A View from Blue Grotto

Friday, June 27, 2008

Legendary leaders

“Talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they'll say, 'God, he said exactly what I was thinking.' And when they begin to respect you, they'll follow you to the death.” Lee Iacocca

I was inspired today by Bill Vlasik’s article in the NYT - A Pep Talk At Chrysler – Hailing Its Hero of the 80s.

I have commented over and over again about the indelible impression a leader makes on the culture of their company.

If ever there was a leader to make an impression, I’d vote for Lee Iacocca, beloved CEO of Chrysler. Iacocca was invited back to Chrysler, 16 years post retirement, to deliver an important message – don’t give up.

I am impressed that current CEO Bob Nardelli astutely chose Iacocca to rally the troops. Understanding the need to root yourself in the fact that you once were great, and deferring to a leader with celebrity-like status to deliver the message takes courage, considering Iacocca was “welcomed back Thursday to thunderous applause from Chrysler workers who are, once again, facing tough times.”

Stories from a company’s past – Chrysler’s repayment of the $1.2M government loan in three years, and the launch of the American minivan for example – have the power to inspire, excite and support everyone in the organization, from the CEO to the janitor. And sometimes, it’s the storyteller who most captures the audience’s attention.

At one time in Chrysler’s history, Iacocca was the storyteller. He served as the ultimate spokesperson for the company. He brought an authenticity to Chrysler. Do you remember Mr. Iacocca appearing in Chrysler ads – “If you can find a better car, buy it.” What modern day CEO appears in television advertisements? Not H. Scott Lee, Jr. of Walmart. Not Rex Tillerson of Exxon. Not Jeffrey Immelt of GE. Not even Bill Gates. You wouldn’t be interested in them if they did. And they likely would be much less convincing in their sales pitch of their companies products.

And though many of Chrysler’s current employees were barely out of grade school when Iacocca retired, the stuff of legends carries on throughout a company’s campfire lore. These same employees have never known first-hand the enormous success of being one of the Big Three. On the contrary, they have been plagued by layoffs, metro Michigan mortgage foreclosures still rank the highest in the nation, and just today, the company fended off rumors of bankruptcy.

One of the greatest gifts Mr. Iacocca can give to the people of Chrysler, and to the auto industry in general really, is the celebration of their culture and history. Especially at a time when they need it most. Being reminded that you are a member of a company that was a leader, part of an industry that led the country in manufacturing, part of American history, can go a long way in developing the resilience a corporate culture needs to sustain and grow itself.

Email me with examples of other corporate leaders you think people would “follow to the death.” And you can’t say Jack Welch. He’s too obvious.

Yvonne Hundshamer
President, Blue Grotto Inc.

Link to the NYT article