But, more relevantly, few books are written about the romance, the glory and the struggle of running modern big-box retail chains. In contrast, for my generation, GE was one of the first multinational companies you actually heard of. Of course, in India in the 1980s and 1990s, we had few real multinationals — only those old British companies that had somehow survived the socialist purges and Indianised themselves. But we knew what Chrysler was, and we knew what GE was. We knew because we had heard of Lee Iacocca, and we had heard of Jack Welch. Books with their faces on the cover were sold at intersections.
By the time the first such book about him, Control Your Destiny, was published in the early 1990s, Mr Welch had run GE for a decade. He had, apparently, hammered the giant conglomerate into shape and, ironically, supervised its shift away from appliances to finance and health services. But the true and lasting influence of GE was not to be anything it built in those sectors; it was to be a million books about the ‘GE Way’ that shaped the thinking of a generation of young people, in management and beyond.
Mr Welch’s methods were appealingly brutal, straightforwardly macho. Profitability didn’t matter as much as being the leader in your segment; the bottom 10 per cent of employees should be fired, regardless of performance; other centres of power should be reduced to slavish loyalty to the corner office; the top dog should be paid as much as possible. Since he had increased GE’s market value by an order of magnitude, these principles were obviously correct. We live in a corporate world designed along those lines; the comfortable, all-encompassing corporate values of the 1950s and 1960s were destroyed in the 1980s, and those hagiographies and self-serving memoirs were among the weapons that did so.
So what should we think of those books and what they taught us now? Would GE have done better by focusing narrowly on retaining what made money for its shareholders, not on market dominance? Mr Welch bought financial services and a television network, but then GE had to sell both. Does a focus on firing the “bottom 10 per cent” reward short-term thinking? Do huge CEO salaries cause the public to lose sympathy with companies they once thought of as their champions?
Perhaps, from today, we should start reading that entire genre of buccaneer CEO books as historical documents and not guides to how we must work with others. The economy has changed. Conglomerates can't infuriate citizens; they need to focus on survival and adaptation, not “being number one”. (A lesson there, perhaps, for the new macho role models of capitalism, the tech demi-gods.)
We should have been suspicious of all those books in the first place. After all, in the 1990s there was a third ubiquitous face on those bookstalls, besides Lee Iacocca’s and Jack Welch’s. And that face was Donald Trump’s.