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The Role of Chutzpah in Leadership: Re-Electrify GE with Elon Musk?

You don’t hear much about that one, chutzpah, right? Yet its probably one of the most under-rated of the leadership qualities.

The polite definition of a person with chutzpah is someone who likes to disrupt the status quo. The impolite one is it’s someone who likes to stick it in the eye to an organization much larger and more powerful than you, the bigger and more powerful the better. Like Putin with the US maybe. Leaders with chutzpah aren’t always the best thing at all times, but sometimes they are critical to progress. Like Winston Churchill was for example.

When an organization gets old and dowdy, you often need a leader with chutzpah. Otherwise the leader won’t shake up things; he or she will be too cowed by the status quo. Then that organization will fall into a dispiriting descent into boredom and eventually failure.

I wonder whether General Electric is like that. Inmelt is no doubt a competent and smart guy but I am sure even his closest friends wouldn’t say he has chutzpah. His predecessor Jack Welch certainly did. That’s probably whey they put Inmelt in the job; his role was to be the anti-chutzpah to create the new-found luxury of working in a predictable chutzpah-free, and less personally risky environment.

Now we can see the result. GE isn’t so much a failure as just unexciting, mostly lagging behind its peers. In truth it should be broken up but it’s too big for the hedgies to put a deal together. So the next best step is to put another leader in there with chutzpah, when the time comes of course.

Who could that be? My nomination is Elon Musk. He likes sticking it to the Man, the bigger the man the better. His first startup, Paypal, stuck it in the eyes of the big US banks and financial institutions, which still haven’t caught up. His second stick-eye was SpaceX where he stuck it to NASA and the big defense contractors.

And lastly he’s done it with Tesla, sticking it to the big US automakers, who trail the foreign auto makers in the EV area and who are now belatedly trying to fight back. Actually I think Tesla will fail but that’s not the point. It has galvanized the US auto industry in ways that even another bailout couldn’t.

The irony is, that quite coincidentally, Musk is actually an innovator in precisely the areas that GE needs to be innovative in; in finance (to do something – anything – with GE Capital to get it out of its rut); in aerospace, to add marketing pizzazz to the impressive technological prowess in Pratt and Whitney; and in manufacturing, so that it makes doo-dahs other than boring kitchen appliances where some Tesla-style eye candy is sorely needed.

If you don’t put in Musk, what are you likely to get? Another corporate professional, smart and capable no doubt, but not the sort you want to add to the American pantheon of unforgettable corporate pioneers.

You got to have some leaders with chutzpah. An MBA from Harvard just doesn’t cut it. Chutzpah is more than education, IQ, emotional intelligence and market savvy. It’s someone like Richard Branson or Larry Ellison, adventurers as well as business people, who are prepared to throw it all away if they need to. Sure, leaders with chutzpah may have some downsides. Who doesn’t? But these are the people who keep the world turning.

The conventional wisdom is that these types of leaders just don’t fit with corporate dinosaurs. That might well be right. But just maybe it’s worth a shot. The upside is huge if it works.

The person I want to see running a company like GE or a Microsoft is a Thomas Edison, not an Alfred P.Sloan. Someone with chutzpah who turns things on their head, takes on the vested corporate interests and grants America a new lease of life on global competitiveness.

Maybe I am being idealistic, unrealistic and foolish but that’s what brought me to the US and still keeps me here.



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