The news that my old friend Larry Kirshbaum has won Jack Welch’s memoir-to-come for $7-odd million of Time Warner’s money and the promise of an unprecedented publishing full-court press naturally provokes speculation as to what sort of book the General Electric supremo has in mind.
I just hope it’s the right one. I bow to no one in my admiration of Mr. Welch for what he’s accomplished at GE, but I also ask myself: When the time comes, what will I or any lesser mortal stand to gain from laying out $35 (less Amazon discount, if AMZ should still be around, at least at present price points) for the Welch-ography? Mr. Welch is unique. He needs to write a unique book.
I come not to debunk before the fact. Not only do I have high regard for Mr. Welch, but Larry Kirshbaum is about the nicest person in publishing, notwithstanding that he’s the fellow who brought us The Bridges of Madison County . But here’s the thing, you see: $7 million is the highest price ever paid for a “Secrets of My Success” book, either in protracted boast (and by the way, whatever became of Lee Iacocca?) or how-to form-but is either the sort of book Jack Welch should give his slavering public? Can what he has accomplished at GE be reduced to a series of imitable formulae? My guess is that Mr. Welch’s success has been the consequence of a genius for his vocation, a rare combination of talent and personality and a singular (if not unique) way of doing things that can only be honed but cannot be taught.
I emphasize ” personality ,” and I don’t mean “character.” This is not to disparage Mr. Welch, who is by all accounts a sterling fellow, but we have to admit that Hitler, say, or Napoleon or Catherine the Great were for all their dreadful personal qualities remarkable leaders, assuming that you define leadership to be the ability to get people to do what you want, and to work together toward goals that you set (usually in the name of some organization, up to and including the nation-state). And to achieve these up to an impressive if not ultimate level of success. Just lay off Moscow.
These goals may be whatever they are, for good or evil leadership resides not in the quality of the objective, nor the means by which it is achieved or sought, but in the exercise of powers of persuasion and control that induce people to get with the program.
Those powers can be anything from fear to majority ownership. I suspect that in most instances it’s a combination of the two. Fear need not exclusively signify the NKVD or the Gestapo knock, or the security men appearing at the office door with their cartons and a locksmith. It also comes in hues less fearsome than the pink of the apocryphal slip. For instance, there’s reluctance to let down a leader one reveres; when Nelson sent out his famous signal at Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” I doubt that anyone in the fleet was in doubt who was meant by “England.” A great leader will inveigh against letting down the side, or the team, or the outfit, but he or she knows how to incarnate that principle, to give it the presence and force and immediacy of personality. There’s also the fear that some other guy or gal might do better and edge closer to the throne, and many, many other forms of leaderly persuasion.
And so much depends on the circumstances. You have to be impressed with the leadership accomplishments of a Phil Jackson, or a Bill Parcells, or a Joe Torre, not least because these guys are asked to exercise leadership over undereducated, egotistical players Svengali’d by greedy agents. I ask myself how Jack Welch would do managing teams whose stars walk away after a championship season. It’s fortunate for pro sports that the only market to which the enterprises are answerable is one for which those in power have contempt: the fans. I would like to hear Mr. Welch on how he would apply “Six Sigma,” the vaunted customer-centric management template that he has made the state religion of GE, to, say, the Cincinnati Reds or the Miami Heat.
To lead, one must of course have control of the situation. I hope Mr. Welch will devote a chapter or two to his theories and methods of ascendancy and consolidation. And then there’s personal and team loyalty, which I suspect is more important than money in keeping good people around. Talking off the top of my head, I don’t recall the Welch reign as being marked by an exodus of top people leaving out of frustration to join or run other companies. I can think of one or two whose departure, regretted by Jack Welch, seems mainly to have been prompted by exhaustion, and we all know of at least one who left mainly because he couldn’t keep his personal life in order. The ability to inspire loyalty in talented, trained people who are free to emigrate is, I think, a talent. Inspiring loyalty is different from compelling loyalty, although it’s a given that once people choose to sign on, they play by the rules.
To be a great leader, you have to come into exactly the right situation at exactly the right time. Mr. Welch will know that Timing-one’s point of entry into history-is Everything. Jack Welch’s regime at GE has coincided with the greatest economic expansion this country and its enterprises have ever known. An expansion that has particularly favored finance, which has been the engine (in the form of GE Capital, or whatever it’s called now) that has driven the mighty schooner captained by Mr. Welch. This is a pre-Net guy who “got” the Internet. That’s something I’d really like to hear about.
Timing is luck, and although luck may be “the residue of design,” as Branch Rickey put it, you need both. The 50-yard chip shot that falls in the hole will likely have ended near the flag in any case-that’s the skill-design part-but to sink the shot, that’s lucky.
All this is a long way of saying, prayerfully, that I hope Mr. Welch’s book will be 90 percent business autobiography, with only a small balance to consist of the “tips and tricks”-the “You, too, can be Jack Welch” stuff-that are no doubt the marketing MacGuffin envisaged by his publisher. I can watch Ricky Jay’s tapes a thousand times over, and I’ll never be able to do any of that stuff with cards. What I can learn from a master magician is something about his feelings for his art: how he got where he is, told anecdotally-who he learned from, what went right, what went wrong.
Don’t give us mantras. “High Concept” business thinking is mostly bullbleep. For example, I can’t tell you how many C.E.O.’s I know who’ve proudly declaimed that they only acquire and invest in businesses that are No. 1 or No. 2 in their fields. It’s a theory that’s led to some of the sorriest conglomerates of our day. It’s making a business No. 1 that builds the customer satisfaction and customer trust (are you listening, AT&T?) that pay off big time in the long run.
If there’s one other field the GE chieftain would be a success in, it would be professional poker, because if ever a person knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, this is the guy. I hope he’ll tell us about some of the better hands he’s played, industrially speaking. The strength of his book, if he writes it right, will be in anecdote and example, and not in some kind of cockamamie “Wisdom of Welch.” The perfect how-to business book should read like an extended bridge column, emphasizing the play of the hand, not the bidding systems in use.
I worked once in a business that ran sort of like GE, with a level of success that, if not quite commensurate, was nevertheless the envy of the rest of Wall Street. This was in an era, mind you, when one was expected to have a life as well as a job, and when “life” was generally thought to consist of more than the ownership of 10,000 square feet of veneered flooring in Sagaponack or Pound Ridge. So we are to some extent talking apples and oranges. (I should add that I know of no high-ranking GE executive to be found in the Hamptons, which speaks wonders for GE’s values.)
The business was Lehman Brothers in the 1960’s. We made good money surfing a tremendous boom; we were considered to be a very imaginative firm; we made allowances for personality. Apart from the great growth wave we and others were riding, the key to our success was a short, self-effacing individual in a small office tucked off the elevator foyer on the third floor of 1 William Street. This was Robert Lehman, who owned the firm and practiced a form of benign dictatorship that imposed a centrifugal cohesion on a pack of highly talented but unbelievably ill-assorted people. He got out of us as much as he could, largely (I think as I look back) because each of us felt free to do his thing secure in the knowledge that we had only Bobby to answer to, that we didn’t go through the day (as would become the case after R.L.’s death in 1969) having to look over our shoulders, that our principal competition was Goldman Sachs-not the guy in the next office.
My guess is that Mr. Welch runs GE the same way: as a benign dictatorship. A strong leader lets his people look outward, to where the sky is bright with possibility. Leaders traffic in a sense of infinite possibility which they pass on to their officers and other ranks. Too infinite, in most cases, for most people. They lead their troops into battle, not meetings. History is a chronicle of battles won and lost, not of theories of war. I hope Jack Welch will give us such a chronicle.