FEATURED | Business

The Bravest Story Ever Told: Giving Up Control

There are reasons why the brilliance of startups often fail to hold off the ravages of time. I am not only a witness to what goes haywire, but a victim as well. That gives my opinions a flavor I’d just as soon not admit, but honesty is a better policy than most.

The budding entrepreneur is usually a jack-of-all-trades

There’s a story here I hope to keep brief. Dick and I were contemporaries, both sons of small-time landscape contractors, who took over our fathers’ companies, each of us talented in our own ways.

I built mine into a better than average success, living very well, making all the decisions, and ultimately losing it in a severe economic downturn. Dick followed a similar pattern, but made a monumental decision at a young age that changed his career: he hired a CEO to run the company, stepping back to concentrate on what he did best. At retirement, he sold his company for $1.2 billion.

I have another story to tell, at a wildly different scale

Jack Welch (yes, that Jack Welch) spent an entire career at General Electric, ultimately becoming its CEO. Without stretching the truth, one could easily compare him to an owner-entrepreneur, because when he finally headed it, Jack ran it like his own company, rising through the ranks from the lowly status of a junior chemical engineer. He listened to no one but himself and one of his first moves was to require all of his managers to fire 10% of their staff annually. You might imagine what influence that had on morale. Then, because managing money was a hot business at the time, he moved GE from its strength as a research and production powerhouse into financial markets.

Over his twenty years at the helm, Welch closed factories, laid-off workers, and presented a vision of growing fast in a slow-growth economy. Those decisions made vast profits in the short term and damn near broke the company in the long. GE ultimately got a whopping $139 billion bailout from the federal government to survive and Jack later admitted that ‘firing the bottom 10% was the dumbest decision he ever made.’

The lesson learned is that the talent for beginnings are rarely those that sustain over the long term

It’s hard to give up control once one has had it in his grasp. We may be seeing that in these times, with the more destructive tendencies of Elon Musk on display, a man of obvious genius who seems unable to manage what his brilliance wrought.

Is it a character issue?

Probably not, but the words of Abraham Lincoln come to mind: “If you want to judge a man’s character, give him power.”