Pragmatic Business Leadership for Idealists

This interview with former GE CEO Jack Welch is a great example of pragmatic business leadership for idealists.

The interview is over 25 years old, a fine 1989 vintage, but it still resonates strongly. After reading Reinventing Organizations, my inner idealist really kicked into high gear, and I was day-dreaming and night-worrying about how to make radical organizational changes to decentralize and remove inefficiencies. Part of this was driven by watching Pantheon grow in ways I had less control over, now that we’re up to 75 employees from 6 when I joined. In addition to giving up some control, the allure of evolutionary management techniques was driven by the challenges of truly stepping up into a leadership role.

Pantheon is not an will never be Holacratic, managerless, or fully flat. This doesn’t mean we’re destined for stifling bureaucracy. We have managers, and we invest in them.

Anyway, back to Jack. The HBR interview with Jack presents a pragmatic, aligned vision for removing bullshit, bureaucracy, and TPS reports while generating energy, freedom, and success.

Some of my favorite quotes are:

You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple.

Yes! Let’s make it simple and exciting and get something we can all push towards!

Ultimately, we’re talking about redefining the relationship between boss and subordinate. I want to get to a point where people challenge their bosses every day: “Why do you require me to do these wasteful things? Why don’t you let me do the things you shouldn’t be doing so you can move on and create? That’s the job of a leader—to create, not to control. Trust me to do my job, and don’t make me waste all my time trying to deal with you on the control issue.”

Yes! Redefining management relationships doesn’t take holacracy! But it does take good managers, and investing in management.

I prefer the term “business leader.” Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion. Above all else, though, good leaders are open. They go up, down, and around their organization to reach people. They don’t stick to the established channels. They’re informal. They’re straight with people. They make a religion out of being accessible.

Make a religion of being accessible? Genius. Create a vision, and gift it to everyone around you. That’s what I wake up for.

I’m glad I ran across this article. Silicon Valley startups exist to innovate and try new things. New things with business models, new things with technology, and new things with organizational structure. The musings from Jack Welch in this interview help me understand exactly what we are experimenting with and what we are just trying to do really well.