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True Leadership in Volatile Times

Former GE CEO Immelt shares what defines a leader in an era of disruption

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- In March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Jeff Immelt, then-CEO of General Electric (GE), learned that four of the seven nuclear reactors at the power plant, all made by GE, had failed. On a nearby TV, CNN was reporting about the plant’s flawed design. GE’s general counsel was warning that Tokyo might need to be evacuated, and if the wind blows the wrong way, Los Angeles could be next. Immelt, meanwhile, was due to give a talk before a town hall of 1,000 of GE’s oil and gas employees, with chaos swirling around them.

It was what Immelt, one of the final keynotes at CSP’s 2018 Outlook Leadership conference, described as a “Holy s---” moment. It was also an event that defined the leadership style of Immelt, who served as CEO of Boston-based GE from 2000 to 2017.

“If I was an authentic leader, maybe I would have gone into that town hall and said, ‘You know guys, we’re screwed. We’re dead meat,’ ” Immelt said. “Some people think that’s authenticity or being transparent. That’s not what I did. I said, ‘We’ve got a little thing we’re handling in Japan right now—but we’re going to work our way through it.’ ”

“You can’t let people see you panic,” Immelt continued. “So much of it is body language. Some of it is just showing up even when you don’t know the answers, and being willing to say ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Knowing how to absorb fear is one sign of a good leader, Immelt said. “You know how to take it on yourself, and show people the way,” he said.

Good leaders also know how to:

  • See new patterns. “See what’s different in the world. What do we need to invest in?” Immelt said. “What’s important to build for the future? In volatile times, that’s more important than anything else.” The day after NFL quarterback Dan Fouts spoke to Outlook Leadership attendees, Immelt used a football metaphor to describe this ideal modern leader. “Being a good leader is not about being the quarterback; it’s about being an offensive lineman,” Immelt said. “Can you think while you’re getting hit? Can you make decisions while things are crazy? That’s where some of best long-term payoffs and returns are made.”
  • Drive change. “It’s the simple act of listening and then taking action on what you’ve learned,” he said. That acting part is key: Listening is commendable and is part of learning, but it’s all for naught if one does not respond to the new information.
  • Connect. “If you can’t manage one person, you can’t manage a lot of people,” said Immelt, who encouraged attendees to become familiar with all of their employees and their responsibilities, down to the store level.
  • Fix mistakes. One of Immelt’s other “Holy s---” moments was the day in September 2008 that Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, marking the official start of the global financial meltdown. GE at the time was the largest finance company in the world, and had a “time bomb” of $500 billion in unsecured debt. “Sixty days after the global financial crisis, I felt like vomiting almost all the time,” Immelt said. “It wasn’t all my fault, but I was a participant in this. Sometimes when you’re getting the s--- kicked out of you, you have to actually fix things.” So GE raised equity, sold half of NBC, cut its dividend and was the only finance company to survive the financial crisis without government support. “And I got the crap kicked out of me every second of every day,” Immelt said. “It’s not much fun, but it’s what the team expects you to do.”

CSP'sOutlook Leadership 2019 will be held Aug. 11-14 at the Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville, N.C.

Photograph courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell

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