By on June 17, 2013

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Bob Lutz’s latest tome isn’t so much about cars as it is a business book on leadership that happens to be about cars. Through 11 vignettes, Lutz talks about the leadership figures in his life, their triumphs and foibles and how they impacted his personal and professional development.

Along the way we meet a broad cross section of figures, including Lutz’s high school teacher who eventually became Switzerland’s President, his Marine Drill Sergeant, and the CEO of Exide Batteries, who ended up becoming one of the first white collar criminals of the new millennium.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of auto world figures too, from household names like Harold “Red” Poling (Ford’s former CEO) and Chrysler’s Bob Eaton, to lesser known players like Eberhard von Kuenheim (an orphaned, near-penniless aristocrat who rose to the top of BMW. Lutz credits him with turning BMW from a “tiny, regional auto company into a global luxury-car powerhouse).

All of the characters outlined in the book are three-dimensional, with their own flaws and quirks. Even the most wretched and obnoxious among them are praised by Lutz for their business acumen, their charm or their quantifiable results. By the same token, the affable, kind and caring are panned for their failure to achieve corporate goals or take a stand when it was required.

Poling and von Kuenheim represent the most compelling narratives and the most relevant to the site. A petty, Machiavellian figure, von Kuenheim never failed to take credit for other people’s great ideas and was more than happy to throw his subordinates, Lutz included, under the bus. He was (according to Lutz) unable to tolerate anyone who was capable of outshining the master, a factor which drove Lutz to leave BMW. Nevertheless, Lutz expresses an admiration for the man, as he was able to make BMW what it is today. Without von Kuenheim, the 3, 5 and 7-Series cars, along with their famous naming conventions, would literally not exist.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Ford CEO Harold “Red” Poling who is depicted as an infamous tightwad, a royal pain in the ass and totally myopic in all matters that cannot be quantified. All right brain thinkers will be able to relate to Lutz’s frustration at having to deal with a figure like Poling – those of us who rely on our gut instinct, honed over thousands of years of evolution, know that numbers can in fact be fudged to mis-represent things and the real world turn of events can not always be reflected in an Excel spreadsheet. But try telling that to a boss who believes that “if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist”.

Poling’s obsession with cost-savings, data and procedure ended up creating massive inefficiencies at Ford, with workers resorting to manipulation (scheduling multiple meetings to get projects approved while using absurdly high budget estimates. Poling would demand multiple revisions until there was a mutually agreed upon target – which ended up being what the workers wanted in the first place), deceit and other tactics to get their way. Poling’s instincts for product were awful as well; at one point, he chides Lutz for backing the 1986 Taurus, stating that Ford should have made a K-Car instead. Another hilarious exchange has him chewing out Lutz for reading Auto Motor und Sport at his desk. When Lutz replies that he has to stay on top of the competition, Poling is utterly disdainful

“Nonsense. All people want is a car that starts every morning and gets them to work on time. You don’t need to read car magazines to figure that one out.”

Despite all that, Lutz learns a valuable lesson; you do need to be mercenary about sticking to your budgets and targets, or else projects can balloon in both cost and complexity. The engineers and planners will inevitably find a way to make do with what they are given.

As always, Lutz’s writing is crisp, funny and concise. At the end, there are scorecards for each leader, perhaps a wry concession to those who, like Poling, need quantitative data for just about everything. There is also a treatise about leadership at the end that touches on what Lutz believes is the essence of a good leader; one who is honest, direct, holds his troops to a high standard and has a laser-like focus on their vision and goals.

In that context, the book helped me evaluate my managers, both past and present. It helped me view them in a much more complex manner, rather than just as “good” or “bad”. As someone who not only has to manage a staff of writers, it also informed me of how I can improve my own conduct on the job. Leadership is tough – especially when you have to lead the same people you used to write to, asking if they would publish your early (and unpolished) work. It’s one of those things that can only be honed by experience rather than erudition. But at least Icons and Idiots helped give me the context needed to be a good boss, without having to endure seven decades of bad ones.

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29 Comments on “Book Review: Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership...”


  • avatar
    ash78

    “those of us who rely on our gut instinct, honed over thousands of years of evolution, know that numbers can in fact be fudged to mis-represent things and the real world turn of events can not always be reflected in an Excel spreadsheet. But try telling that to a boss who believes that “if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist”.

    Well, then, your spreadsheets suck :D

    You can quantify all risk, you just need an artistic design model to arrive at it. Most people in large businesses are too cowardly to step out and try, however. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Lutz is generally correct that experience and gut feel should count for something, not just a bunch of probabilities and decisions that rely on validated historical data and profitability expectations.

    • 0 avatar
      rushn

      Actually your point is addressed, you just missed it. What gets measured, gets manipulated, as the saying goes. Relying purely on spreadsheets leads to nothing but trouble. Just see mortgage backed securities and the amazing algorithms that went into them… and still utterly failed.

