A Blast From Iacocca


By Lee Iacocca

Scribner; 274pp; $25

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good A rant -- along with an analysis of what it takes to be a leader.

The Bad The criticism of the Administration is neither new nor very compelling.

The Bottom Line The man who pulled Chrysler back from the brink does know about leadership.

It was probably asking too much: Could ex-Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, now 82, who hasn't been the high-profile head of a big company for more than 14 years, put together a book that would provide valuable leadership advice to America's politicians and CEOs?

That's the mission taken on by Lido, as he has been called since childhood, in Where Have All the Leaders Gone? Anyone expecting a volume strictly focused on corporate leadership, with tips on managing a complex corporation, will be disappointed. Instead, Iacocca devotes far too many pages to an attack on everything from President George W. Bush and the nation's schools to the health-care system, obesity, and America's pill-popping culture. The book often comes off as a rant by someone who remembers an America that was so much better during his salad days. Still, it does contain sound advice on the qualities of good leaders and provides real examples, past and present, of effective leadership. Unfortunately, those passages appear infrequently.

The author starts with a no-holds-barred assault on the Bush White House and Washington in general that goes on for about 100 pages. The criticism is sharp, but a lot of this ground is well-trod. Iacocca joins a growing chorus of business conservatives who are distancing themselves from the current Administration. If one is looking for criticism of the Right by the Right, recent books by such intellectuals as Kevin Phillips offer much more heft.

All the same, Iacocca's lambasting of Bush does tell leaders what not to do. Applying his "Nine Cs of Leadership" test, Iacocca finds the President to be flawed in nearly all respects. Bush, Iacocca says, lacks the Curiosity to seek opinions outside his inner circle. He isn't Creative enough to admit when something isn't working and try a different course. His Communication consists of selling his failures as "not really as bad as they seem." Character is the fourth C, and Bush showed a lack of it by sending troops into Iraq for questionable reasons.

What should a good leader do? In many cases, Iacocca says, it's what he himself did. His advice to the current heads of Detroit's automakers is mostly based on his steps to straighten out Chrysler, starting in 1979. To get employees of America's beleaguered car companies behind a turnaround, Iacocca says, there must be "equity of sacrifice." Recalling his days at Chrysler, he writes: "I cut my salary to one dollar a year. That is an example of leadership born in a crisis." But he's hardly alone in making such a suggestion. More than a year ago his former chief financial officer, Jerome B. York, who was about to begin a short stint on the board of General Motors Corp. (GM ), declared that the company should cut stockholder dividends and executive salaries.

The best parts of the book are when Lido isn't fulminating on Bush's failures or recalling his own triumphs. Iacocca shines with stories of the managers who inspired him. Early on, as a regional sales manager for Ford, his first mentor, sales executive Charlie Beacham, sent Iacocca, with his master's degree in engineering, to sell used trucks in small-town Pennsylvania. Iacocca says he hated the job, but it taught him the value of sending up-and-coming talent into the trenches to learn the business. That's another one of Iacocca's nine Cs—Common sense.

In another example, Iacocca talks about how he learned managerial discipline from Ford (F ) President Robert McNamara. Iacocca's strong suit was always Charisma and salesmanship. McNamara told him that wasn't enough: Iacocca needed to be able to show why his ideas would work concretely, via written analysis. Iacocca says McNamara taught him a lot, notably that all good executives must be mentors.

Today's leaders, including those in Detroit, must adopt another C—Courage—and make some hard decisions, he says. Iacocca offers sage advice for any company in trouble: Simplify. Detroit needs to sell or dump some brands and regain focus. U.S. carmakers should also stop relying on sport-utility vehicles and build small cars. The oil shock of the '70s should have been a wake-up call, he writes.

Of course, such observations are hindsight. While Iacocca now advocates tougher fuel-economy standards and smaller cars, he is also the man who bought American Motors to get its Jeep Div. and profited hugely from America's love affair with SUVs. And he added the Eagle car brand, which Chrysler ditched post-Lido in order to simplify. Therein lies a problem: Iacocca brings a fair bit of wisdom to the discussion of leadership, but sometimes he asks today's leaders to do as he says, not as he did.

By David Welch

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