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 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)

Business Literature: Best Business Books 2013

Best Business Books 2013: Leadership

Ford was the greatest friend African-Americans had in big business (in 1926, 10,000 blacks were employed in his plants, often supervising whites), and at the same time a virulent anti-Semite. He hired and promoted women, immigrants, and disabled people decades before other large companies did so; most famously, he introduced the $5 per day wage when the average industrial worker earned half that amount. Meanwhile, his infamous Sociology Department snooped into his workers’ private lives, dismissing those who drank, gambled, or cheated on their spouses, and he was notorious for firing workers as they gained seniority, replacing them with younger, lower-paid employees.

Ford ran for the U.S. Senate as a progressive Democrat (and nearly won), then turned into an arch-reactionary. He presented himself to the world as a model of domesticity, yet he had a decades-long relationship with a mistress who bore his love child. He said he was interested in cars, not money, yet he conspired to avoid some $321 million in inheritance taxes. In short, he was far from Raskob’s opposite.

In this brief, lively introduction to Ford’s life, Curcio makes the case that Henry Ford changed the face of the U.S., giving the nation mobility, materialism, and modernism. Undeniably, Ford introduced a product in which people could be conceived, be born, live, and die, as many since have done. Although the auto industry may seem old hat to today’s young managers, the leadership lessons one can take from this book are timeless. Indeed, the more one learns about Ford, the more one sees parallels to the career of Steve Jobs, an equally complex leader who also changed the way Americans lived.

Curcio contrasts the brilliant, irascible, chaos-creating Henry to his thoughtful, kind, and emotionally steady son, Edsel. Whereas his father was the classic innovator and entrepreneur, Edsel Bryant Ford was a highly capable manager responsible for many of the best business decisions made by the Ford Company, where, in 1919, at the young age of 25, he succeeded Henry as president.

It seems that Edsel had the leadership chops to match those of his archrival Sloan across town at GM, at least when his mercurial father didn’t step in and second-guess him. Sadly, Edsel died in 1943 at the age of 49, and his octogenarian father returned to the company’s executive suite. It marked the beginning of a decades-long decline in the company’s fortunes during which several finance- and accounting-oriented executives, such as Robert McNamara and Red Poling, would wrestle with product- and manufacturing-oriented executives, such as Donald Petersen and Lee Iacocca, for control of the corporation. This proved beneficial mainly to GM and Japanese competitors, and only recently did that destructive internal competition cease under the stewardship of Henry’s great-grandson, Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., and the impressive leadership of industry outsider CEO Alan Mulally.

The Loose Cannon

Indeed, a major theme running through the hundred-year saga known as “Detroit” has been the nasty leadership battle between car guys, like Ford, and bean counters, like Raskob, to borrow labels from retired auto executive Bob Lutz. His fourth book, Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership, is an olio of 11 mini-bios of leaders, most of whom were executives the author worked for during his six decades in the auto industry.

The Swiss-born, multilingual Lutz is an ex-Marine who labored near the top at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and GM (twice), and was responsible for developing such iconic cars as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Viper. While skewering the likes of legendary Lee Iacocca and hapless Rick Wagoner (CEO when GM required the recent bailout), Lutz does his best to remain evenhanded and find the best in the worst of the lot. But he is definitely on the side of car guys.

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