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        Sure, but derivative financial instruments (and the greedy, single-minded people often behind them) is a little different than something more holistic like a car. What I was saying is that virtually everything leading to the projected success or failure of a project can be quantified, but we tend to focus just on the objective elements (read: financial). It’s much harder but not impossible, to arrive at market timing, customer tastes, and other more subjective metrics if management insists on trying to put a number or a probability on everything.

        The problem with any big company is that they tend to hire specialists, while the auto industry would benefit from more generalists — people who care (and know) about every facet of the business.

        • 0 avatar
          jimbob457

          Actually, the real problem with many financial derivatives was that they were new innovations and did not have any really valid history. The importance of ‘the gut’, or maybe ‘the brain’ is to recognize when things really have changed, and ‘the history’ is no longer valid. Imho, this happens more often than most people think.

    • 0 avatar
      chuckrs

      George E. P. Box observed that all models are wrong, but some are useful. I think that includes spreadsheets. Its an art figuring out which are useful and to what extent.

      We could only wish the Wall Streeters had been too cowardly to believe in David Xi’s Copula formula.

      Whether its a poorly thought out car or a stinking pile of worthless securities – for example, NINJA mortgages – it seems to take years for the mess to manifest itself.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    There is room in every organization for the “gut-instinct” and the “quantifiers”. The wisdom is knowing which to follow when and not putting all your faith in one or the other.

    • 0 avatar
      ash78

      Precisely (and concisely). And why are “car guys” and “bean counters” mutually exclusive?

      Sounds like a failure in staffing and management to me :D

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Personally, I think that all “car guys” should have to do time in a department of bean counter hell to fully understand the complexities and repercussions of their decisions. Those who survive will be well honed for leadership duties.

        Likewise, a sense of passion for the product should be instilled with the bean counters so they have a firm understanding of why certain unquantifiable externalities do need a budget.

        Either way, a successful enterprise is one that is able to break down the inevitably formed silos to get everyone doing their part on a team with a single focus.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Dan, I was hoping I would see your avatar show up here!

      My hero…

  • avatar
    Aquineas

    I enjoyed Lutz’s previous book immensely, but I’m not sure I’m going to buy this one. If I have one criticism of the previous book, it was the complete lack of accountability he demonstrated when he talked about why people automatically would give the Japanese manufacturers a pass during the 80s, but not give GM a pass. Um, hello? GM as well as the rest of the big 3 earned their negative public perception by making shitty, unreliable cars for two decades. The Beancounters who maximized tangible per-unit profit at the expense of intangible quality can be blamed. Wisdom suggests that it takes a lot longer to build up good will than it does to tear it down, so expect at least that much time before your reputation has recovered, and that’s assuming you mostly make good engineering decisions henceforth. It takes an abundance of creative, well-engineered, reliable, bell-weather products to move people’s perceptions. Has GM accomplished that? Subjectively speaking, they’re on their way, but they’re not there yet.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Bob Lutz, a legend in his own mind. Circumstance does not equal accomplishment. I have always marveled at the hubris of any VP of XX Industries who climbs upon the shoulders of thousands of minions to “accept” the corporate accolades he so richly deserves.

    • 0 avatar

      Ok, I’ll take the bait.

      You deny the role of effective leadership? Thousands of minions would just spontaneously do great, well coordinated work of their own accord?

      • 0 avatar
        Cammy Corrigan

        To degree, yes. I’d agree.

        I have worked on more than my fair share of projects where management has been useless (nearly all of them) and the success of the project has been down to the resources co-ordinating themselves to make it a success.

        The main factor in the resources co-ordinating themselves was that if the project failed, management would never fire fellow management (even though, they were responsible); they would just cut some team members. Hence, we were fighting for our jobs and the project manager was just the enemy within, which we sidelined. If we actually LET them do their job, most of the projects I’ve worked on would have failed.

        I’ve also seen this behaviour happen in families with dysfunctional parents. The parents are a pair of useless good-for-nothings, but the children stick together to make sure there’s some semblance of family there. I’ve seen elder sisters act like the mum and elder brother use their jobs to pay for stuff for the younger members of the family.

        I’m not saying this will happen all the time, but management isn’t needed as much as they think they are needed.

        Read about the Chinese (that’s right, CHINESE) company “Haier”. The CEO, Zhang Ruimin, eliminated vast swathes of middle management, because the workers are so effective in managing themselves.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Interestingly, the white collar criminal CEO of Exide mentioned is my wife’s uncle. I like Lutz’s take on things, I may just pick this one up.

  • avatar

    SSR.

  • avatar
    JSF22

    I admire Lutz and read it in two sittings the day it downloaded to my Kindle. I respect the fact that he saw some good in the worst of them, and some weaknesses in the best of them, which is the way almost all of us are. But I thought he must have either gotten a new ghostwriter, or actually written this one himself — it is a real bore compared to his earlier stuff.

  • avatar
    highdesertcat

    “Nonsense. All people want is a car that starts every morning and gets them to work on time. You don’t need to read car magazines to figure that one out.”

