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leadership skills of Lee Iacocca, beginning with a brief biography and a look at his careers at Ford and Chrysler. Using his 9 C's as a point of reference, it shows how Iacocca's success at leadership stemmed from his devotion to creativity, common sense, communication, charisma, and character, among others. It examines how his leadership effected and was affected by political outsiders as well as by economic factors. It analyzes his philanthropic pursuits and his literary career as well. It concludes that Iacocca proved his leadership ability by arranging the 1979 bailout, a re-organization of a top heavy company, innovative design, and all around competency in business matters.
The Leadership Skills of Lee Iacocca
Born Lido Anthony Iacocca (named after the town in which he was conceived) in 1924, "Lee" Iacocca grew up to be one of the most popular and revered business men in the world. First as head of Ford Motor Company then as chief of Chrysler, Iacocca proved that he had the right set of leadership skills to make both businesses profitable, even when the latter was on the ropes and verging on bankruptcy. This paper will analyze the career and leadership characteristics Lee Iacocca and show how his 9 C's of Leadership served as his guide to being the man he was.
Iacocca's first great idea for which he was recognized came in 1956 when he, after having joined Ford 10 years earlier, started the "56 for 56" campaign in Philadelphia, which gave buyers a loan on any 1956 Ford model car, when the buyer put down 20% and agreed to three years of monthly payments of $56 (Iacocca, 1984. p. 41). With a genius for marketing, Lee rose through the ranks of Ford Motor Company to become president of the company in 1970.
Having begun his career in engineering, Lee always kept his interest in car design. He took an active role in several models, such as the Mustang and the Escort, and later with Chrysler he introduced the minivan. After butting heads with Henry Ford II, Lee went to work for the endangered Chrysler and helped to lift the company out of its financial rut (by appealing to Congress for a loan).
No matter what he did, Lee always invested himself personally in it. From his business pursuits to his philanthropic exercises, Lee Iacocca proved himself to be a man who set his mind upon something and made it work.
Lee began his career at the bottom rung in Philadelphia, but quickly rose to the top by showing business savvy and winning leadership traits. Beginning as an engineer, Lee saw that his true flair was in marketing and sales, so he asked to be switched to this division. His flair proved itself with the "56 for 56" campaign and caught the eye of his supervisors.
During his time at Ford, Lee showed his ability to lead according to transformational leadership theory and broaden-and-build theory. With the former, Lee could inspire "followers to perform beyond expectations while transcending self-interest for the good of the organization" (Avolio, Walumbwa, Weber, 2009, p. 423). The rise that followed the "56 for 56" campaign showed that Lee could put Ford first and in his final year with the company he overall saw a major profit taking for the year. With Lee at the helm of Ford, those under him certainly performed "beyond expectations."
His devotion to engineering showed that he could also "expand cognition…encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions," even though these were not received well by Henry Ford II, who loathed Lee's idea to introduce the minivan through Ford (Avolio, Walumbwa, Weber, 2009, p. 423). This was Iacocca's major conflict at Ford, having different ideas and creative impulses than those of Henry Ford II. It resulted in a separation. But even when fired from Ford, Lee did not abandon his broaden-and-build style of leadership. He just took it to Chrysler, who asked for his help.
Chrysler was in poor financial condition at the time Iacocca took over. It was losing millions of dollars through models like the Dodge Aspen, which Iacocca saw were horrible ideas. In order to turn the company around, Iacocca sold off the under-performing European division of Chrysler, brought aboard many of his old cronies, and began cutting jobs. As Nitin Nohria and Sandy Green (2002) show, Iacocca employed a rousing rhetoric "in mobilizing change" while at Chrysler (p. 1).
One of the problems with Chrysler was that it was extremely top-heavy, with 35 vice-presidents and no committee organization. The accounting department was unorganized, and the inventory was rotting. Iacocca turned this around by practicing what could be called new-genre leadership, which is characterized by "emphasizing charismatic leader behavior, visionary, inspiring, ideological and moral values, as well as transformational leadership" (Avolio et al., 2009, p. 428). His charisma was observable in his rhetoric, his visionary style of leadership was discerned in his approach to engineering (the K-Car and the minivan were his own personal gifts to Chrysler), and his inspiring and morally-acceptable values prompted him to have a good many followers.
An example of inspiring ideology (philanthropy) is seen in his devotion to research in diabetes. His wife suffered and died from diabetes and Lee donated millions to scientific research that could help save the lives of others who suffered from a similar disease. He also took an interest in politics, as he saw politics and economics working together, even today; writing for his own website he states a need for Americans to really consider how the country's leaders are facing the problems of war, economy, healthcare and energy (Iacocca, 2008). His interest in politics, however, became evident much earlier when he sought a 1979 bailout from Congress. Congress had bailed out the airlines and the railroads, so Iacocca did not see why Congress couldn't help out Chrysler, too, which employed a good percentage of Americans.
The 1979 bailout in one way was contradictory to good, free market business sense; but Iacocca was looking out for Chrysler, first, not free market philosophy. Thus, he proved that he was a transformational leader, putting the company at the top of his priorities and doing whatever it took to get it through another day, even if this meant shifting the burden onto taxpayers. While this may have been a temporary success for Chrysler, it may also be interpreted as a potential failure in the long run and be seen as "kicking the can down the road" to avoid the all-too-familiar fiscal cliff that today's politicians continue to try to keep from falling over. In 2009, Chrysler was forced to declare bankruptcy, 30 years after Iacocca narrowly guided the company back from the brink.
Lee Iacocca's leadership characteristics have been boiled down to the 9 C's of leadership, which are: curiosity, creativity, communication, character, courage, conviction, charisma, competency, and common sense. Iacocca's story has acted as a source of inspiration for thousands of young leaders, mainly because he himself followed the 9 C's. Iacocca communicated with his workers at Chrysler to find out what they wanted, how badly they wanted, what they thought they could do to turn the company around, and he used this information to guide the ship, so to speak.
Lee applied his 9 C's to himself just as he continues to apply them to all leaders, including political ones. He tells his readers, followers and fans to "pay special attention to my "Nine C's" test for leadership…Apply it to the people who will soon be asking for your vote. I know I will be" (Iacocca, 2008). Having shown what the 9 C's could do, Lee expected others to adapt themselves to it.
He showed the 9 C's, for example, in the ways he approached the Chrysler crisis: he placed competent men around him, fired the advertising agencies who had been promoting Chrysler and hired one that could do a better job; he gave suppliers a glimpse into the future by showing off creative, new designs; he showed conviction and common sense in giving a rebate to the Army, thus securing himself a much-coveted government contract and making friends within important political circles.
He also showed courage by reducing his salary to $1.00 in order to show that he believed in what he could do. He got others on board by using a brazen "help us or go bankrupt" rhetoric; and he showed that he truly was a man of character when he saw the bailout loan repaid in full seven years early. His ability to speak to the common man in the common man's own language showed that he could communicate well on all levels (Levin, 1995, pp. 150-95).
Outside influences, of course, were important in Iacocca's leadership story. His ability to link the economy to industry and industry to politics may be controversial on some levels, but it showed that he understood how to adapt to his environment. The exterior environment of…[continue]
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