What He Taught Me: “Neutron” Jack And The Sense Of Urgency For Action

Leadership Lesson: Keep in mind all that you can learn from a leader — his or her various attributes, approaches, and attitudes — even if you don’t agree with certain aspects of their leadership and/or management. Case in point: Jack Welch and the need for urgency.

Jack Welch, a legend of the business world and former CEO of General Electric, passed away last week at the age of 84.

It was under Welch’s tenure from 1981 to 2001 that GE, a company rooted in the work of Thomas Edison, expanded beyond its traditional businesses of appliances and lighting, growing into the global conglomerate it was known to be at the height of its dominance.

Both the company’s reach and reign in various industries led it to be revered across the business world as the gold standard and epitome of business excellence.

With GE’s market value having grown explosively over the course of Welch’s watch, growing from the time he took the helm from $12 billion up to an eventual $410 billion at the time of his retirement, it’s no wonder Fortune magazine named him the “Manager of the Century” in 1999.

And Welch was a force to be reckoned with both during his time in the executive suite and deep into his retirement, having written several books and been constantly profiled, interviewed, and sought after for his business acumen and intuition after he left GE.

His business advice was so respected, it led him to establish the Jack Welch Management Institute in 2009, an institution offering various levels of degrees and certifications in business.

That’s all part of his legacy. So, it’s easy to see why very few names call to mind business royalty like Welch’s.

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So, what else is there to say?

Well, plenty more, actually.

Underpinning that reputation of GE’s business superiority was the controversial side of Welch’s methods — his aggressive, constant, and rigorous approach to efficiency and accountability across the various GE entities.

Although a company can’t grow to GE’s legendary heights without some sacrifices, many saw his methods to achieve his desired efficiency and accountability as almost too aggressive, too constant, and way too rigorous.

The heavy-handed cuts made and downsizing executed to achieve GE’s legendary exponential growth are still notorious to this day. This article, among other things, highlights that charge by pointing out that…:

“He also held that any GE entity that wasn’t No. 1 or No. 2 in its field should
be fixed, sold or closed, and that the bottom-performing 10 percent of
management should be sacked each year. In the first 15 years under his
leadership, employment in Schenectady, GE’s historic home and birthplace,
fell by more than 70 percent, from 24,000 to 6,700.”

So, what is the true cost of success? The answer varies depending on who you ask. Anyone holding GE stock during Welch’s tenure will likely give you a different response than one of the tens of thousands of people he cut from the ranks in that same period during GE’s ascendance.

This page of business history just goes to show that, to varying degrees and like with anything else, leaders are bound to have both good and bad attributes, tendencies, methods, and histories to — and perceptions about — them.

But do we give up on and dismiss the leader completely because of any of the missteps?

I’m of the mindset that even from those who carry out unfavorable or questionable actions, there are lessons to be learned. And Welch is no exception to that belief. (Yes, obviously, there are exceptions, especially those “leaders” who are so egregious, vicious, or even violent in their methods.)

Related: Lessons Everywhere: You Can Learn Strategy In The Most Unlikely Of Places

There are many lessons to take away from Welch’s approach to running GE – some broken down in this Harvard Business Review article. But, there is one that stood out to me most, one which underlies all of them – his sense of urgency.

As a student who read about and studied the great business leaders of the last half century, even before I realized the field of leadership coaching is where I belonged, I was always amazed at the urgency Welch conveyed in his actions and decisions. (Even though the bulk of Welch’s legacy is cemented in the discipline of management, there are many lessons that can be transferred over to leadership. Yes, there is a difference.)

That doesn’t mean I look past all the heavy decisions Welch made at the expense of the employees and other stakeholders, but I do think that general level – not necessarily his specific examples of – urgency can benefit all of us.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my time coaching leaders it’s that lack of urgency can be one of their biggest missteps. A great sense of urgency and the need to get going and move on decisions and changes as soon as reasonably possible, whether with business, leadership, or personal changes, tends to evade a good number of leaders.

