“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Most people know philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote, but one wonders how many people, especially business managers, agree with it. Managers and organizations are notoriously reluctant even to glance backward, let alone contemplate the past. So it’s not surprising that a common criticism of Jack Welch’s book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, has been that it lacks any hint of reflection, let alone introspection. In his final speech to the GE troops, the recently retired Mr. Welch was unsentimental: “I got this job 20 years ago and together we changed a lot. It has been a fun, wonderful journey filled with great memories and lasting friendships. For much of what we’ve done, forget it. Today’s clippings wrap yesterday’s fish.”
Yet in its staccato tempo and inexorable pace, the book does capture the reality of life at the top of a large, dynamic corporation. This life is a relentless series of brief encounters with diverse people on disparate topics in a huge variety of settings. In a process that threatens to consume any calendar, it is all that a CEO can do to keep track of events, let alone pursue an agenda.
How do CEOs do it? If one understands Jack Welch correctly, it’s by surrounding themselves with good people and focusing on the present. In a process where the time demanded always exceeds the time available, every decision concerns people, their performance, and the allocation of their (and the organization’s) time — who is doing what and how well are they doing it; stop this, start that; that’s important, this doesn’t matter. From this perspective, reflection and introspection are the province of intellectuals — those with a taste for the task and time on their hands. Such tasks are not for people of action.
Great empires are not built by people who see two sides to every question. What we read in Jack Welch’s corporate memoir is what GE got: Jack, straight from the gut. Yet people of action like Jack Welch would do well to pay more attention to authors of more contemplative business books, such as the selection discussed in this Knowledge Review. For each book offers knowledge and perspective that even the most time- and information-challenged of executives will appreciate.
“Forget about yesterday,” Jack Welch says. And, indeed, many managers might agree with similar words attributed to Henry Ford by the Chicago Tribune in 1916: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Ford always claimed that he had been misquoted and that what he meant was that the average history textbook, crammed with dates, battles, and names, left him cold.
But the antipathy toward tradition expressed in the quote was certainly consistent with his position as an outsider in Detroit at the turn of the century. Because, as Richard S. Tedlow shows, Henry Ford — in his devotion to the hard, the real, and the tangible — always identified with the workingman and was permanently estranged from Detroit’s upper crust.
In his latest book, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built, Professor Tedlow, the Class of 1949 Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, uses a series of powerful vignettes to cover the lives of seven business titans from three business eras. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919; U.S. Steel), George Eastman (1854–1932; Eastman Kodak), and Henry Ford (1863–1947) are from the era when America rose to a position of global economic power. Thomas J. Watson Sr. (1874–1956; IBM) and Charles Revson (1906–1975; Revlon) belong to the mid-20th century. Sam Walton (1918–1992; Wal-Mart Stores Inc.) and Robert Noyce (1927–1990; the Intel Corporation) are from the present era.