GE chairman talks about renewing American leadership

General Electric

On December 9, General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt spoke at the United States Military Academy at West Point, focusing on the need for leaders who have the courage to change themselves and others if the country is to realize a better economic future after the seismic changes of the last year. And it’s precisely West Point’s values of “Duty, Honor, and Country” and its commitment to integrity, performance and change that “every person in the United States — from business and from government — can learn from,” he said.

21st Century Leaders: There are 11,000 veterans working at GE, 238 West Point graduates, and nearly 600 from all the service academies. Photo courtesy of West Point.

Below are excerpts from the written copy of Jeff’s speech that was prepared for West Point’s Distinguished Leader Series forum today.

* Read Jeff’s “Renewing American Leadership” speech in full.

Stressing the need for a new commitment to manufacturing and R&D following the worst economic conditions since 1940, Jeff told the cadets: “We need a new strategy for this economy. We should clear away any arrogance, false assumptions, or a sense that things will be ‘ok’ just because we are America. Rather, we should dedicate ourselves again to be the most competitive country in the world… We need to invest more in innovation. We need to target this innovation toward fulfilling big needs like clean energy. We need to make products here and have the self-confidence to sell them around the world. And we need business and government to work together instead of arguing while other countries win.”

He noted that energy leadership not only will keep the U.S. competitive and secure, “it will also create jobs,” with about 10 million being clean energy jobs in the next five years – many of which can be in the U.S. “if we act now,” he said.

“So, we have an understanding of what happened. We know what it takes to win. But the real question in all this is who will lead us? This is what I really want to talk with you about today. Nothing of consequence is accomplished without leadership. You are being taught leadership here at the USMA. Leadership is the essence of what you will do when you graduate.”

Jeff told the audience that GE has been working hard to understand what attributes of leadership can make an impact given the challenges of the 21st century. First, “we have to be better listeners,” he said. “21st century leaders listen. They use external inputs as a catalyst. They put their ego in check. They ask more questions than they answer. They welcome dissent and debate, and are constantly seeking more intelligence.”

Second, “leaders must become systems thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity,” he said. “Success requires problem solving, and connecting the dots. This requires intellectual breadth and tactical depth. We must understand technology, globalization, politics, economics, human resources. We must understand how government, community, the environment, business, academics all connect. And we must apply this to solving problems.”

Third, “leaders must build competency and move with speed,” Jeff said. “GE is a big organization, like the Army. The problem with size is that it can be too slow. At GE, we must push decision-making down in the organization and we must delegate more.”

Last, leaders, he said, “must motivate with vision” — providing the “emotional connection that inspires action and commitment.” And they must re-earn the trust that was lost during the economic meltdown.

“The residue of the past was a more individualistic ‘win-lose’ game,” he said. “The 21st century is about building bigger and diverse teams; teams that have a culture of respect. ... This new spirit of American leadership — much of which is derived from this great institution — will be the foundation of renewal and change.”

Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “American Renewal: Immelt addresses Detroit Econ Club
* “Manufacturing in Massachusetts: Send in the Marines
* “From GE Global Research to Camp Liberty, Baghdad
* “The military precision driving GE’s precision products
* Visit GE’s veterans Web site

Begin a Free Subscription to Machinery Lubrication