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Feet of Clay

What can you learn from "Icons and Idiots?" That people at the top are sometimes there more by circumstance than commitment.

While it is tempting to say “Bob Lutz is back,” that is not at all the case because Bob Lutz, a.k.a., “Maximum Bob,” the “quintessential Car Guy,” who retired as vice chairman of General Motors in May 2010, has never gone away. Lutz, who began his automotive career in 1963, is seemingly ever-engaged in the industry in a way that many people, years younger than the energetic octogenarian, either marvel at or are puzzled by.

Many people I know who have worked with Bob—and the first name familiarity is predicated on the fact that that’s pretty much how people refer to him; he has achieved what can only be described as “Elvis-status”—say nothing but good things about the man, especially those who worked at GM Design, because he not only had their backs, but their fronts, tops, and bottoms, too. While some people might question some of his design decisions (look at it this way: He rejoined GM in 2001; the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009; while this is not to make a Snake River Canyon-like jump from Lutz’s employment to the corporation’s bankruptcy, it is to speculate that if the products developed under his watch had performed better in the market, perhaps the corporation would have had less of an ignominious landing), there is no question that the man was (and is) acutely sensitive to the importance of design.

Bob has written another book, a book that could be of interest to people other than those who are interested in Bob Lutz, but probably won’t be. In keeping with the theme first exhibited in his Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business (Portfolio/Penguin; 2011), Lutz has a controversial title: Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership (Portfolio/Penguin; 2013). He wrote in the dedication of Car Guys: “This book is dedicated to the hardworking men and women, at all levels, hourly and salaried, in the domestic U.S. automobile industry. The problems, mostly, were not your fault!” No, they were the fault of the people, salaried, exclusively (though there were all manner of benefits thrown in for good measure, as well), at the top levels of the companies—although one might point out that somehow the top people at Ford kept that corporation out of a certain building in Manhattan (nysb.uscourts.gov).

In Icons and Idiots, Lutz walks us through his experiences with many of the men he has worked under or for. With the exceptions of his high school teacher in Switzerland and his drill instructor in South Carolina, the people he describes tend not to be particularly iconic (and as for those two, they both exhibit a focus and commitment to achieving their goals, which is the betterment or improvement of those in their charge, not building or selling cars and trucks). But this doesn’t mean that the others are idiotic, because that’s not the case at all. That “idiots” in the title is merely hyperbole. These men (and Lutz acknowledges, “I have never worked for a female leader, I’m sorry to report”) tend to be merely as flawed as we all are, whether that means lifting the soap from hotel rooms or having a bit too much time spent in bar rooms.

The names are certainly marquee vis-à-vis the car industry: Eberhard von Kuen-
heim, chairman and CEO of BMW; Lee Iacocca, chairman and CEO of Chrysler; Rick Wagoner, chairman and CEO of GM, are among some of the most notable.

But maybe it has something to do with mellowing with age or a sense that he, too, will be numbered among the judged by his peers or successors, but Lutz evinces a tolerance for those who might otherwise seem boorish or buffoonish, indelicate or incapable. Perhaps it is the Biblical injunction from Matthew: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” And while in this religious terrain of sorts, it should be noted that one of the things that doesn’t come through in the portrayals of these automotive executives is the zeal and commitment that Autoextremist Peter DeLorenzo describes as being a “True Believer.” Lutz trots out Steve Jobs, writing, “Like the late Steve Jobs, arguably the most successful business leader of our time, who was often described as harshly uncompromising, mercurial, unfair, impatient, stubborn if not downright unpleasant to deal with, most successful leaders are mentally and emotionally askew.” What Lutz misses as regards Jobs was his passion and commitment, his drive to “put a dent in the universe.” 

So what can you learn from Icons and Idiots? That people at the top are sometimes there more by circumstance than commitment.

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