Jack Welch, legendary CEO of General Electric (GE) passed away on Sunday. He was only 84 years young. He was widely revered, and sometimes reviled, for his leadership style. Under Welch’s leadership, GE became the largest company in the world, by market cap at $500 billion. He was crowned “manager of the century” by Forbes in 1999. When he was CEO the market cap was around $14 billion, and in 20 years he grew it to $500 billion. IF you owned GE shares at that time you made a lot of money.
He was a chemical engineer by training, with a PhD. in chemical and bio-molecular engineering. This education certainly tied in with one of his nicknames as “neutron Jack.” Although, this moniker was for his focus on making cuts or divestitures.
Welch gave his mother the credit for instilling in him the hard work necessary to be successful. One great story I uncovered when reviewing his life, is from a story by Paul Batura (wrote a biography of the illustrious Paul Harvey – highly recommend this book) that goes as follows:
“If there was one story of his mother that he told time and time again, and that seemed to sum up her blend of warmth with her penchant for bluntness, it was the aftermath of a high school hockey game against an archrival, which Jack’s Salem High team lost in overtime.
Frustrated with the defeat, Jack flung his stick across the ice, retrieved it and headed to the locker room. A few minutes later his mother appeared inside, and in front of all his teammates, laced into him for his poor sportsmanship.
“You punk!” she yelled, getting up to him real close. “If you don’t know how to lose, you’ll never know how to win. If you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be playing.”
Looking back on the embarrassing confrontation, Welch expressed gratitude for his mother’s willingness to be honest with him. She was a woman who didn’t suffer fools lightly.
“The insights she drilled into me never faded,” he recalled. “She always insisted on facing the facts of a situation. One of her favorite expressions was ‘Don’t kid yourself. That’s the way it is.’”
A couple of takeaways:
- Mother willing to be honest
- Son accepting responsibility for his actions
- Never forgetting the lesson
Welch had another side as expressed by a colleague, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who served as full tenured professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School for a decade and a professor at the Harvard Business School for a decade, and who is currently the senior associate dean of leadership programs as well as the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management for the Yale School of Management, as well as founder and president of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, a nonprofit educational and research institute focused on CEO leadership and corporate governance. Sonnenfeld brought Welch into his MBA programs to talk with the classes. His friendship provided him with a different perspective:
“His greatest legacy was his leadership development commitment. Welch was not a snob and would talk with anyone – to learn something new or discover rising talent. His renowned Series C meetings every 90 days were very tough periodic talent reviews which he cared about almost as much as business unit performance.
He taught many GE Crotonville management classes himself. His progenies included: Jeff Immelt of GE; Bob Nardelli of Chryslers; Jim McNerney of Boeing; Dave Cote of Honeywell, Jeff Zucker of CNN, Davis Zaslav of Discovery. He was all business. He was blunt and direct, ruthlessly competitive but had no tolerance for bigotry.
He demonstrated the need for CEOs to focus on shareholder value, reinvigorating a hidebound bureaucracy for a new era, and to develop new leaders as a top priority.”
And there are the detractors that saw Welch as a cutthroat leader who was famous for tough decision-making by seeming to forget there were humans involved. He had a “vitality curve” that grouped people into a 20-70-10 structure. The top 20% are the superstars and should be left alone. The middle 70% need care and feeding to continue to get better. And the bottom 10% should be cut from the team.
Personally, I had a hard time understanding this. However, if you knew the rules of the game when you joined any of the GE companies, then you accepted the possible outcomes. Full stop.
There is a retired Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, that describes a principle that he sees as essential called “Extreme Ownership.” This book and his associated podcasts and interviews describe the principle in detail and in many situations. Jocko places the responsibility for actions with each individual. And for leaders this is absolutely critical for your success.
Famed leadership researchers and authors, James Kouzes and Dr. Barry Posner of “The Leadership Challenge” have the best definition of leadership I have ever seen “a leader is someone others willingly follow.” Willink also reinforces this in his assessment of leadership capabilities. As a SEAL team leader he accepted responsibility for his actions and this gave his superior officers confidence in his future actions and gave his teams the trust that he would always take care of them.
And Willink is not soft. He has high expectations of himself and of his people. Check out his website for examples of his discipline and focus.
I have never been an advocate of blindly following a particular leadership style. Many of the greatest leaders were not easily copied, for a variety of reasons. Not least of which is that you need to be true to yourself. Don’t try and be someone else, be yourself. However, adapting successful strategies or tactics to suit your own situation can be very productive.
If you chart the way, provide care and feeding of your staff, and act according to your values, you will likely be successful as a leader.
Sounds simple. Now the hard work begins.
And the hard work continues…who knows where you will end up?!
To your success!!!