of goals. You will need to be disruptive. In Catalyst, Jonah Berger states that “people are wedded to what they are already doing. Unless what they are doing is terrible, they don’t want to switch. To ease endowment, or people’s attachment to the status quo, catalysts highlight how inaction isn’t as costless as it seems.” There is a terrible cost to the naive ambitions of leadership. It is a cost that we must stop and calculate. It is measurable and it is substantial.  

The insurance industry is on the precipice of transformation. Insurance leaders can transform their team and organisation when they embrace precision over inclusion and prioritise achievement over ambition. When our industry leaders return to the singular nature of priority, productivity and efficiency will flourish. 

Don Bailey is a Partner at Bristlecone Partners LLC.