Trying to summarize in a few hundred words what made Jack Welch a great leader is pretty close to impossible.
We know the facts. Welch joined GE in 1960 as a chemical engineer. At 37 years old, he was GE's youngest vice president in 1972. He was CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. During his tenure at the helm, GE's total market cap soared from $14 billion to $410 billion. In 1999, Fortune named him "Manager of the Century."
But what isn't as widely known is that Welch credited much of his success at GE to some utterly basic management principles that he learned from Peter Drucker, the 20th century's most widely cited and respected management guru, someone I worked with closely for more than a decade. In fact, Welch's most famous tag line, "Fix it, close it, or sell it," is one he attributed directly to Drucker.
Drucker was as close as I got to Welch. Speaking with Drucker during meetings we had from about 1997 to 2001 offered a powerful view into what made Welch so effective as a leader.
1. Ask the important questions.
Much of Welch's management philosophy was built on two fundamental questions he learned from Drucker. First, "If GE wasn't already in a particular business, would you enter it today?" Second, "If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?"
That approach is what earned Welch the moniker "Neutron Jack," as he abandoned every aspect of GE that was either underperforming or taking resources away from areas that were GE's best performers.
Stop and ask yourself those same two questions. If you are riding your current wave just because that's the one you caught but it's not the wave that you want to be on, then why the hell aren't you switching waves?
2. Inspire followers, not workers.
In one conversation I had with Drucker, I asked him to tell me what it was about Welch and other great leaders he'd worked with that made them such great leaders. Drucker looked at me and with a thick Austrian accent that made everything he said sound profound, he said that Welch had the ability to do what all great leaders do, inspire followers.
Welch was obsessive about transparency and honesty, some would say brutally so. But, at the same time, he was just as obsessive about pumping up his people and instilling confidence in them. He once quipped, "One of the jobs you have as a manager is to pump everyday self-confidence into your team to make them feel great, to make people like me feel like I've got a full head of hair and I'm 6 foot 10." Welch was 5 foot 7 and bald.
You may not see your role as that of a cheerleader, and it may be hard to picture Welch in that role, but he took that responsibility as seriously as anything else he did.
3. Set priorities, and then reset them.
Drucker went on to talk about how Welch would reevaluate his priorities every five years by asking himself, "What needs to be done now?" It was what Drucker had termed organized abandonment--letting go of the past by using a very conscious and deliberate assessment of your business based on shifting markets and an outlook for the future rather than being bound by the anchors that may tie you to the past. In short, don't be afraid to let go of the future you'd planned for for one that you hadn't planned for.
4. Take personal responsibility.
Welch also wasn't afraid to stay in the game. Along with each five-year planning process, he would look at his top three priorities and ask himself which one he was best suited for and then focus on that task while delegating the others to members of his leadership team. Welch saw that as his way of staying in the trenches and staying sharp. All too often, we see management as something above the work that needs to be done; that distances you as a leader and dulls your sense of the business.
5. Love 'em to death.
In the end, however, what defined Welch's philosophy best was a quote from him that I believe set the bar every leader should aspire to.
Get the hell out of the office. Get out and touch the people. Listen, listen, listen. Love 'em to death and touch them, get inside their skin. Excite them about what they're doing. Give purpose to their jobs and their lives. That's what this is all about. We spend most of our waking hours on these jobs. Make them fun, make them exciting, and reward the hell out of the ones who do the job you ask them to do.
That summarizes the man, and the sort of leader whom we should all hope to emulate, because it illustrates what may be the most important aspect of leadership, the responsibility to create organizations that give people worth, dignity, and recognition.