With regard to his work, like that Harvard Business Review piece states, Welch had a strong focus on getting people decisions right (opinion of what makes those decisions right can differ for each of us), speaking with candor, and being insatiably curious.

My own translation of each of those for Welch and his desire for efficiency is making the right decisions sooner rather than later with people; being up front with people when it counts before letting things slide backwards for too long; and understanding the need to learn your environment, especially your competitors, for business survival.

In short, it’s all about urgency.

If you wait too long to make people changes, they can make the wrong decisions and hold back themselves, their work, and the mission.

If you wait too long to share the truth with people or state what’s on your mind, they can make the wrong decisions or not change their behaviors and hold back themselves, their work, and the mission.

Recommended Reading:
Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity
by Kim Malone Scott

If you wait too long to be curious about what’s going on around you, you can make the wrong decisions and hold back yourself, your work, and the mission.

In short, to not act with a sense of urgency can do everyone in.

Overall, urgency helps us realize what’s going on and stay on top of things before they end up out of our control.

So, where do you stand with your sense of urgency, making sure changes are taking place when they need to and not waiting too long?

Consider these specific questions.

What would you like to see changed?

Before demonstrating urgency about anything, you need to determine what is important and what might need to shift in your environment. You should consider the factors, the players, the stakeholders, the responsibilities, the scenarios, the results, the options, etc. Keep in mind what the foundation of what you’re doing is and how it needs to evolve to improve in order to avoid surprises.

What are you waiting for?

It’s always surprising how often leaders know the general direction in which they should be moving yet don’t feel compelled to get going. Later, they have to deal with consequences and outcomes they could have influenced had they moved when they had that initial hunch.

Why wait?

Have you weighed the pro’s and con’s of moving to action? Of course there may be con’s to moving. You just have to make sure they are real reasons why moves shouldn’t be made. But, I’m talking about leaders not even weighing their options. They should instead be clear on the reasons why they’re not moving into the actionable steps.

What happens if you don’t make the change?

A good motivator to help you work toward action is understanding what will happen if action is not taken. Leaders tend to get the feeling that they don’t want to move on decisions and changes, but too often they haven’t thought about what will happen – specifically, what will play out – if they don’t act urgently in their work.

Sure, acting in an urgent manner may take you outside of your comfort level – for instance, proposing ideas that aren’t necessarily easy or popular for the sake of the overall goal – but the alternative results can be even worse. There may be an iceberg ahead you can’t dodge or an opportunity for greater success that gets missed. Keep in mind what can happen if you don’t stay nimble and ready to move.

Who shares your sense of urgency?

If you do have a strong sense of urgency, that’s great. You already see the value in what I’m trying to share here. But as you know, one person’s ideas don’t get anything done without buy-in from others.

So, in this case, overall, who has your general sense of urgency. We usually see “buy-in” as applying to one situation, case, or decision, but overall who shares your sense of urgency as an ongoing, active tool, understanding the need to act as fast and as prepared as possible when it comes to decisions of every kind?


Urgency is that feeling that you need to get going, that something needs to get done ASAP, and that you will get the ball rolling as best as possible, even if alone.

Some people have a natural sense of urgency, while others can and will learn it, while yet another group most likely will never appreciate the need for it. That third group is fine with the status quo. This is what life and work has given them, and they’ll make due.

There is no generalized right or wrong answer for any of us. But there is a right or wrong answer for the specific circumstances in our lives. Only you can know what those are for your life and work and whether or not you have the right level of urgency to do the best you can in allowing, enabling, and empowering yourself to move forward.

Keep tabs on what’s working and what’s not and address the issues as soon as you can. Always keep your eyes open to what could be made better. Just because something is working, doesn’t mean it’s working in its best form.

What are you leaving on the table because you’re not keeping a watchful — and urgent — eye?



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