For 30 years, I taught business management and leadership at a small, private liberal arts college. During most of his time, Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric (1981-2001). According to David Gelles, author of the book, “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” Welch “turned G.E. into the most valuable company in the world, groomed a flock of protégés who went on to run major companies of their own, and set the standard by which other CEOs were measured.”
Similar to Adam Bryant before him, Gelles has written the Corner Office column for The New York Times for several years. In this column, Bryant and Gelles interview senior leaders about their careers, leadership styles, and their priorities related to the culture they are creating. While Welch was in power, he “redefined what it meant to be a boss, personifying an aggressive, materialistic style of management that endures to this day.”
Even women idolized Jack Welch’s style. Lynn Forester de Rothschild was one of the few women leaders at the top of an organization during Welch’s era. She called Welch the “rock star CEO during the 1980s…We all thought Jack was doing everything right and that success was defined by meeting quarterly earnings to the penny.” This was also the time when John T. Molloy’s book, “Dress for Success,” directed women to dress like men—in a navy blue suit and white blouse. The bottom line was this: Since men are in the top roles, women need to emulate men if they want to get to the top.
As the years have passed, much of Welch’s style has been questioned. I was an early advocate of Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership. To lead is to serve others. I define this as leaders need to clear obstacles for others and not be the obstacle. I emphasized how leadership was not a position or title, but a relationship. Skills that were considered “soft skills” often were referred to as feminine leadership skills. Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, reinforced the value of relationship or emotional quotient (EQ) skills and how these were the essential skills to be an effective leader. His work stressed how EQ could be learned and improved, while IQ was innate.
The pandemic was the perfect storm for a shift in how we need to lead. One significant silver lining is how employees have been empowered to voice how they want to be treated in order to be most productive and satisfied. Leaders have had a wake-up call about how to behave, which is an anti-Jack Welch style. This is a point I have stressed in previous “Leading Edge” columns based on Marcus Buckingham’s latest book, “Love + Work.”
Leadership experts now emphasize qualitative skills such as empathy and communication with as much rigor as quantitative skills such as finance and engineering. In fact, some authors advocate not calling interpersonal skills soft. In the article, “Stop Calling Them Soft: Why Today’s Essential Skills Are Anything But,” Lindsay Galloway interviews hiring managers who believe these skills should be renamed as core competencies or critical skills, and train for them just as they do for technical ones.
There is nothing soft about these skills.
Changing the Narrative
This perfect storm gives us the opportunity to reframe how we think and communicate about these skills. Galloway interviewed inclusivity consultant Minette Norman about her 30 years in the software industry. “Business and technical skills were lauded, while interpersonal and communication skills were nice to have but not essential.” Similar to the style of Jack Welch, “Toxic rock stars were rewarded, while the people who worked collaboratively with others were passed over for promotions and recognition.”
Norman concluded, “The narrative around soft skills must change. Call them strong skills, brave skills, or leadership superpowers…It takes courage and vulnerability to use these skills in the workplace, but doing so results in organizations in which employees feel valued, included, and engaged,” which is what organizations need and want now for attracting and retaining quality talent.