Our philosophy at The Motley Fool is to educate, amuse, and enrich you, our readers.

So, today, as we choose the most Foolish CEOs from among thousands, I decided to use our creed as our guide. And I'm confident I've arrived at a top choice in Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric (NYSE:GE). Here's why.

Each year, Fortune magazine determines the world's most admired companies. GE has been named to the top spot six times since the list began, and twice under the leadership of Immelt, who became CEO five years ago this month.

Why is GE under Immelt so widely praised? Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, author of the acclaimed book The Innovator's Dilemma, has an idea. As he told Fortune in March, "GE is the best school of management in the world, bar none." That's high praise indeed from a scholar at a school others have to come to admire for training leaders.

But the praise doesn't end there. Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) CEO Kevin Rollins told Fortune in the same issue that, while legendary CEO Jack Welch has left an indelible mark on GE's culture, "Jeff's a great leader and businessman in his own right."

GE's financial performance under Immelt bears witness to Rollins' claim. Consider the past three years, during which time the last vestiges of Jack Welch's GE gave way to Immelt's style. Sales grew 5.8% annually while normalized net income expanded by a breathtaking 12% annually. Too dramatic, you say? Listen, pal, 12% bottom-line growth may not be much for the Quickie Mart on the corner, but it's positively explosive for a $155 billion company like GE.

And performance like that doesn't come easily. It requires cajoling. As Immelt told Fortune in March, "The ability to demand high performance without being heartless has been a part of GE for a long time."

Though Immelt doesn't expressly say so, I believe the tightrope that bridges high performance and a spirited culture is best walked with a sense of humor. Pictures of Immelt joking with managers in training, taken for the Fortune story, suggest the same.

What's more, only a manager with a humble sense of self would be willing to air his dirty laundry in a national magazine. But that's exactly what Immelt did in the July 10 issue of BusinessWeek. Specifically, he admitted to pushing a faulty plastic cover for countertops as head of the commercial operations of GE's plastics division.

It would prove to be a multimillion-dollar mistake. Immelt told BusinessWeek he's since learned to be more mindful of research and development. And he continues to practice the same tolerance for smart mistakes that former CEO Welch showed him when he needed it. As he told BusinessWeek, "If you've tried something and it fails, but you went about it the right way and learned from it, that's not a bad thing."

Seriously, how Foolish is that?

Finally, let's talk moola. Immelt is committed to enriching shareholders because he's one himself. A very large shareholder, in fact. He directly holds more than 881,000 shares of stock in GE. Roughly 113,000 of those have come in open-market purchases and options exercised this year, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Plus, General Electric under Immelt has a history of boosting dividends. Check out what per-share payouts have been since 2002:


Dividend per share









2006 (est.)


Source: Value Line

Notice how management has been accelerating its dividend increases. For example, from 2002 to 2003, the payout jumped only 5.5%. But from last year to this, The General is boosting its dividend by nearly 14%. Sweet.

The Foolish bottom line
I'll understand if GE seems too boring to make a list that includes Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFMI). We Fools are a spicy lot, and headline-grabbing up-and-comers often capture our attention. But if a true measurement of a Foolish CEO is an ability to educate and amuse while enriching shareholders, then Immelt at the helm of GE deserves the title.

Fool on, Jeff!

Dell is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Whole Foods is a Stock Advisor pick. Give any of our newsletters a try free for 30 days .

Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't owns shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Find out what is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile . The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is among the most admired .