Tom Peters famously said, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”
This is a common platitude in business. However, rarely do people with the experience and the effectiveness give clues on how to really develop leaders in the face of change and disruption. As the marketplace changes quickly, the need for managers is diminishing and there is a rising need for more leaders.
Jack Welch is one of those leaders in business that has established a legacy in developing leaders. Welch was CEO and Chairman of General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001. He increased the company’s value over 4000 percent during this leadership. Welch also pioneered a policy of informality at GE, allowing all employees to have small business experience at a large corporation.
This was a basis for developing more leaders. And, aptly, Welch once said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
I recently had a sit down with one of Welch’s mentees, Frank Blake, the former CEO of The Home Depot from 2007 to 2015, who has tremendous success as a leader — creating leaders not followers. Blake also did mergers and acquisitions at General Electric as a direct report to Welch and was also a former lawyer in the energy sector and Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy. As someone who has always seen the value of “getting in the trenches” as a leader, Blake would often travel to Home Depot stores, put on the orange apron and join those on the front-lines to truly know how his company was operating.
I asked Blake to share with me the most important lessons of leadership that he learned while working with Welch. These are not the common aspects of leadership. Yet I have seen the power of these lessons in the high-growth companies that I work with and in the research, I share from stages around the world.
1. Leaders Radiate Energy
If you are the leader of the business, the organization feeds off your energy. Powerful leaders have energy that radiates through them to others. Being a CEO or a front-line leader and anything in the middle requires that you have the energy to give those who you lead. Energy is often not thought about in leadership. However, those with energy seem to have more clarity in where they are going and more purpose in getting there.
Welch brought massive energy to everyone around him and to every conversation. “Jack was an enormously high-energy person.” Blake said, “I never took a call from Jack Welch sitting down. I am standing up, because this requires all of my attention and focus — because he is high-energy on whatever that is at that time.”
2. Leaders Disagree and Make It Right
Developing leaders is not done by surrounding yourself with people who agree with everything you say or do. “Jack always told us ‘I don’t pay you to agree with me on everything.'” Blake said. “What he really wanted was for you to disagree with him and work hard to prove him wrong.”
Welch wanted his team members to have the courage to disagree with those in a higher authority. And it does take courage to go against the boss’s ideas and thoughts. And how about the part where Welch wanted to be proved wrong? This means that you are willing to make a decision — and make that decision the right one. This is about drive and commitment. Welch liked to see when new ideas were discussed and implemented. But the key here is to make those new ideas payoff with new ways of growth.
3. Leaders Are Generous
Leaders love to celebrate the success of those around them. They give them recognition when they deserve it. Leadership is about sincerely appreciating the success of others.
After starting as CEO of The Home Depot, Blake reached out to Welch to see if he could have one day of his time to help him in the massive responsibility of leading a company of that size. Blake worked up the courage to ask Welch a fundamental question, “What is the single most important characteristic of leadership?”
Welch responded with “Be generous.” Blake admitted to me this was not obvious to him at first, but as Welch went on to explain to him how important being generous was to leading. Blake said: “As a leader, no matter the size of the organization or what you do, you have to be fueled by the success of others. You have to be excited about the success of others.”
Welch was a tough leader. He expected his people to take ownership of their work. And the proof is in the pudding — this is true wisdom to growth.
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