Written by Brett G. Varner, as originally published in The Reverse Review.

Over the past few months, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the people that make up the reverse mortgage industry. Through my involvement in different capacities, I have experienced a fairly detailed cross-section of the faces and personalities that define us as an industry.

Last month, I had the unique opportunity to spend an awe-inspiring evening at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains. While viewing the universe through their 60-inch telescope, accompanied by members of their passionate staff and Tyler Nordgren, an energetic professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Redlands, I was irritated to find my thoughts drifting to the reverse mortgage industry. However, I realized that the perspectives opened up by the observatory, combined with the dedication of those associated with it, was reminding me of some important lessons about leadership, passion and commitment.

I experienced a very ethereal dichotomy that evening, feeling both at one with the universe and immensely insignificant. It was very difficult to understand how in a universe populated by millions upon millions of galaxies, stars and planets that intergalactic objects could exist with harmony and consistency.

My thoughts found their way to the reverse mortgage industry as I realized that my experience that night, albeit on a very different scale, was similar to my experience with the industry and its makeup. What makes the industry unique is not the product, but the people who are professionally drawn to it. Despite efforts by many government officials, regulators and the media to depict the product as a complicated financial instrument, reverse mortgages, specifically HECMs, are really just government-insured deferred payment equity loans. For many, that statement will be construed as an oversimplification, but it is essentially true and does not undermine the necessity for consumers to understand the product and carefully weigh options.

Plus, reverse mortgages are but a tiny percentage of the housing finance industry and are largely overlooked as a product that can have significant impact on the larger market. This is a perception that corresponds with the feeling-insignificant aspect of my experience at the observatory. The industry is similar to a distant solar system that scientists have not yet been able to learn much about. There is some intrigue and curiosity about it, but there are many other aspects of the housing market that distract people’s attention.

When the surrounding noise of the housing market is filtered to focus on the reverse mortgage industry, like a telescope aimed at a particular object, fascinating aspects of the participants’ interworkings come to life. That night, I viewed two objects in particular that informed this analogy.

Looking through the telescope to observe M13, a globular cluster in Hercules, it struck me that on the surface, the industry is dominated by the top producing organizations, but is also made up of hundreds of different organizations of varying size. Those organizations comprise the tens of thousands of individuals who serve the reverse mortgage community in one capacity or another. It is the individuals who define the industry and its role in serving the older American population. In dealing with people at all levels of hierarchy and involvement, I have learned very important lessons about why this industry is special. Many people who are drawn to this industry are driven by a true affinity for the product and demographic and appreciate the duel compensation of financial opportunity and personal fulfillment.

A globular cluster, like M13, is a colossal cluster of stars that orbit a galactic core and are tightly bound by gravity. M13 is made up of at least 100,000 stars, possibly as many as 10 times that amount. As I observed the cluster, there appeared to be a certain geometry about how the stars interacted. Professor Nordgren noted that what I observed was related to the fact that the cluster was indeed in a precise orbit, maintaining harmony and keeping each star in its position and maintaining the distances between them, without collisions.

When a team within the industry functions like a globular cluster (and I define “team” in this respect as broad enough to include origination, production, third-party service providers, secondary, investors, etc.), then each person is fulfilling his role and sustaining the harmony of interactions that lead to the highest levels of satisfaction for the seniors they serve. It is their dedication to what they do that drives this passion.

Unfortunately, there are also those whose egos try to place them above the industry. Through selfishness or hubris, they strive to elevate themselves above others and project an air of self-importance. Amazingly, I have seen this occur at all levels and roles within the industry. The compensatory feature of these types is that they are similar to the Ring Nebula.

The Ring Nebula is considered to be a planetary nebula that appears as a bright ring. This type of nebula is created when a dying star is rapidly expanding a shell of gas that is being explosively burned off. Essentially, the star will burn bright for a period of time before dying completely. The planetary nebula that I viewed appeared to me as a red ring with a core that was not visible.

I’ve always believed that those who place themselves in greater importance than the industry they serve or the people they work with are doomed to fizzle out or lose support needed to sustain them. They may fool or intimidate others for a while, but eventually they will alienate those they need the most and, like the Ring Nebula, they will run out of resources and fade away. A great team is usually made up of great individuals, and in the most successful teams, no individual is greater than the whole, either in image or reality.

Turning away from the telescope, the final lesson of the evening came from Observatory Superintendent Dave Jurasevich. We were fortunate to have him as our guide for much of the evening. A retired mechanical engineer, Dave’s passion for astronomy led him to a role in which he oversees the operation of the observatory and the maintenance of the telescopes. As he spoke to us about the history of the observatory and showed us its inner workings, his passion and commitment shone through. He acknowledged that although he was not responsible for providing a guided tour to us, he felt obligated since he was at the observatory when we arrived.

Dave appeared as a leader who commands respect and commitment from the staff, not because of his position, but because of his own commitment and dedication to the observatory. He portrayed a humility and reverence for the responsibility his position has for the observatory, to those who work there and for those who support it.

From my experience at Mount Wilson Observatory, it was clear that I will never fully comprehend the expansiveness of the universe, but by observing the interactions and interrelations of different types of objects, I was left with a sense of wonder. In all aspects of our lives, we are a part of a much larger whole. In business, just as in life, our success is predicated upon not only the team with which we align, but the type of teammate we choose to be.