Icons and Idiots

Icons and Idiots
Straight Talk on Leadership
Bob Lutz – Author

Summary of Icons and Idiotsicons and idiots
“Most successful leaders are mentally and emotionally askew. There’s a good side, which gets the job done. There’s often also a downside that makes them hard to understand or difficult to work for. It’s precisely that they are impatient, stubborn, opinionated, unsatisfied, and domineering that makes them successful.”

When Bob Lutz retired from General Motors in 2010, after an unparalleled forty-seven-year career in the auto industry, he was one of the most respected leaders in American business. He had survived all kinds of managers over those decades: tough and timid, analytical and irrational, charismatic and antisocial, and some who seemed to shift frequently among all those traits. His experiences made him an expert on leadership, every bit as much as he was an expert on cars and trucks.

Now Lutz is revealing the leaders—good, bad, and ugly—who made the strongest impression on him throughout his career. Icons and Idiots is a collection of shocking and often hilarious true stories and the lessons Lutz drew from them. From enduring the sadism of a Marine Corps drill instructor, to working with a washed-up alcoholic, to taking over the reins from a convicted felon, he reflects on the complexities of all-too-human leaders. No textbook or business school course can fully capture their idiosyncrasies, foibles and weaknesses – which can make or break companies in the real world.

Lutz shows that we can learn just as much from the most stubborn, stupid, and corrupt leaders as we can from the inspiring geniuses. He offers fascinating profiles of icons and idiots such as…

Eberhard von Kuenheim. The famed CEO of BMW was an aristocrat-cum-street fighter who ruled with secrecy, fear, and deft maneuvering.
Harold A. “Red” Poling: A Ford CEO and the ultimate bean counter. If it couldn’t be quantified, he didn’t want to know about it.
Lee Iacocca: The legendary Chrysler CEO appeared to be brillant and bold, but was often vulnerable and insecure behind the scenes.
G. Richard “Rick” Wagoner: The perfect peacetime CEO whose superior intelligence couldn’t save GM from steep decline and a government bailout.

As Lutz writes:
We’ll examine bosses who were profane, insensitive, totally politically incorrect, and who “appropriated” insignificant items from hotels or the company. We’ll visit the mind of a leader who did little but sit in his office. We’ll look at another boss who could analyze a highly complex profit-and-loss statement or a balance sheet at a glance, yet who, at times, failed to grasp the simplest financial mechanisms—how things actually worked in practice to create the numbers in the real world.

The result is a powerful and entertaining guide for any aspiring leader.


Rick Wagoner’s support of my efforts to revitalize product development was exemplary, a clear demon-stration of one of his most endearing characteristics: steadfast loyalty to his handpicked subordinates, leaving them with the certainty of the boss’s backing. Sadly, this otherwise laudable leadership trait can cut in both directions: Rick, in many instances, was devoid of objectivity when it came to people with whom he had served a long time, who had moved up the ranks with him, or whom he had known as early as his Treasury Office days. It was painful to see Rick protect and support many officers who, to my eyes, personified the large corporation culture of “look good, sound good, prepare well for meetings, and never disagree with the boss.” It wasn’t until after Rick’s departure in 2009 that the hammer fell on many of these experienced, slick, intelligent, but ultimately near-useless members of the Wagoner team. A collective sigh of relief marked their departures.

Rick was definitely a procedural executive. He was blessed with truly exceptional intelligence, mostly left-brain analytical but, unlike in Red Poling, combined with an understanding of right-brain value. Rick liked to reduce complex interlocking issues to understandable, repeatable processes. Given the impenetrable thicket and lack of executive discipline that he inherited, this unquestionably provided clarity and value. The good thing about focusing on process is that it ensures repeatability and predictability. The bad thing about overfocusing on process is that it discourages creativity, experimentation, and new solutions. Yet, in large organizations, many derive comfort from following “the process,” even if they know the result will be mediocre at best. Rick, with his well-ordered mind, liked process and was not comfortable in its absence.

On one occasion, eager to show Rick the benefit of free-flowing creativity, I asked Design to put on a presentation of any and all ideas for future vehicles the most talented of the designers could come up with for new, untried ways to put the public on four wheels. It was a great exercise, and as always in acts of spontaneous creation, no “focus groups” had been involved because they could no more have imagined these cars than focus groups of cell phone users could have come up with the iPhone.

We presented it all to Rick, who was fascinated. He just had one question: “How do we know whether these directions we’re going in are correct?” I assured him that we would all recognize a potential home run if we saw one, but that these “what if” proposals had to be seen as the products of the fertile imagination of talented designers; they were not firm “product proposals” but rather “thought provokers” or “idea starters.” Rick still had a problem. How did we know we were exploring in the right direction? He then outlined his idea: What if we were to create a high-level panel of leading thinkers, artists, architects, fashion designers, people who were young, sharp, cool, and trendy? Expose them to these design “stimuli” in a scientific way, tabulate the results, and we would soon see if we were headed in the right direction.

“Rick,” I said, “here we are trying to demonstrate one way to generate new ideas through an unfiltered creative process. But you are so quantitatively data focused, you immediately want to measure, sift, analyze, and generally left-brain-control what is supposed to be a pure right-brain exercise.” Rick laughed and said, “I guess you’re right. … I always want to see data.”

Stylistic quibbles and preoccupation with “process” aside, Rick demonstrated many of the qualities of the ideal CEO. He was honest, unflappable, fair, and possessed of a marvelous intelligence. He generally set the right priorities, and often demonstrated considerable courage in pursuing initiatives he felt were important, even if they weren’t supported by the rest of his team. The heavy emphasis on China is an example, as was his relentless struggle to reduce the impact of UAW legacy costs without engaging in a destructive strike. The purchase of the moribund Daewoo Company in Korea found little support and yet is now one of the cornerstones of GM’s global small car strategy. Rick was persuasive, mentally agile, and an excellent verbal communicator (although his style was matter of fact and lacked the populist, emotionally charged oratory of Lee Iacocca).

Rick trusted his direct reports and rarely micromanaged, sometimes to a fault. He was slow to see the weakness or ineffectiveness of some senior executives who looked good, sounded good, and actually did little or were indecisive, but who had come up “through the ranks” with him. In short, he tolerated less-than-stellar performance. Rick was a curious blend of new, young, hand at the tiller, determined to change (often with success) the old, encrusted GM methods yet himself partially a product of that same stable, predictable, plodding culture, tolerant of mediocrity, tolerant of massive amounts of meaningless and unnecessary staff activity.

To the vast majority of his charges, Rick Wagoner was an admired and beloved CEO. His minor faults were easily forgiven, because people felt secure under his leadership. Devoid of bluster, autocracy, and punitive behavior, Rick was the very picture of a leader who genuinely cared about his people. It’s an admirable human quality, but it did not serve the company well when the world began to unravel. Rick found it difficult to order tough calls, like downsizing dealers or cutting brands. He talked frequently about the desirability of the latter, yet never imposed his will against resistance, including my own.

At some point, if convinced that Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab were all “surplus to requirements,” a tougher, less caring CEO would have said, “Look, I’m all done arguing. Don’t show me any more justification for keeping them. I’ve seen all that, and I don’t believe it. I’ll give you ten days, and then I want to see a complete plan for the wind-down or sale of each brand. And don’t pad the cost numbers to show me how dumb I am. I just won’t believe them. So, get going. Any questions?” Frankly, that’s how Iacocca would have done it.

Excerpted from ICONS AND IDIOTS: Straight Talk on Leadership. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Bob Lutz, 2013.