    LOL! That philosophy worked out pretty damn well for Toyota, et al. Maybe it was the part about the domestic brands not starting and not getting ‘them’ to work on time that did in the domestic automakers.

    I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to buy this book, even to donate it to my local library. I bought the books by Whitacre and Rattner and both of them were pretty self-serving IMO and not particularly earth shattering.

    But maybe a comedic novel by Mr Lutz may be more informing and entertaining.

    • 0 avatar

      Rattner’s was overly detailed down to what was for lunch. it appeared to be scripted to tell a certain side of the story. the best part was his calling out the incompetence of John Smith

      Whitacre on the other hand was a more accurate portrayal of pertinent realities and filled with interesting and informative tidbits. I believe Big Ed was good for GM and wish he had stuck around longer.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        Agreed on both! I came away with the same sentiment after reading those books. Neither book was a keeper. I donated mine to the library. They thanked me for my donations and then promptly sold them at the next book sale to the public.

        Which is why I don’t know if I even want to invest in Bob Lutz’s new book, even if I ultimately donate it for public use. I have great respect and admiration for Mr. Lutz and everything he has done and accomplished in his life. No one should criticize anyone unless they have walked a mile in their shoes. Only if you have battled in the arena can you call out another gladiator.

        After reading the pure fiction that some of ttac’s commenters publish in these threads, I can’t help but be drawn to feel sympathy for Bob Lutz and the demise of GM, since he was an integral part of it.

        We are each a product of our own life experiences and no doubt Mr Lutz is also a product of the events and experiences that helped shape him throughout his life.

        Am I interested in what helped shape Bob Lutz? Not if I have to pay for it.

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      Maybe that’s why the only Toyota I ever bought was a rusty, 10 year old, all wheel drive, Tercel wagon. Its purpose was to drive through the salt drifts in winter so that I wouldn’t ruin cars I valued. Toyota/Lexus has built some interesting cars but not for nearly ten years.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        My guess is that Toyota won’t make any revolutionary or even evolutionary improvements to any of their cars unless the competition forces them to do so. And why should they? Their cars sell well in spite of being less modern and less up-to-date than those from Ford.

        Their bread&butter sedan is the Camry that also happens to be the best-selling sedan in America. Go figure! Today’s Camry is not very different, nor better, than the previous iterations. Instead of a CVT, I’d like to see Camry come out with a decent 8-speed step-transmission in the Camry, and a cylinder-managed V6 instead of that ratty four banger.

        Then there is the Tacoma. Long in the tooth, but it has zero competition. Nothing will be done to update the Tacoma until some competition shows up on the distant horizon. Yet the Tacoma is the best-selling midsize truck in America.

        How about the Avalon? Why not an AWD option instead of that tired old Camry V6 drive train from yester-decades? Even the Chrysler 300 has an AWD option.

        And my 2011 Tundra? Magnificent engine that 5.7, but the rest of the truck lags behind 2013 Ford, 2013 RAM and the 2014 GM trucks. The Tundra could start with upgrading to an 8-speed or 10-speed automatic for 2014, and then also incorporate cylinder management like the V8s from GM and RAM have.

        Toyota hasn’t built anything revolutionary for nearly ten years. You got that right! The last revolutionary vehicle they built was the best-selling Prius, ten years ago.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    If God didn’t want us to read car magazines, why did he invent toilets?

  • avatar
    Rday

    Lutz is one of the ‘good old boys’ that created the crisis in the american automotive industry. He is a smart and clever man and has great charisma and charm. And tells great stories.
    PRoblem is he is part of the establishment and very suspect for creating the problems. I have never seen or heard him write/admit to his failing/shortcomings in ‘the american automotive problems’. It is easy to make fun of others but takes a real man to admit his shortcomings and actually do something about them. He seems to always have a ‘dog in the fight’ and will profit handsomely from whatever he does. Nothing wrong with making money but he should have devoted more of his efforts to taking good care of the companies he worked for. He is not alone and anymore it seems like all american executives’ pay is not related to their efforts/results. Corruption breeds corruption and we certainly have no shortage of that. How many $Millions is a guy worth that helps to lose money or run a corporation into the ground????

  • avatar
    E46M3_333

    Congratulations Lutz. You’re the tallest dwarf among Detroit auto execs.

  • avatar

    ‘by the same token, the affable, kind and caring…’

    ok, didn’t plan on commenting today as i’m too busy, but that phrase has been bothering me all day. Don’t believe it for a minute, Derek. The two things mentioned are not necessarily mutually excluding. This is just what ruthless men tell themselves when they lay their heads on their pillows at night so they can sleep. It’s just self serving justification for their sometimes cruel and not necessary decisions even business wise. Just a lame mantra to keep personal accountability at arm’s length.

    • 0 avatar

      Read the Rick Wagoner chapter and you’ll see what I mean. Lutz portrays him as a nice man who was too slow to react, but also pilloried in public when he did a lot of good for GM while not stepping on anyone’s toes.

  • avatar

    So now we have seen Lutz hand out score cards to everyone, can we see his score card?


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