The True Greatness of Lee Iacocca

Iacocca is remembered for key product decisions at Ford and Chrysler. But Bob Lutz remembers the exceptional executive for so much more.

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Now that the initial torrent of retrospectives and eulogies has subsided, I'm compelled to add my own observations in memory of the remarkable Lee Iacocca. For roughly 12 years I worked directly under him, first at Ford and then at Chrysler. The experience gave me a rare perspective on this legendary man.

Lido Iacocca was a highly unusual person. At 6'3" and more than 200 lbs, he was physically intimidating. His bent nose, reminiscent of a boxer's, added to the imposing presence. But he was a masterful charmer. Lee was a brilliant orator, able to convince small groups or large assemblies of the correctness of his views.

I was also impressed by his uncanny problem solving ability. Iacocca would sit in a meeting, surrounded by his most senior executives, and silently take in a lengthy argument over the current problem and how best to fix it. Suddenly, he would slap the table and say, "okay, I've heard enough. Here's the problem, and here's how we're gonna fix it." We would all listen, awestruck, as he deftly separated the essence of the issue from all the extraneous noise, and laid out a methodical plan, step by step, assigning people he would hold responsible for execution. In those moments, Iacocca displayed an intellectual brilliance I have never seen duplicated.

Like all truly great leaders, Iacocca possessed strong opinions and was convinced that he was smarter than everybody else combined. Frankly, he was usually right. The obituaries cite his greatest achievements as the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan. Those two vehicles were breakthroughs, of course, but to focus only on them completely misses the point. Iacocca's true greatness manifested itself in unconventional, high-risk, widely-opposed strategic decisions. Think of Chrysler's purchase of American Motors in 1987. Chrysler had just recovered from near-death; was this really the time to buy a tiny, unprofitable car company whose only real asset was the Jeep brand? He pushed the acquisition through. Today, Jeep is a two-million-unit brand that pays the majority of Fiat-Chrysler's bills.

Most of Iacocca's acquaintances became faithful acolytes, totally in the thrall of his larger-than-life persona. Many subordinates grew to think he was infallible, so intelligent that a clearly-wrong decision must somehow, magically, be correct, simply because he was its author.

I didn't fall into that category. Lee didn't like being contradicted or opposed, especially not in large meetings. I couldn't help myself. If he was on the wrong track, he needed to know. He hated me for it, but he loved me for my performance. Likewise, I disliked many of his traits, but couldn't help loving the man. He could be arbitrary; he could be stubborn. But he could also be kind and empathetic.

All these paradoxes are what make an exceptional leader. And Lee Iacocca was truly exceptional.

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