Advisors must take up the noble obligation of leadership-because no one else can.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
- Irish proverb
Dear Colleagues ... Or perhaps you prefer "Your
majesties" or "Your Royal Highnesses." On the other hand, the slightly
more familiar form "My Lords and Ladies" might be more to your liking.
Maybe we should practice courtly arts or otherwise learn the etiquette of nobility-though I cannot imagine such chivalrous banalities playing well in our crowd. Nonetheless, it is high time we retooled our respective self-images to include substantially more regalities because, my dear friends and colleagues, we come by our crowns quite honestly and, with them, the attendant "noblesse oblige," the "obligations of nobility," that have traditionally accompanied royal privileges.
We are indeed the one-eyed ones in the land of the visionless. The money forces swirl about all of us with Katrina-like intensity, and they are still acting like these spring showers will simply bring May flowers. In their face, our alleged leaders are positively FEMA-like in their failures to anticipate their swirl, their eventual demands and potential carnage.
No matter. Notwithstanding their ocular miasma, our world of blindfolds and incapacity needs us to share what we see with our one good eyeball together with all the craft and wisdom we have earned over the past 37 years. They need us ... and we have work to do.
"Financial planning." "Financial plan." "Financial planner." We have skills. Oh my, yes, indeed, we have skills. And vision. And foresight. And perspective. And wisdom.
Let us just look. Let us spy with our little eye our two main words, namely the terms "Financial Planning" and "Financial Plan." The synonyms for "Planning" are "preparation, setting up, developing, arranging, scheduling and forecasting." "Plan" as a noun adds "diagram, map, table, chart, arrangement, preparation, strategy, idea, plot and design" as its equivalents. As a verb, "to plan" yields "to arrange, to set up, to prepare, to design, to intend and to propose." Hmm. Looks like a lot of work and responsibility vital to the interests of individuals and the body social.
Now let us engage in the same exercise with "financial." This renders such sweeping terms as "monetary, fiscal, economic and pecuniary." "Finance" gets us to "money, economics, business, investment, backing, sponsorship and funding."
These span our proper expectations, framing the implications of our self-proclaimed roles. To do them correctly might even take two eyes, both of them wide open.
We need to grasp that we are the ones who are glimpsing how money plays over the long term in the lives of individuals and, from there, our families and local and global communities. One thing we know: Life will most likely not be as we know it.
If we keep our promises to our clients and our profession, we engage where the money questions present themselves to individuals and societies. Even with one eye tied behind our backs, we are the ones who know that the columnists, politicians and partisan prognosticators are mostly blowing smoke. We also are the ones who know where the bleeding is and where the hurts are.
This is not to suggest that our talents entail laser-like acuity or flawless discernment. Not hardly. Indeed, collectively, we know we often do not even have the skills to see, much less fix. Money and people is just that complex. Yet, we are learning ... and seeing. At least we can separate the issues from the politics.
Of course, we can make erroneous interpretations, have incomplete knowledge or, even, simply be mistaken in our notions of what is there. After all, we are but one-eyed humans with the depth-perception problems that keep our kind from playing professional baseball or flying airplanes. Given our problems with distance, we can even run into many issues without even realizing how close they are.
Since none is the number of functional eyes that most folks have when it comes to seeing how money works in their lives and communities, much less others, our single eyes give us our crowns. Perhaps most importantly, our monocular blessings give us not only the claim but also the responsibility to serve as guide for our poor blinded species.
That is what professions do.
As the 21st century unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that money is the key to much of what is coming our way, for better or for worse. On the one hand, money is the 21st century's primary self-organizing force and the only known ticket for universalizing prosperity. People respond to it with their best efforts more or less naturally-generally without resort to violence or government dictate. On the other, money seems oddly embedded within all sorts of life necessities and sociocultural realities-many of which seem incongruously, awkwardly balanced squarely on the back of international trading currencies conceived for the industrial revolution and the demands of pre-computer eras long gone.
Indeed, we are increasingly asking money to do our work without understanding its necessary implications. For all that people claim financial expertise, most do not have a clue when it comes to these all-important issues. That is for us one-eyed types.
Financial planners watch people make financial decisions. We see what is important and we see what gets in the way. We watch greed, temptation, pride, fear, anger, sadness and joy work their wonders-and we watch people work through them. Or not. For better or for worse, we are in the room when people think about their life's biggest decisions and we are there for the heartbreak or joy as these lives unfold.
We see all of this, we know them and we know that preparing for them will require more than individual savings accounts; that markets do not function well when people are compelled to decide ... NOW! We also know the raw fear of choosing between unsavory choices; that sometimes choices engage two evils and that sometimes it is just plain awful to be you. We know that even the best decisions can still have raw, indigestible consequences or implications.
When people talk about the sufficiency of Social Security funding for another 40 years, we understand the implications for our mid-twenties children. We know they are forking over huge portions of their total compensation without even the actuarial expectation of eventual benefit.
We also know that the nature of "work" will be changing, and with it the moral underpinnings of our primary method of money distribution. Combine these mutating notions of work while normalizing 90-year life spans-it seems obvious that there are some culture-shifting issues coming down the pike. How will we be coping as individuals and as members of communities dealing with tough decisions? We think about these things.
We see money's demands and its costs in life energy. We know the collateral implications of an array of financial decisions. We know what it means for people to leave their families half way across the continent. We understand limited childcare choices, the conflicts between work and home and the simple yet high costs of working.We know that life's last months can be grotesquely expensive; that those last decisions give agony new meaning. How are we going to decide life and death in an age of infinite capabilities but limited resources?
How long can we throw greenbacks at certain issues before we acknowledge that they are not inherently financial in nature?
Well, my regal friends, it is a brave new millennium and the world is not always as it has been. It needs us one-eyed types and it needs us now. It needs us to help with reconciling values and perspectives. It needs us to serve as counterbalance to some of the fiscal nonsense. It needs us to look at 50-year scenarios and address their implications.
This world has trouble, the United States portion of it especially. Promises are being made that cannot be kept except with extraordinary sacrifice, doubtful even then.
We have gotten credit drunk and addicted to other people's money, both individually and collectively. In the best traditions of spendthrift leadership over the past 3,000 years, we have been diluting money's worth, taxing silently and stacking up bills for tomorrow because we cannot make decisions today.
So, what does this mean?
First off, it probably means financial planners need to start taking ourselves and our issues seriously. We can begin grasping the full implications of our work, our knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, our vision.
It means we start fully addressing the "planning" part of "financial planning" with greater appreciation and vision. It means deciding to become an authentic profession and begin understanding money and its implications. It means taking cold hard looks at our possible futures, conceptualizing their realities for our clients, our communities and our world.
Dear Colleagues, your Royal Highnesses, these eyes of [y]ours perceive rightly. They need them to work. We need to accept the responsibilities.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.