Lee Iacocca promoting Chrysler K-car.

Leadership with a Capital ‘Lee’

July 3, 2019
Lee Iacocca knew product, but he also knew how to motivate people.

In celebrating Lee Iacocca’s life and recognizing his passing, many tributes are focusing on his accomplishments: Ford and the Mustang, Chrysler, the K-Car and the minivan, the Chrysler Technology Center, and the renovation of the Statue of Liberty. While these are all iconic accomplishments, and most tributes will focus on them, it doesn’t touch the biggest impact of his legacy, and that is his example of leadership that influenced many other leaders.

My first exposure to Mr. Iacocca was not at Chrysler, but our shared alma mater, Lehigh University. There he had founded the Iacocca Institute, which hosts programs for high school students and adults with its centerpiece being the Global Village, a summer program where people from all over the world learn, collaborate, and build their leadership skills. That might sound popular today, but when it was started, it was visionary.

Dick Brandt, a friend and long-time director of the Iacocca Institute, called Lee “a good friend and my mentor at the Iacocca Institute while I was there for 20 years. His vision was to create a global footprint for Lehigh, and the Global Village Program has touched thousands of young business people in over 135 countries. Then he turned his resources to creating the Iacocca International Internship Program and hundreds of Lehigh students got the chance to work in internships overseas."

Lee was not a fast follower. He saw potential and was willing to lead to create his vision. Bob Lutz, in an interview on CNBC about Iacocca’s passing, stated that his greatest accomplishment was buying AMC and Jeep when the company couldn’t even afford it. Lutz said he was even against the idea, but Iacocca had a vision that paid off in droves, and continues to be the shining star in Fiat Chrysler’s portfolio.

As part of this visionary trait, he knew what really mattered to a company. As he would often state in some of his iconic commercials: Product comes first! Not all of his products were winners, but he knew you had to take chances in product to lead a market. These examples included the Mustang, minivan, and K-car. But he also led in adding features, especially regarding safety--such as airbags--and selling those features to a customer base that didn’t always appreciate them.

But while the company was about product, his role was about leadership. And this is the legacy of Lee Iacocca. In the same interview, Bob Lutz stated he learned from Iacocca that administering a company “simply does not work.” He continued, “Large organizations respond to leadership ... and Iacocca was a brilliant leader.”

We don’t need to spend a lot of time parsing the definition of leadership here. For starters, you can read one of his many books. He even talked about it in one of his iconic commercials from 1984, as he emphasized “quality, hard work, and commitment.” These are certainly three characteristics that he epitomized.

Perhaps the best way to capture Iacocca’s leadership style is by asking someone who worked directly for him. Denny Pawley was hired and promoted by Iacocca, running all of Chrysler’s manufacturing and ultimately transforming the organization through the creation and execution of the Chrysler Operating System. I worked under him to help bring this vision to life. Denny was also my co-founder, along with Andy Carlino, of the Lean Learning Center, and we remained partners for almost 15 years before we sold the company. Denny remains one of the best examples of hard-transformation leadership that I’ve had the pleasure to work with, and to attempt to emulate. I asked him about Iacocca, and this is what he had to say.

“I really believe that the name Lee Iacocca is the definition of leadership. He was fearless and never ran from a challenge. Competitors feared him but gave him the respect he deserved. Working for him created lots of tension, but I always knew he was there to pick me up if I fell. He always knew the exact amount of tension to apply without destroying an individual's motivation. I never wanted to fail at anything in my responsibility at Chrysler because I never wanted to disappoint him. [He was] a role model for me and many others in the industry.”

I last saw Lee Iacocca a few years ago. I was invited to a dinner during his last visit to Lehigh University, and even then he shared his vision of leadership that we must create in young people today. Whether you believe leadership is born or learned, it can always be improved, and we need examples to follow to maximize that learning. Lee Iacocca’s impact on leaders will continue.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor.

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