Icons and Idiots: A book review by Bob Morris

Icons:IdiotsIcons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership
Robert A. Lutz
Portfolio/Penguin Group

Buckle your seat belt and let Bob Lutz take you on a trip down his memory lane

Those who have read Bob Lutz‘s previous book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business, already know that he has very definite ideas about business success, in general, and about business success in the automobile industry, in particular. Throughout his career, he held executive positions in the Adam Open, BMW AG, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler organizations. His perspective seems Manichean to me, dividing the world into fundamental — often portrayed as simplistic — conflicts between good and evil, heroes and villains, lightness and darkness, “good guys” and “bad guys,” etc. He discusses car guys and bean counters in the previous book and now he focuses on icons and idiots. Given all the problems in the automobile industry in recent years, it seems highly desirable for car guys to understand sound economics and ensure that those who count beans are capable. In fact, that has not always been true.

Also, it should come as no surprise that, on occasion, icons make idiotic decisions. Lutz admits to a few. However, based on what he has to say about the eleven leaders he portrays, I think that none of them seems – to me, at least – to be an idiot and I would identify only Lee Iacocca and (perhaps) Lutz as an icon. The best of the material in the book consists of lessons Lutz has learned about effective leadership and he has much of value to share. For example, from the first five leaders he discusses:

From Georges-André Chevallaz, his teacher at the École de Supérieure de Commerce in Lausanne: An “intense dedication,” a “drive for excellence,” and determination to help chronic underachievers to attain a level beyond their own expectations”

From Staff Sergeant Donald Giusto, his DI in Marine boot camp: How to deal with “truly disgusting situations where others walk away”

From Robert (“Bob”) Wachler, director of forward planning for GM overseas operations: How to become “a mighty bulldozer of progress” while using subordinates for creative and intellectual firepower

From Ralph Mason, chairman of the management board, Adam Opel AG: It’s fine to trust your management team but, unlike Mason, never be “too kind or too lazy to probe, follow up, object, or play devil’s advocate to ensure [you] are not being sold a bill of goods.”

From Eberhard von Kuenheim, chairman and CEO, BMW AG: Although he “ruled by secrecy, fear, deft maneuvering, and a sorry lack of trust in his team, the aristocrat-cum-street-fighter” led his company to great success and created great wealth for its shareholders.

The remaining six are Philip Caldwell, Ford; Harold A, (Red) Poling, Ford; Iacocca, Chrysler; Robert J. (Bob) Eaton, Chrysler; Arthur M. Hawkins, Exide Technologies; and G. Richard (Rick) Waggoner, General Motors.

In the Preface, Lutz claims “these tales do not constitute a ‘hatchet job’ or an attempt at ‘getting even.’” Some readers will question that claim but most (if not all) will agree that he pulls no punches when expressing his opinions in this book, just as he did throughout his unique career. Like most successful leaders, he was definitely not an “average Joe.” Readers will appreciate the provision in the Appendix of evaluations of all eleven leaders who are profiled. Lutz rates them (with grade and weight) according to nine criteria that range from Integrity to Creativity.

When concluding the book, Lutz observes: “At the end of the day, delivering results should always be a leader’s goal. In academia, it’s the quality of the students and reputation of the institution. In the military, it’s battlefield victory with no more losses than necessary. And in business, it’s shareholder value, brought about by profitability, market share growth, corporate reputation, and long-term outlook. In our still largely private enterprise system, shareholder value is the driver. We need more leaders who deliver it.”

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