How would Harry Potter run a major American company? Would he have any good suggestions about how you should run your life? After all, the most loved wizard of all time famously stood up to the most dangerous challenges of his day and prevailed magnificently. He must know something the rest of us could benefit from hearing. His exploits have been the inspiration of an entire generation, who sometimes even choose the colleges they will attend based on whose dining halls look most like Hogwarts.
Today, the New York Times featured on the front page of their Business Day section, an article about General Electric, entitled "G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff." Under a big picture of Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, a lead caption said:
"Jeffrey Immelt, C.E.O. since 2000, has pared down General Electric to rely less on financial wizardry in its lending unit and more on physical products from the manufacturing divisions."
Jeff knows that not all wizardry should be leading the way forward. In fact, it was his sensibility, along with J.K. Rowling's prodigious insights, that persuaded me to name my most recent business book, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Lessons from the World of the Wizards. Not many people know that Rowling, the best selling and wealthiest author of all time -- as long as you don't include God -- was a classics major in college, and based much in her beloved stories on what she understood to be the chief virtues and vices of human life, from lessons she learned well in the philosophical works of the ancients.
In Rowling's stories, the young Harry's defining properties seem to be his natural intellect, his passion, courage, loyalty, a feel for the real, and an uncanny adaptability. His friends sense something different about him. He's not only an extraordinary young man. They know they can count on him. And they follow his lead even if it seems to mean risking everything to do so.
General Electric, founded by the wizard Thomas Edison, has prospered over the years in many different ways, but has been challenged, of late, as most other companies, individuals, and families have, by our severe economic downturn. In their case, a financial division, GE Capital, had risen to an elite status within the company because some very smart people there were doing some deals that seemed magically productive. I know first hand, because I've spent time as a philosopher with some of the top producers of that division, in a retreat setting, and I came away quite impressed with their talent, intellect, and general business abilities. But GE historically has been mostly about making good things that people need. Former C.E.O. Jack Welch grew the company for years through acquisitions and other means. But when Jeff Immelt took over, he felt a pull right away back to the core business that has always driven the company -- making useful and helpful things. Early on, he began talking about eco-friendly business and practical nanotechnology, some of the most magical stuff on the planet.
As I've watched Mr. Immelt over the years, I've been impressed that he has so many of Harry Potter's defining qualities. He's very smart, extraordinarily talented, deeply passionate, courageous, loyal, and adaptable. He's been able to change course to bring GE back to the core of their business, while still admiring and appreciating the financial acumen that is necessarily still an important part of the overall enterprise.
In Rowling's great stories, Harry Potter seems to take five steps very naturally to summon the courage he needs in whatever challenges he faces. These five steps also allow him to make the changes that need to be made and lead others to do likewise. I see this in Jeff Immelt, and in other great C.E.O.s. I also see it in successful individuals generally. I'd like to present these five steps very briefly here, for your possible edification and reflection.
Harry Potter's 5 Steps To Courage and Change
(1) Prepare for the challenge.
(2) Surround yourself with support.
(3) Engage in positive self-talk.
(4) Focus on what's at stake.
(5) Take appropriate action.
This is great advice for any of us. When facing a new challenge, first prepare. Then gather a team. Remind yourself of your abilities and preparation, building your own confidence for the challenge. Well grounded confidence is contagious. Focus on what's most important, keeping in view all the values that are at stake in the situation you face. Then act. Don't wait forever, or prepare forever. Act courageously, even if you're not feeling particularly courageous. This is a key to business success and is equally of great value to life success. The most extraordinary people do it naturally. All of us can do it deliberately.
Then, our enterprises flourish, whether that enterprise is writing novels about a young wizard, or steering a global company. If Harry Potter ran General Electric, I think he'd be a lot like Jeff Immelt. And the results would be magical.