Diversions Book Review: "Where Have All the Leaders Gone?"

Men and women do not get to be icons without good — or bad — reason. “Leaders are born from crisis,” writes Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, in his book “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”

He’s entitled to ask that question – after all, he is one of those icons who earned his position by doing the right thing at the right time when such moves seemed risky, even foolish.

For those who may not remember, Iacocca turned around the ailing Chrysler Motor Company in 1979 with a number of brash moves that today’s CEOs would do well to emulate: he slashed his own salary to just a dollar; he visited every Chrysler plant and personally met with workers of all stripes, asking them to cut their budgets until it hurt; he paid off a staggering $1.2 billion debt to the federal government years before it was due. In short, he helped to engineer one of the greatest company turnarounds in history.

When Iacocca left the car company in 1992, it was one of the most successful firms in America.

Iacocca’s “Leaders” is a fascinating and fast read, looking into the heart and soul of one of the great business icons of our time. The book is also part-memoir, part-call to action, and a completely negative assessment of the Bush administration.

“Leadership” touches on everything, from the war in Iraq, the flat-world economy, how economic dragon China could benefit America, health care, to even how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina could have been handled better.

As one would expect, Iacocca talks frankly about leadership, or lack thereof, in both the White House and behind mahogany desks.

With debates among the presidential contenders already in full swing, Iacocca enumerates his “Seven C’s” as a test of their worthiness: curiosity, creativity, communication, character, courage, conviction, charisma, competence and common sense. In fact, he evaluates each of the leading hopefuls with his test.

He also makes mention of his own downfalls as a leader — handing the Chrysler torch to Bob Eaton perhaps the most stinging — relating to the reader that he certainly is not without fault.

One of the book’s most memorable passages — Iacocca’s feelings on the Daimler takeover of Chrysler — is truly gut-wrenching and leaves the reader wanting to know more from him on this subject. And with Cerberus acquiring over 80 percent of Chrysler in the latest deal in May, it truly makes the reader wonder if Chrysler’s current fate would have turned out differently if Iacocca had taken the reins again.

He also relates conversations with some of the most famous (and infamous) personalities of our time, including President Ronald Reagan and many other presidents, financier Kirk Kerkorian, Prince Charles and Lady Camilla, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, even Pope John Paul II.

Iacocca’s recollection of a meeting with Fidel Castro in 1994, which finds the former auto exec barreling through the jungles of Cuba at midnight for a private conversation with the Communist leader, is laugh-out-loud funny, but also telling about U.S. relations with the island nation.

Some of us, especially those of younger generations, have grown jaded after all the perp walks of the “business leaders” of Adelphia, Tyco, Enron, and other unceremonious ousters. Even with Paul Wolfowitz, the former head of the World Bank, stepping down in late May amid allegations he finagled a hefty compensation package in 2005 for his girlfriend — sometimes one begins to believe nothing is sacred anymore.

So hearing Iacocca’s words that a few times border on noblesse oblige can sometimes ring ever so slightly hollow. Or do they?

The advice is coming from Uncle Lee after all. And those headline downfalls of some of industry’s most infamous executives are some of the reasons Iacocca said he felt compelled to write the book. (“‘We’ve got to pay big bucks if we want to attract the top talent.’ Huh? Is this the new definition of talent — the ability to lose money?” he writes.)

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, in the corner office or on the shop floor, there is much to agree with in “Leaders,” as well as much to debate, but there is one point of Iacocca’s on which most would agree: We’ve got plenty of crises, now it’s time for leaders.

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