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BOSTON (Reuters) - The United States stands at the end of a generation when greed drove leaders and "rewards became perverted," General Electric Co Chief Executive Jeff Immelt said in a speech at West Point on Wednesday.
"We are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership, and maybe leadership in general. Tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits," the head of the largest U.S. conglomerate said in prepared remarks to be delivered at the U.S. Military Academy.
"Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability," Immelt said. "In too many situations, leaders divided us instead of bringing us together."
The financial crisis of the past 18 months, which hammered the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company's results and last March briefly pushed its shares to 18-year lows, has changed Immelt's approach to running the world's biggest maker of jet engines and electricity-producing turbines, he said.
"I decided that I needed to be a better listener coming out of the crisis," Immelt said. "I felt like I should have done more to anticipate the radical changes that occurred."
Each Saturday, Immelt now invites one of the company's top 25 executives to chat about the future of the company, an exercise intended to give him a greater insight into what is going on across its many divisions.
In a speech that focused on leadership styles, he said that executives need to be ready to move quickly in times of crisis and need to trust that their subordinates will be able to carry out their orders quickly.
"In the peak of the financial crisis, it seemed like the world was going to end every weekend," Immelt said. "I am sure that my board and investors frequently wondered what in the heck I was doing. I had to act without perfect knowledge; I had to act faster than my ability to communicate or explain my actions. I could do this because we had built trust. And we kept GE safe because we moved fast."
Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Matthew Lewis