You don’t get to be a titan of industry or finance, or a superstar central banker, without a giant dose of self-confidence. Jack Welch is example number one. One reason that the ex-boss of General Electric Co. (GE) was able to push the industrial-financial conglomerate to new heights was his certainty that he was always on the right track.
Welch’s certainty hasn’t served him as well in retirement. His reputation has been scarred by publicity, largely self-generated, over his marital life and by the hyper-generous pension package he negotiated for himself. On Wednesday, he added an indiscreet televised criticism of Jeff Immelt, his successor at the top of GE.
The complaint that Immelt disappointed investors is fair, but Welch is the wrong man to make it, not least because he emphasized the expectation of steady earnings growth, which Immelt — in tougher times — is having trouble fulfilling. There wasn’t any crying need for the 72-year-old Welch to say anything, but he must have been sure he was right.
Welch is hardly alone in showing the downside of supreme self-confidence. Sandy Weill, who left Citigroup’s chairmanship in semi-disgrace amid its tussles with regulators, has spent much of his retirement settling long-standing scores and occasionally making clear that his successors have let him down.
Then there is Alan Greenspan. A steady stream of pronouncements on the current economic situation may have helped the ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve sell copies of his self-promoting autobiography, but his increasingly defensive tone makes him look less like a sage and more like a fading star who won’t give up the limelight.
There’s a simple moral to all these tales. Confident executives should learn discretion with age. If they have something wise to say, then by all means say it. And if they believe action is necessary, roll up their sleeves. Otherwise, they should keep their mouths shut.