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Leadership in Insurance

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Leader or Manager?

Let me kick-start the discussion by stressing that every organization needs both the manager and leader types to grow and prosper: leaders are great at vision-setting and rallying the troops and plenty of energy around them and managers are effective at executing that vision with laser-precision. Here are a few other differentiators:

> Leaders effectuate change by influencing people and luring them from point A to point B. Managers rely on power and rank to direct people from point A to point B.

> Leaders inspire people to reach their greatest potential. Managers organize people to achieve tasks.

> Leaders create by setting visions and ambitions. Managers execute, tally up results and report them.

> Leaders are risk-takers. Managers are more risk-averse.

Different Shades of Leadership

There isn’t a single formula that describes the optimal leadership style. Leadership is very much situational. Remaining true to yourself and your beliefs should be your starting point; always.

The reality is that you will not fundamentally transform into a new individual after reading this blog, the chapter on leadership in The Insurance Management Playbook or other more leadership-focused books, or even attending a leadership development course.

The good news, however, is that you can remain authentic while progressing and adapting your style with time and experience. I most certainly have.

What kind of a Leader are you?

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I will discuss one type of leadership style in this blog and let you find out about the other below-mentioned variations from the Playbook:

> Authentic leaders are genuine, value candor, and lead by example.

> Cover-your-ass leaders do not delve into the controversial and hardly get your back when you most need them.

> Socratic leaders take a genuine interest in helping you find the solution to a problem. They can be quite frustrating, as they may not express strong opinions or provide guidance in difficult or time-pressured scenarios. They can, however, be great personal and career coaches and mentors.

> Leaders-by-consensus avoid making tough decisions as they will not satisfy 100% of their stakeholders. They think they're still in a high school popularity contest.

> Authentic tough-love leaders.

How to Spot Tough-Love Leaders?

Let’s pick up where we left off: Authentic tough-love leaders are known to attract and retain A-teams. They are considered passionate about, and hard-drivers of, business and are not afraid of expressing love, appreciation, or emotion vis-à-vis their teams. They, however, also hold them accountable for the results they committed to.

You either love ’em or hate ’em. They pick you because they believe you have the potential to become the best. They support and develop you and demand exceptional performance and loyalty towards them and your own teams in return.

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Here we are in Sir Alex Ferguson territory, the former Manchester United football (soccer) team manager from 1986 to 2013. Ferguson is almost universally viewed as the most successful, admired, and respected manager in the history of the game.

The Fergusons of the world tend to be very authentic, have strong characters, and deeply-rooted beliefs. They have their own views of the world but are smart and humble enough to realize that they are not always right. They don’t necessarily do things entirely by the playbook. They also construct their own rules or modify existing ones to quickly adjust to current business needs.

They keep the rules flexible as they understand that the business world is one of moving sands and shifting dunes. They also have a general moral and ethical compass that helps them navigate the mazes of tough situations.

Authentic tough-love leaders tend to attract and retain the A-team -- the absolute best and brightest. They understand that it takes a lot of skill to manage prima donnas on and off the field, and they are comfortable with that. They do not mind a challenge and often depend on it to fuel their drive in the relentless quest for excellence and domination in their chosen areas of competition.

How Tough-Love Leaders Tick?

There is an explicit or implied contract between tough-love leaders and their followers. Their line of thinking goes something like this:

“I will pick you to be on my team among many other candidates. I will respect, love, train & develop, and support you. In return, you need to show loyalty and deliver. I am going to overpay you and be easy on flextime as well as be buddies with you, but you have to deliver.”

“If you don’t promote your people as I am promoting you, you’re going to be called on it. If you are asleep at the wheel for the week, month, or quarter and your numbers are disappointing and you try to massage them and spin a story, you’re going to get called on it.”

The wise and ultra-effective ones allow their followers to opt-out of the A-team by engaging them in a candid discussion as to whether they truly belong on it. If not, they would still keep them on the wider team, but not the A-team. Because “you are not allowed to put up a B performance if you are an A-team member.”

Leadership in Today’s World

Though you should remain authentic, your leadership and wider management styles should be adjusted to cater to your company's culture. It is clearly prudent for you to vet that culture very well before joining to maximize the probability of fitting within it.

Post joining a new firm, you should talk to your peers, team, bosses, and HR who are more familiar with the company's DNA than you are and could give you valuable guidance on the Dos & Don'ts.

Lastly, whilst it is good to challenge the status quo, as a leader you should not be the contrarian type who is always challenging just for the sake of proposing academic what-if scenarios. If that’s what you want, go teach economics.

Set the Right Tone From the TOP

I was once told by a wise leader that when you are in a senior leadership position you come under tremendous scrutiny from your staff. People watch your every move. Your mood as you walk into the office, especially if you roam the floors like I do, sets the tone for the entire company:

> If you stress, they will panic;

> If you smile, they will relax;

> If you get angry, they will get scared;

> If you are passionate and driven, they will get motivated and be inspired to win.

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Those who know me understand how passionate I am about this next piece of leadership guidance: As a leader, you are in a unique position to encourage and influence the level of diversity, especially gender diversity, at ALL levels of your organization. It's the right thing to do and it's good for business.

I stated in my August 4th, 2014, Introduction to The Insurance Management Playbook blog that "the percentage of women in insurance at managerial and executive levels, even in mature markets, is depressingly low."

Guess what? It still is as of October 13th, 2014. Let's STOP behaving like dinosaurs and START changing that!


There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. It remains very much situational. I can only advise you to lead authentically and from the front. If you throw yourself in front of the proverbial fast-moving train for your team they will pull all the stops to help you achieve you vision.

Remember: You don’t want to run a me-too company. Striving for the gold medal, the number-one spot, should be your ambition. Always.

To that end, your goal should be to lead your team and run your business in the manner that your mind, heart, soul, and conscience tell you is the best way forward. Remain authentic and be smart about it.

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