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PHOTO: Ümit Yıldırım

Author’s Note: As we face unprecedented times in our businesses and in our lives, I hope this look at past innovators, whose leadership has made a difference, will help to inspire.

We lost three leaders over the past three months whose legacies will live on for decades. Each was instrumental in how we view the world in their respective areas of expertise: technology, business and media. And each has a common element to their accomplishments: they gave us the means to imagine and deliver the art of the possible.

Clayton Christensen Helped Us Deal With Change

I first heard Clayton Christensen deliver a keynote at a tech analyst conference in Boston many years ago. His work with the concept of disruptive technology immediately captured my attention.  

Indeed, he captured all our minds.

Christensen is viewed as one of the most influential theorists of the last half-century, according to Forbes Magazine, twice ranked at the top of the magazine's Thinkers 50 list. As an iconic professor with the Harvard Business School, much of his work “centered on identifying factors that determine how businesses innovate in existing and prospective markets.”

Christensen pioneered the theory about how the innovation of products can disrupt and change entire industries. He coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe this process in his award-winning book, "The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.” Christensen’s work helped us understand the connection between new technologies and our businesses, but also fundamentally helped us appreciate the need for effective change. My worldview on the importance of understanding customers in the context of their industry was formed by Christensen and over the years influenced the trajectory of my career.

Reflecting upon his passing after a year-long battle with leukemia, fellow HBS Professor Rebecca M. Henderson said it well,

“So much management theorizing comes and goes. They’re fads, but disruptive innovation for a very long time pointed to something very important. It's a term of art.”

Related Article: The Digital World Demands a New Model for Leadership

Jack Welch Taught Us About Winning

Jack Welch changed the face of business with his unprecedented leadership of what was at the time the largest company in the world. Full disclosure, I grew up in GE. It formed and informed my professional career. The company that I joined straight from university was very different from the one I left years later to follow my career path, but leadership lessons traveled with me.

GE reinvented itself and soared under Jack’s watch. He caught the financial services wave, though arguably missed the full import of the internet’s rise and ecommerce. But without Jack, many say GE would have gone the way of Westinghouse years ago. And though GE has since fallen on challenging times, his legacy remains.

While I was at GE, I experienced firsthand the strategies and programs that were conceived and implemented under Welch’s winning mindset. From the Six Sigma program and its focus on quality as a key driver of business performance, to the less publicized but highly innovative Backbone program, working with Ram Charan to “cut through the complexity of running a business in fast changing environments to uncover [and address] the core business problem.”

Welch also taught us about the importance of people in the winning equation.

Ironically Welch was known as “Neutron Jack” for the often extreme and controversial, and always difficult, decisions he made to cut businesses and employees. Businesses needed to be #1 or #2 in their respective markets to remain in the portfolio. And, GE “managed by headcount.” Welch removed multiple management layers and cut workforces dramatically. 

Yet it is the outstanding people who surrounded Jack that also teach us some key lessons about his winning mindset and execution priorities. Two leaders that come to mind for me are Walter Robb and Larry Bossidy, both of whom I was fortunate to encounter while at GE.

With a long, stellar career at GE and other top companies, Larry Bossidy is retired now (but thankfully still among us.) Known for his mental toughness, and as a straight-shooting, results-oriented business leader, Bossidy’s leadership of GE Credit Corporation under Welch saw results soar. He was also instrumental in many of the employee development-related programs at GE. As Noel M. Tichy and Ram Charan wrote in Harvard Business Review, Bossidy is a charismatic leader who is determined to “coach people to win.”

Walt Robb was a pioneering engineer who rose to become the director of GE’s R&D Center. He sadly also left us this year at 92, a victim of COVID-19, and is remembered not only for his business leadership but also his generous philanthropy and contributions to the community. Vic Abate, GE's chief technology officer, called Robb "a true builder in every sense of the word — with GE, with the Research Lab and in the [New York] Capital Region’s business community."

Related Article: If Managers Don't Become Coaches, Careers Will Suffer

James Lipton Raised Our Creative Spirits

James Lipton, author, actor, innovator, and founder of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University is perhaps best known for creating and hosting his "Inside the Actors Studio" TV show.

At its inception, the show was fresh, different and interesting, and has since proven to be a “cultural touchstone for creatives studying the craft of acting for years to come,” as Gwen Aviles so aptly describes.

With "Inside the Actors Studio," Lipton captivated us with his ability to interview acting icons and tease genuine conversations and often times startling revelations, from the likes of Jack Lemon and Meryl Streep to Robin Williams and Bradley Cooper (who first appeared on the show in the audience as a student before years later returning in the interviewee seat).

To me though, Lipton will forever be remembered for his contribution to understanding how our conversations and writings can innovate through our words. He is the author of the literary perennial "An Exaltation of Larks" that deals with the origins and beauty of many of our literary phrases while it mourns how our language is now dwindling.

Upon Lipton’s passing earlier this year, his wife, Kedakai Mercedes Lipton, shared a fitting remembrance:

"His work was his passion, loved what he did and all the people he worked with. He empowered people to do their best, and hopefully his spirit, curiosity and passion will live on."

Related Article: Organizations Need to Cultivate Poets, Not Mushrooms

Lasting Legacies

Christensen inspired us to think differently about technology. Welch made us come to terms with the discipline of winning. And Lipton raised our creative spirits with a love of words and the spoken and written language.  Each provided lessons well worth learning and all can hopefully lift us in these challenging times.