Last week I attend an industry conference where I got to spend some time with John Kotter, from Harvard Business School.
It was an honor to work with him. I’ve long admired his ideas about leading change.
During the session he was leading, Kotter shared an old video of General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who was speaking to a group of business students at Harvard. By the quality of the video, the haircuts of the people and their glasses, it appears the video was shot in the mid to late 1990s.
As you would expect, the Harvard students were pretty sharp. They peppered Welch with some tough questions. Every time, Welch responded quickly and in an engaging manner, answering each question directly.
However, one student caused him to pause for a moment when he asked, “looking back, is there anything you regret or would have done differently?”
Welch took a moment and then provided an answer that surprised me.
“I was too cautious and timid. I wanted too many people to be on board.”
Really? Jack Welch, too cautious and timid? I didn’t see that one coming.
Based on everything I’ve read about his time at the helm of GE, Welch was a leader who was fairly aggressive in driving change. Welch, however, thought that he perhaps took too much time trying to get broader buy-in for the changes he was making. And that in retrospect, he now knows that leaders need to be prepared to make bold leaps without 100% buy-in, particularly in the fast-paced business world today.
“Nudging and coaxing people in a world moving in nanoseconds doesn’t work,” he told the conference.
Kotter agreed, noting that if you spend all your time trying to get everyone on board before making a change, you will waste a lot of valuable time. Hesitating before making change also gives dissidents more time to mobilize and build walls.
Thinking of my experience, I certainly have found many leaders are so afraid of making the wrong move; they make no move at all. All they can see is the risk associated with driving change, rather than the reward of leading effective change.
To me, the real leadership skill here is knowing when to be prudent and manage risk, and when you can afford to make a bold move. To me bold moves doesn’t mean doing things in a haphazard manner. Rather, it means bringing a sense of urgency to a challenge, being decisive and encouraging people to keep up with the pace of change.
So, while being timid, cautious and incremental has its appeal, leaders need to consider the price they might be paying in terms of missed opportunities. Our world changes quickly. Disruption is the rule now, not the exception. Trying to stand still in a world like that is a good way of getting left behind.
As leaders, we must strike boldly when we believe in something. We need to muster the courage to take action knowing that we won’t get it right 100% of the time. That means being ready and able to accept the responsibility of your actions and potential consequences, should things not work out.
In the end, isn’t that what accountable leadership is really about?
This week’s gut check question asks: are you a timid leader?
The second edition of The Leadership Contract is now available in hardcover and a Kindle edition