Book Review: Lights Out

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Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric is the story of the “sudden” fall of the General Electric Company. GE was an original member of the Dow Jones industrial average. For more than a century, an awful lot of people were sure the General Electric produced great products, great people, and great profits.

That all came tumbling down in the first two decades of the 21st century. Lights Out tells the story. It’s an important story. It’s a story about how a very successful century-old business unraveled.

There are three intertwined issues. Individual performance is one. Was the whole thing CEO Jeff Immelt’s fault? Or is his predecessor, Jack Welch, to blame?

GE culture was part of the problem. The question was how much of the culture could be traced to Jack Welch and his “just win baby” style. Does the culture problem go back ever farther? Or, perhaps, the unraveling was the result of the hubris that often goes with great success.

Lots of things changed suddenly in the period after the turn of the century. Accounting rules changed. Corporate oversight changed. Lights Out covers this very well but often wanders off into the deep weeds.

This is a decent book that could have been a lot better. One problem is the author’s habit of taking cheap shots that don’t move the book forward. An example is mentioning that Larry Culp “wears suits that sometimes seen a size too large.”

I came away with the distinct impression that the authors don’t like either athletes or salespeople. They describe Jack Welch’s “locker room bravado.” Jeff Immelt is both an athlete and a salesperson. He gets a double dose of criticism. One example: “Immelt was enthusiastic and theatrical. Colleagues marveled at his backslapping charm, all football metaphors and eager smiles.”

There are other issues with a book. GE Capital gets most of the coverage, with a GE Power coming in second. There’s hardly a look into any other part of GE. That may be a judgment call about how to tell the story. For my money, though, it makes it hard to sort out what was culture, what was individual performance, and what was a changing and challenging situation.

There are organization problems too. The book seems to jump around at times. Some anecdotes don’t seem to move the book forward. Some minor details get excessive coverage. Some important events are handled very quickly.

There is no summing up. I wish the authors, who put years into this book, could have found time and space for one more chapter. I wish there was some interpretation, instead of selective storytelling.

In a Nutshell

If you want an overview of the “sudden” decline of General Electric, Jeff Immelt’s tenure, GE’s culture, and changing accounting rules and oversight in the early 21st century, read this book. Don’t expect compelling writing. Be prepared for some snarky and confusing moments.


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