When Jack Welch died on March 1, 2020, tributes poured in for the longtime chief executive of General Electric, whom many revered as the greatest chief executive of all time.
David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery and a Welch disciple, remembered him as an almost godlike figure. “Jack set the path. He saw the whole world. He was above the whole world,” Mr. Zaslav said. “What he created at G.E. became the way companies now operate.”
Mr. Zaslav’s words were meant as unequivocal praise. During Mr. Welch’s two decades in power — from 1981 to 2001 — he turned G.E. into the most valuable company in the world, groomed a flock of protégés who went on to run major companies of their own, and set the standard by which other C.E.O.s were measured.
Yet a closer examination of the Welch legacy reveals that he was not simply the “Manager of the Century,” as Fortune magazine crowned him upon his retirement.
Rather, he exerted a powerful and lasting influence on American business, informing how workers are treated, how shareholders are rewarded and how C.E.O.s comport themselves in an increasingly divisive age. When Donald J. Trump is elected president, when Jeff Bezos argues about inflation with the White House, when Elon Musk negotiates his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter by using the poop emoji — this is the world that Jack Welch helped create.
For the past several years, I have written the Corner Office column for The Times, speaking with hundreds of executives about their careers and approaches to leadership. And time after time, Mr. Welch’s name kept coming up. Some wanted to model themselves after him, while others sought to define themselves in opposition to all he stood for. Either way, it was clear that Mr. Welch still looms over the corporate world, living rent-free in the minds of C.E.O.s around the globe.
And in more than 100 conversations for “The Man Who Broke Capitalism,” my new book, from which this article is adapted, a broad range of people said some version of the same thing: While it has been more than two decades since Mr. Welch was C.E.O. of G.E., his legacy still affects millions of American households.
Almost immediately after Mr. Welch retired in September 2001 with a $417 million severance package, G.E. went into a tailspin from which it would never recover.