by Ryan Gottfredson, PhD., author of “Success Mindsets: Your Keys to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership“
Of all organizational leaders, there are few that have had as much success as Jack Welch. Jack Welch is most known for being the CEO of General Electric from 1981-2001. During this tenure, he increased the market value of GE from $14 billion to $410 billion. He was also recognized as Manager of the Century in 1999.
As he recently passed away, it would do us well to identify what made him so successful, and is there a way that current leaders can emulate what made him so successful?
To understand what current leaders could emulate to their advantage, I turn to a popular organizational theory called Upper Echelons Theory. Upper Echelons Theory suggests that direction and success of an organization is based upon what its leaders pay attention to.
So, we may want to ask ourselves: What did Jack Welch pay attention to and focus on?
The way we answer that question is by investigating his mindsets, or the mental lenses that dictated what information he focused on, how he may have interpreted that information, and the overall quality of his decision-making.
There are four specific “success mindsets” that seemed to guide his attention, processing, and decision-making, which led to his effectiveness and success as a leader.
When we possess a growth mindset we believe that we and others can change our abilities, talents, and intelligence. Research over 30 years has led experts to say: “Cultivating a growth mindset could be the single most important thing you ever do to help you achieve success.” This is because when we believe we can learn, grow, and improve, we become willing to approach challenges and failures as opportunities to advance, as opposed to things to back away from.
Based upon the following quotes, it seems as though Jack Welch possessed a growth mindset, one that was focused on learning and saw challenges and failure as opportunities.
- “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”
- “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.”
- “Willingness to change is a strength, even if it means plunging part of the company into total confusion for a while.”
When we possess an open mindset, we are open to the idea that we don’t have all the answers and that we can be wrong. When we possess this mindset, our primary focus is on thinking optimally and finding truth, which leads us to ask questions, invite new perspectives, and to see disagreement as opportunities to learn.
It is critical for leaders to possess an open mindset because it creates a psychologically safe and engaging environment that brings about the highest levels of innovation and creativity.
Jack Welch seemed to portray an open mindset when he stated the following:
- “Arrogance is a killer, and wearing ambition on one’s sleeve can have the same effect. There is a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence. Legitimate self-confidence is a winner. The true test of self-confidence is the courage to be open — to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Self-confident people aren’t afraid to have their views challenged. They relish the intellectual combat that enriches ideas.”
- “The operative assumption today is that someone, somewhere, has a better idea; and the operative compulsion is to find out who has that better idea, learn it, and put it into action-fast.”
When we have a promotion mindset, we have a clear goal or destination that we are headed toward and we are focused on making progress toward the goal or destination. In other words, we are purpose-centered. When we do not have a clear goal or destination, our default mindset is a prevention mindset, where our focus is primarily on not losing and avoiding problems. In other words, we are comfort-centered.
There have been multiple research studies that have verified that organizations with promotion-minded CEOs outperform organizations with prevention-minded CEOs.
Based upon the following quotes, it seems clear that Jack Welch has a promotion mindset:
- “Set stretch goals. Don’t ever settle for mediocrity. The key to stretch is to reach for more than you think is possible. Don’t sell yourself short by thinking that you’ll fail.”
- “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”
- “If you want risk taking, set an example yourself and reward and praise those that do.”
When we have an outward mindset, we see those we lead as being as important, if not more important as ourselves. This is critical for effective leadership because it is only when we see others in this way that we value them as they truly are: as people. When leaders see themselves as being more important than others (i.e., inward mindset), the consequence is that the leaders will see those they lead as objects, and treat them as such.
Jack Welch’s outward mindset is evident in these quotes:
- “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
- “When you were made a leader you weren’t given a crown, you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others.”
- “Great leaders love to see people grow. The day you are afraid of them being better than you is the day you fail as a leader.”
Emulating Jack Welch.
Because Jack Welch had these success mindsets, he was able to pay attention to the right things and process information in such a way to maximize his positive influence on the organizations and people he served. If you can develop these mindsets, you will also unlock a greater ability to have a positive influence on the organization and people you serve.
Through my research, I have unfortunately found that only 5% of leaders are in the top quartile for all four sets of these mindsets. This suggests that most of us can improve our leadership effectiveness by better emulating Jack Welch and adopting these mindsets.
If you want to assess the quality of your mindsets, here is a free 20-question mindset assessment. It will provide you with an individualized and comprehensive mindset report, including directions on how to improve your mindsets.
Ryan Gottfredson, PhD., is a mental success coach and cutting-edge leadership consultant, author, trainer, and researcher. He is the author of “Success Mindsets: Your Keys to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership” (Morgan James Publishing). He helps improve organizations, leaders, teams, and employees by improving their mindsets. As a respected authority and researcher on topics related to leadership, management, and organizational behavior, Ryan has published over 15 articles in a variety of journals, including The Harvard Business Review.