Five Questions to Ask . . .
. . . Before you pull that lever.
BY JACK WELCH
Saturday, October 30, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
In five days, America votes not for its president, but for its leader. I make that distinction because rarely in American history has the occupant of the White House had such a burden of leadership to bear. We are in a war to protect our very way of life, and it is a brand new kind of war, with no foreseeable end and enemies as evil as they are invisible. And our economy--the engine of freedom and opportunity around the world--faces daunting challenges from within our borders and without.
Because of these twin threats to our security and our prosperity, the leader we are about to elect holds the future in his hands--our future, our children's, and their children's. That is why, as you approach the voting booth on Tuesday, you need to think less about politics and policies and more about the characteristics that define a great leader in tough and perilous times.
I'm not saying America has not faced huge challenges before. We have survived several wars and countless economic downturns. But we have done so with varying degrees of speed and fortitude. In the late 1970s, the Carter administration's policies had so damaged the economy that the president himself declared the country in a "crisis of confidence." It was really tough--I remember it well because I was named the CEO of GE in 1980. The Cold War raged. Unemployment was over 7%, inflation was at 13%, and the prime rate reached 20%. Japan had been declared the next industrial global power. Obituaries were being written for companies like ours.
Ronald Reagan was elected into this environment. He did not declare the country in malaise, but painted a picture of a bright and thriving tomorrow, and then led the country there, through a series of largely unpopular moves. He refused to capitulate to striking air-traffic controllers, pushed through sweeping tax cuts, and faced down communism by heavily building up the military. The peace and prosperity he created lasted for 20 years.
The next leader of the United States needs Ronald Reagan's optimism, courage, and conviction, but with a fiercer enemy, he will need to be a leader for the ages--a leader in the extreme.
So, who is that man--John Kerry or George Bush? That is a decision all voters must answer for themselves on Tuesday.
But how? Below are five questions that you might consider before pulling the lever. Each one gets at the unique qualities that, from my experience, define a great leader in tough times. Those qualities may not be what we will be looking for in a president in five years or 10, but what we need today from the man who will be remembered for saving America, or breaking it.
Is he real?
What a crazy question, right? But authenticity really matters when it comes to crisis leadership. A person cannot make hard decisions, hold unpopular positions, or stand tall for what he believes unless he knows who he is and feels comfortable in his own skin. I am talking about self-confidence and conviction. These traits make a leader bold and decisive, which is absolutely critical in times where you must act quickly, often without complete information. Just as important, authenticity makes a leader likable, for lack of a better word. His "realness" comes across in the way he communicates and reaches people on an emotional level. His words move them; his message touches something inside.
When I was at GE, we would occasionally encounter a very successful executive who just could not be promoted to the next level. In the early days, we would struggle with our reasoning. The person demonstrated the right values and made the numbers, but usually his people did not connect with him. What was wrong? Finally, we figured out that these people always had a certain phoniness about them. They pretended to be something they were not--more in control, more upbeat, more savvy than they really were. They didn't sweat. They didn't cry. They squirmed in their own skin, playing a role of their own inventing.
A leader in times of crisis can't have an iota of fakeness in him. He has to know himself--and like himself--so that he can be straight with the world, energize his followers, and lead with the authority born of authenticity.
Does he see around corners?
Every leader has to have a vision and predict the future, of course, but great leaders in tough times must have a special ability to anticipate the radically unexpected. In business, the best leaders in brutally competitive environments have a "sixth sense" for market changes, as well as moves by existing competitors and new entrants. For the next president in our new world, a "sixth sense" is not enough. He needs a seventh sense--paranoia about what lurks in dark corners we cannot even see.
If this sounds overdramatic, consider the cost of not having this trait. Consider September 11. There had been the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the African embassy bombings in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole two years later. But two terms of the Clinton administration and eight months of the incumbent's did not have the imagination to see what was ahead. Who could have? Now we know the leader of our country must have that ability, as dark and horrifying as the "vision" might be.
Who's around him?
In tough times in particular, a leader needs to surround himself with people who are smarter than he is, and they must have the grit to disagree with him and each other.
Every time we had a crisis at GE, I would quickly assemble a group of the smartest, gutsiest people I could find at any level from within the company and sometimes without, and lean on them heavily for their knowledge and advice. I would make sure everyone in the room came at the problem from a different angle, and then I would have us all wallow in the information as we worked to solve the crisis. These sessions were almost always contentious, and the opinions that came at me strong and varied. And yet, my best decisions arose from what I learned in these debates. Disagreement surfaced meaningful questions and forced us to challenge assumptions. Everyone came out of the experience more informed and better prepared to take on the next crisis.
A great leader has the courage to put together a team of people who sometimes make him look like the dumbest person in the room! I know that sounds counterintuitive. You want your leader to be the smartest person in the room--but if he acts like that, he won't get half the pushback he must get to make the best decisions.
Does he get back on the horse?
Every leader makes mistakes, every leader stumbles and falls. The question is, does he learn from his mistakes, regroup and then get going again with renewed speed, conviction and confidence?
The name for this trait is resilience, and it is so important that a leader must have it going in to a job because if he doesn't, a crisis time is too late to learn it. That is why, when I placed people in new leadership situations, I always looked for candidates who had one or two very tough experiences. I particularly liked the people who had had the wind knocked clear out of them, but proved they could run even harder in the next race.
The world around us is going to knock any leader off his horse more than once. He must know how to get back up in the saddle again.
Is he pro-business?
Last but not least, the leader of the United States must love business, because a thriving economy is the free world's last, best hope. It has become very fashionable in the past few years to say that business is bad and crooked. The antibusiness fervor even got to the point that CEOs who outsourced production, in order to stay competitive, were labeled "Benedict Arnolds." What nonsense.
Business is great. Successful companies are the engine of a healthy society and nothing short of the foundation of a free and democratic world. While government is a key part of society and vital to all of us, it makes no money of its own. All the necessary things it provides--from the justice system to welfare and hospitals--come from some form of tax revenue paid by companies and their employees. Government is the support for the engine. It is not the engine.
A great leader in this day and age must appreciate the value of business to the world. He cannot beat it down, denigrate its participants, or create an environment where business people must struggle to build opportunity. When business is weak, America is weak.
On Tuesday, Americans vote in an election with stakes as high as we have ever seen. There is no perfect candidate, in this election or any. But there is a right man for the challenges we face in these tough times--a right leader for this historic moment.
Before you pull that lever, ask yourself five questions and see where you come out.
Mr. Welch is a former chairman and CEO of General Electric.