The bygone days of the iron fist

The death last week of Jack Welch marked the passing of a leader whose management style the New York Times characterized as “the superstar executive (who) is often criticized today as a symbol of corporate greed and economic inequity.”

Welch, the former G.E. chief executive, was a larger-than-life figure whose power earned him the nickname “Neutron Jack.” Along with charismatic CEOs like Lee Iacocca, Welch personified the 1980s “greed is good” executive – a leader whose command-and-control style struck fear into his employees.

They were omnipotent. They had all the answers. Followers jumped at their command. And no one questioned their authority.

But today is different. Leadership styles have evolved. To paraphrase another 1980s slogan, this isn’t your grandfather’s era of leadership.

Authoritarianism is a thing of the past. (At least in business. I’ll save political discussions for another time.) One-way edicts from “on high” are gone. The public – including employees and the media – is more skeptical of business leaders; our trust in them is eroding.

Today’s most effective organizations are run by collaborative, democratic styles of leadership. Cross-function teams are “in.” Thus, persuasion and influence are more important than ever – even (and especially) among leaders.

And while this form of leadership is tougher to master, it can be much more powerful than the iron fist.

“The day when you could yell and scream and beat people into good performance is over,” says Lawrence Bossidy, retired CEO of Allied Signal. “Today you have to appeal to them by helping them see how they can get from here to there – by establishing credibility, and by giving them some reason to follow. Do all those things, and they’ll knock down doors.”

Effective leaders know how to recognize the emotional state of their peers, and adapt their emotional fervor accordingly. They know how to connect.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, not all business decisions are made with logic and reason. “If we scratch the surface,” reports the Harvard Business Review, “we will always find emotions at play. Good leaders are aware of the primacy of emotions and are responsive to them.”

In his last days, Jack Welch confessed to business author William Cohan about some of his regrets in dealing with people. It was a rare display of self-doubt and vulnerability.

Always a student of human behavior, perhaps the old, corporate lion recognized that barbarous leadership is a relic from days gone by.

Russ Florence is a partner at the consulting firm of Schnake Turnbo Frank. He writes a monthly column for The Journal Record. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.