Lee Iacocca’s Leadership Legacy To An Industry And Our Nation

Lee Iacocca was a car making titan who led a massive transformation of the industry at Ford and Chrysler. He was a hugely competitive executive—driven by commercial success and patriotic pride. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld looks back at his life.
Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca 1924-2019 Photo Credit: Chrysler.com

Just yesterday, I came out with a CNBC critique of the imperfect leadership style of the ingenious automaker Elon Musk, right before Tesla delivered record car delivery numbers that beat expectations and increased its stock price. Rather than offer a convincing explanation or a mea culpa about Musk, I’ll focus on another great champion of U.S. automaking who deserves attention.

Lee Iacocca, who died this week at his home in California, was a car-making titan who led a massive transformation of the industry at Ford and Chrysler. He was a hugely competitive executive—driven by commercial success and patriotic pride.

As the son of an enterprising Italian immigrant hot dog vendor, who lost a vast real estate empire in the Great Depression, Iacocca was intensely proud of his ethnic roots and his American identity, as well as his confidence to achieve against the odds. His reinvention of lifestyle design at Ford and Chrysler and his revival of Chrysler were legendary. He celebrated his comeback of Chrysler with ads proclaiming, “The Pride is Back!”

Similarly, Iacocca led the massive restoration projects of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island—badly in need of attention—as a way of celebrating the diverse tapestry of American life with its immigrant heritage. He also created the Ellis Island Foundation—with an annual award that I had the honor of winning last year—to fortify these bedrock American values.

His model of leadership and personal branding transcended industry and embraced politics. He was a very serious contender for the U.S. presidency in 1988. In fact, his career-long adversary, Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers, told me that even he “would support Lee Iacocca for the U.S. presidency, except no U.S. business leader who never held elective office could ever win as U.S. President!”

Seriously—he actually told me that in 1987.

And when the distinguished, economically savvy, eloquent, silver-haired Fraser spoke to students, they were surprised by his appearance. They said they expected him to be balding, fist-pumping, barrel-chested and chomping on a cigar. “Oh, you got me confused with Lee Iacocca,” Fraser said.

Iacocca consistently embraced shifting American lifestyles, creative design and imaginative marketing to the U.S. auto industry and business in general. He developed brilliant marketing campaigns, such as his “56 for 56” campaign with a novel financing approach to selling 1956 model Ford cars.

Of course, he created the hugely popular Mustang. While initially on a Ford Falcon chassis, it became a symbol of fun, liberation and a new generation. Later at Chrysler, he introduced the flexible, expansive, accessible Minivan, which celebrated a wild array of travel and transport needs in the adventures of American family life in ways that left the old rigid station wagons in the dust.

Chrysler’s then-CFO Steve Miller and Lehman Brothers’ Fred Frank told me that the stock popped from $3 to $16 per share, which, in turn, raised a fast $400 million in new equity offering based on the enthusiasm for the new Minivan. It effectively saved the company.

Beyond products, however, he helped American industry awaken, admittedly in a tardy way, to the competitive threats of trading partner nations such as Japan and Germany. To a nation that scoffed at them having triumphed in World War II, those countries’ spirit of innovation, focus on cutting-edged engineering and new efficiencies caught the big metal mindset of Detroit by surprise. Iacocca was a champion of the American manufacturer product.

He was the standard bearer of strength and resilience, so much that he was the yardstick used—as leaders were referred to being “the Lee Iacocca of their industry.” His career showed a fusion of identities between his own leadership style and the businesses he led, thus introducing the boss as a brand.

Iacocca was an American Original as one of the first modern celebrity CEOs. He came before Jack Welch, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, John Scully, Sam Walton, Phil Knight, Carlos Ghosn, Howard Schultz and others who authored their gauzy but inspiring autobiographies. Iacocca promoted the legends, triumphs and mythmaking of his career that harkened back to the days of the tycoons of the turn of that century, such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford I and Andrew Carnegie.

Iacocca was a very tough fighter. His career was the model of resilience from adversity. Having grown up in a family of uncertain financial stability, overcoming ethnic taunts and suffering from ill health derailing athletic pursuits in his college years, he became a great student and a transformational industrial titan.

He overcame threats to his own ambitious career path, such as when Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen was brought to Ford from GM to be a possible heir apparent. Iacocca engineered Knudsen’s ouster, threatening a mass exodus of Ford insiders to Chris Craft Industries.

However, as head of North American Automotive at Ford, he dramatically underperformed against Vice Chairman Phillip Caldwell, head of international operations—which eventually led to Iacocca’s own ouster. Nonetheless, he hopped over to the ailing Chrysler and led a legendary enterprise revival of a great American icon and the revival of his own legendary career.

Of course, there was the infamous Pinto subcompact.

Iacocca was imperfect as is Musk—as are the rest of us. Perhaps it is right, on July 4, to stop the critiques and celebrate those private sector leaders who work to fortify the American Dream as we appreciate the contributions of our noble soldiers and courageous public leaders. The U.S. is better because of Lee Iacocca…and yes with Elon Musk.

Read more: An Appreciation: Chrysler Rescuer Lee Iacocca Was America’s First Celebrity CEO


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