Jack Welch Book Review by Reader!

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All hail John Struan, my hero reader who has written his second, I repeat, second book review for WiP. That’s right, other readers to whom I’ve sent books and heard nary a peep (LaDawn, you’re excused; the British post is probably still cycling to your house). This is a book about which I was particularly eager to read a review (note I didn’t say I wanted to read the thing; I just wanted to read about it), mainly because of its silly title gimmick. John, take it away.

By Stephen H. Baum
Review by John Struan
(Note: John rendered the title the way the author did.)

I wasn’t particularly impressed by Stephen H. Baum’s WHAT MADE jack welch JACK WELCH, and I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, here’s an excellent job interview tip from the book:

[A]sk the people you speak with to tell you about some of the company’s successes and failures – ask for examples or stories. Also ask for stories about employees who have progressed successfully through the company ranks – and those who have not. Ask people to talk about individuals who are considered heroes of the company and those who are considered failures.

That seems like pretty good advice. However, the rest of the book was not nearly as illuminating. Baum explains that the world’s best CEOs share common traits such as regularly seeking out challenges, showing good character, and making tough decisions. To prove this thesis, Baum shares anecdotes about a dozen or so CEOs in which they displayed that trait (the title is misleading, Jack Welch is but one of many individuals discussed). Then, Baum relates a supposedly formative moment from that individual’s youth in which they “learned” the trait. The book flows like this:

A leader must have the courage to act. Once upon a time, a CEO faced a serious problem with his company. He had the courage to act and rectified the problem. When asked, the CEO attributed his courage to a schoolyard fight he won in elementary school. (Honest, the stories are told in only a bit more detail than that.)

OK, three main problems with the book: 1. The stories are not told with adequate detail or skill to be particularly enjoyable or memorable. 2. The elements of leadership Baum describes are not particularly surprising (I didn’t need to be convinced that a good leader must be able to act under pressure). 3. Baum fails to prove any real correlation between the formative anecdote and the character trait. For example, one CEO may cite the support of his family as important in his development, while another cites putdowns by a teacher. So, which type of experience is important? Both? It depends on the person? Or is the answer “neither” since you’re born a leader or not?

An anecdote about former Senator Bob Kerrey seems to unintentionally refute Baum’s thesis. When Kerrey was 10 years old, he became dissatisfied with the state of his Bible class, and, convinced that he could improve the class, “took over the discussion.” Kerrey apparently became the leader of the class and improved the situation for his classmates (I say apparently, because the author doesn’t explicitly say so, or detail the number or age of the other students). Baum cites that experience as a “shaping experience” in Kerrey’s “path to leadership.” But didn’t Kerrey already have to be a leader to not only try to take over the class, but also, at age 10, successfully do so? So was it a “shaping experience,” or a signaling one? Either way, in the era of Freakonomics, it takes more than a few random anecdotes and amorphous categories to prove a thesis.

Finally, I leave you with an amusing anecdote about leadership. This is from Clive Thompson, writing for Wired:

Recently I logged into World of Warcraft and I wound up questing alongside a mage and two dwarf warriors. I was the lowest-level newbie in the group, and the mage was the de-facto leader. He coached me on the details of each new quest, took the point position in dangerous fights and suggested tactics. He seemed like your classic virtual-world group leader: Confident, bold and streetsmart.

But after a few hours he said he was getting tired of using text chat — and asked me to switch over to Ventrilo, an app that lets gamers chat using microphones and voice. I downloaded Ventrilo, logged in, dialed him up and …

… realized he was an 11-year-old boy, complete with squeaky, prepubescent vocal chords.