Transformational leaders need to persuade others to change. 

In his 20 years atop General Electric, one of the tools that Jack Welch relied on was metaphor. Combing through his carefully crafted annual letters to stockholders, Joel Amernic and Russell Craig of the Rotman School of Management and Dennis Tourish of Robert Gordon University identified five metaphors that he continually wielded to influence the organization. You might benefit in your own leadership by wielding the metaphors they cite in Human Relations journal:

Leaders are teachers, and Mr. Welch repeatedly asserted that he knew “the right answer” and “the wrong answer,” presenting lessons through Socratic-like dialogue built on questions that set up those right answers.

He was also a master storyteller, each year retelling his version of GE's story, built around the lessons he was emphasizing. In his last report, he concluded on a strong pedagogic note, teaching that the pursuit and achievement of three concepts – reality, excellence, and ownership – would revitalize and decentralize the company's entrepreneurial energy.

Welch regularly adopted the approach of a physician, diagnosing corporate illnesses and prescribing remedies. This was particularly true in his early letters, when he had just taken over an organization in poor health, but also in 1990 when he looked back at his first 10 years. The letters include references to strengths, vitality, financial condition, and resilience.

In 1999, he called the company's e-business activities an “elixir” and a “tonic” that have “changed the DNA of GE forever.” GE's information technology was described as “the central nervous system of virtually every operation in the company,” and readers were advised when a No. 1 market share business entered a down cycle and “sneezed,” fourth- and fifth-rated companies caught “galloping pneumonia.”

Military metaphors recur throughout the 20 letters, as he asserts his strategy, the need for pressing tasks to be implemented, and certain major moves to be adopted. He uses powerful action-oriented verbs, be it to “ignite,” “downsize,” “launch,” or “streamline.” He also refers at various points to “dress codes,” “piercing the walls of 100-year-old fiefdoms and empires,” “heroic effort,” “impossible targets,” “hits or misses,” “trajectory,” “camaraderie and an esprit,” and “liberation and empowerment.”

A leader can enhance the power of his rhetoric by also assuming a saintly demeanour, asserting that his orders are rooted in positive human values, and stating that the intention are for the greater good of those receiving the message. Mr. Welch in his letters claims that GE can distinguish good from evil, and deal with sinners and other wicked influences.

Variation of outcomes in any consumer-touching process was called “evil” – indeed, he even italicized that word for emphasis – and he maintained that GE leaders always will have “unyielding integrity” while the organization would avoid temptations “to pay too much too fast.”

He expressed many thoughts on the structure of GE and its social architecture, including notably the importance of boundarylessness. Words like “built,” “plan” and “foundation” reappear, along with numerous references to the need to cut layers within the structure as he fought against bureaucracy and insulating behaviours.   -   2008 April 28    GLOBE & MAIL 


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