Blow Up a Building and Still Become the CEO

A key rite of passage for the hard-nosed “Neutron Jack” came in 1963, just a few years into his career with GE. Leading a team that was experimenting with a volatile chemical solution, Welch caused an explosion that blew the roof off a building. Luckily there were no serious injuries. ‘My confidence was shaken almost as much as the building I had destroyed,’ Welch wrote in his autobiography. But rather than scold or punish him, Welch’s manager taught him an important lesson by helping him focus on what he could learn from the event. ‘When people make mistakes, the last thing they need is discipline,’ he said. ‘The job at this point is to restore self-confidence.’ When he became CEO 10 years later, Welch encouraged his subordinates to build upon their failures rather than wallow in doubt.

 One of the biggest keys to resiliency is learning from the things that don’t go the way you planned. In his research on resiliency, Dr. Salvatore Maddi found that one of the things that separates victims from survivors is the survivor’s determination to look at the event as a challenge to learn something. Victims, on the other hand, find that adverse events chisel away at their self-esteem. If you look at this as a time line graph what you see is victims heading downward over time because as they experience tough times they beat themselves up. Survivors (thrivers) do the opposite. They learn and grow from the ugly times. They “chalk it up” to another lesson in the school of life. They keep their eyes on the goal and press on. They are that much better because they survived and learned something that they didn’t know before.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson here is not so much Jack Welch’s ability to bounce back but, rather, the impact of his manager. It is worth remembering next time you have a colleague or friend that experiences an adverse event.

Have you had someone in your life that supported and inspired you to learn from the difficult times? If so, please feel free to share your story here.