Lutz is particularly venomous with regard to such “bean counters” as the late Red Poling, Ford’s chairman and CEO in the early 1990s, who, while living “in a world of spreadsheets, [was] hopelessly removed from the unquantifiable reactions of the real world [and] cost the company millions of dollars in profit.” He also mocks Poling’s pathetically insecure predecessor, the late Philip Caldwell, who Lutz says kept photos of himself shaking hands with celebrities in an album titled “Important People Who Have Met Me.” In many ways, this book is a sequel to the comic and insightful On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look inside the Automotive Giant (Wright Enterprises, 1979), which was penned by J. Patrick Wright and is equally full of anecdotes about the risible behavior of Big Three leaders, behavior that has led to repeated auto industry fiascos.
What saves Icons and Idiots from being a mere collection of anecdotes is that, like DeLorean, Lutz is extremely knowledgeable about the industry and a keen observer of leadership. Mixed in among embarrassing tales of alcohol-fueled mishaps, juvenile pettiness, and gross incompetence are thoughtful insights about why some leaders succeed and others fail. Most of the failures Lutz cites are due to egomania, financial short-termism, a lack of customer focus, poor product quality, and, above all, overreliance on the numbers when common sense and flexibility would have saved the day.
Lutz never made it to the top anywhere he worked, although he had been the odds-on favorite to succeed Iacocca at Chrysler until the incumbent made it clear he favored “ABL” (Anybody But Lutz). Lutz owns up to why, despite his enviable record as a car guy, he was never chosen to lead a major auto company: “I was too ambitious, volatile, unpredictable, undiplomatic, emotional and way too prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.” These are characteristics Lutz documents time and again in this amusing little volume, which ends, not inappropriately, with the Obama administration’s bailout of GM, where the nearly 80-year-old Lutz served as Rick Wagoner’s numero dos.
Ever the non-diplomat, Lutz can’t bring himself to mention the name of the bean counter brought in to head GM when, for all intents, it was nationalized in 2009. Although he is forced to admit GM was made profitable under the unnamed Ed Whitacre, Lutz’s parting shot is the claim that what actually saved the company was the new models that had been under his development when the storm hit Detroit.
In that regard, it is interesting to take a comparative look at Whitacre’s autobiography, American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA (Business Plus, 2013), in which he offers his account of how GM was saved from bankruptcy. He claims one of his first moves was to ease octogenarian Lutz out the door: “You didn’t have to be a car expert to figure it out: The economy didn’t get GM. Mismanagement did.”
If Whitacre’s book weren’t so self-congratulatory and short on specifics, I might be inclined to write Lutz off as a has-been. But both Lutz and Whitacre are partially right. Detroit needs both car guys and bean counters. In fact, the general leadership lesson to be taken from these books is that all the skills needed to run a large corporation are seldom found in one individual. And that is why, from the Rust Belt to Silicon Valley, successful C-suites are home to robust mixes of executive talent.