John S. McClenahen retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains an interested observer of global manufacturing.

When Mr. Jones Went to Washington

Aug. 20, 2013
A reminiscence of corporate statesmanship of the past, and the corporate statesman, Reginald H. Jones, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. from 1972 until 1981. And a challenge to identify the statesman and stateswoman of today.

He was admired for his “intelligence, integrity, and interest in those around him.”

In the politically, socially, and economically turbulent 1970s, he worked “to find common ground,” meeting directly with members of Congress and advising three U.S. presidents.

In 1980, in a Wall Street Journal/Gallup survey, he was named the most respected U.S. business executive.

He was Reginald H. Jones, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. from 1972 until 1981, a person whom current GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt has described as “a great statesman for the entire business community.”

Now, nearly 40 years later, who are the business statesmen and stateswomen? The leaders in manufacturing and other business sectors who are widely respected and admired both inside and outside business? Leaders who genuinely encourage wide-ranging discussion, particularly when it has the potential to challenge established interests.

No names leap to mind.

Have the times and the nature of business both in the U.S. and abroad so changed that business statesmen and stateswomen are not needed or welcomed? Have technological advances, a 24-hour news cycle, and social media made them irrelevant? Or might business statesmen and stateswomen be needed now more than ever before?

In addition to these business-related questions, there are broader questions that deserve to be asked: What has happened to respect? What has happened to discussion? What is the greater interest—and is it really so different from self-interest?

In their times, GE’s Reg Jones and DuPont & Co. Chairman and CEO Irving Shapiro were admired and respected for their thoughts, for their actions, and for the ways they conducted themselves. Those remain good criteria for judging the statesmanship of today’s managers in manufacturing—and not only the statesmanship of chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief financial officers, chief information officers, and chief research officers.

“What will be expected of managers in the future?” GE’s Reg Jones once asked rhetorically. “Intellectual breadth, strategic capability, social sensitivity, political sophistication, world-mindedness, and, above all, a capacity to keep their poise amid the crosscurrents of change,” he said.

That is a definition of statesmanship that stands the tests of time and circumstance.

This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, who retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains an interested observer of global manufacturing.

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