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A Return to the Power of Ideas

Charismatic and controversial former CEOs like General Electric Co.’s Jack Welch and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski are giving way to a new breed of leader dedicated to reviving the forward-thinking legacies of Old Economy titans, such as GE’s ingenious Thomas Edison and IBM’s visionary Tom Watson Jr. After years of focusing on the art of the deal, says the author, this renewed emphasis on innovation encourages corporate giants to again ground their organizations in what they do best.

Many of today’s emergent corporate leaders, like MCI’s Michael Cappellas, IBM’s Sam Palmisano and GE’s Jeff Immelt, emulate the legendary standard bearers of invention by emphasizing technological engineering over financial engineering, product over marketing and real science over junk science. Critical to their leadership is an unrelenting drive for self-improvement, a strong interest in learning, an appreciation of a motivated work community and longer time frames than those dictated by a preoccupation with the daily stock price.

For example, MCI is emerging from the years of WorldCom scandal by consciously drawing upon its legacy of telecommunications innovation. IBM actively seeks to again become the epitome of prestige, employee loyalty and innovation. GE creates a hothouse of R&;D while sharpening its innovative capability in the media and medical sectors through advantageous acquisitions. In addition, executives at 3M, DuPont and Pfizer, who increasingly emphasize research and innovation over promotion and hype, have helped their companies reassert their leadership roles in their respective fields.

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