Lee Iacocca, the auto industry legend who was credited with the launch of the Ford Mustang and the revival of a moribund and defunct Chrysler, passed away this week. It prompted me to read as much as I could about him and learn about his methods. I mean, what better way to pay homage to a guy known for his maverick management?
Iacocca, it turns out, was one of the earliest practitioners of the art of the celebrity chief executive. He could win over customers as easily as politicians and business peers. He was a CEO-as-hero for the television age. A larger than life personality, his approach to business was domineering. What made him stand apart was his astute understanding of the power of a brand and the value of a well-crafted product. And he knew how to sell it — and sell it hard. That is the lesson and legacy he leaves behind: Build great products and hawk them with the pizzazz of the showman.
While I was reading, I could not help but feel a bit disappointed about Chrysler’s trajectory since Iacocca’s heyday. Even the most successful and inspiring leaders eventually move on.
Iacocca’s passing came on the heels of the news that Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive, was leaving the company. He had been slowly extracting himself from the company for a while, but now it was official. And Ive’s decision to leave naturally made me think of his close collaboration with Steve Jobs.
There were many similarities between Jobs and Iacocca. For starters, they both brought iconic brands back from the brink. They also made the cover of Time Magazine (when it meant something) more often than their peers. Both were masterful storytellers and, thus, brilliant marketers. They weren’t shy about backing new ideas within their companies. They were obsessive about little things, and they knew a good thing when they saw one. Because they were ultimately product people, they knew how to do more with less.
When Chrysler was failing, Iacocca found a way around rules and regulations to push for the launch of a minivan, a vehicle that saved the company. Ironically, all the initial work for a minivan concept was done by Iacocca at Ford, but the company didn’t want to go down that road. In fact, they let Iacocca have the research, for free. Jobs championed the bubble iMac, which wasn’t the most powerful, but like the minivan, did it all. And much like the U.S. government helped out Iacocca’s Chrysler with $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, Jobs was aided by $150 million from Microsoft, which gave Apple a shot in the arm during its dark days.
Both were (almost) benevolent dictators. “Iacocca was a capable dictator who provided good direction to his subordinates but was only interested in their opinions when he asked for them,” said Burton H. Bouwkamp, a Chrysler Corporation product planner who worked with Iacocca. Jobs’ mercurial style is well known in every proverbial Silicon Valley cubicle.
Perhaps the most significant trait Jobs and Iacocca shared was that they were both fiercely and exceptionally competitive. It is hardly a surprise that they were such prodigious hitmakers. They both knew about consumer desires before even consumer knew what they wanted.
Ultimately, for me, Iaccoca’s passing is a reminder that the future of companies led by iconic leaders is very binary. They either end up a footnote in history, like Chrysler, or they find their way into the future, like The Walt Disney Company, which is sometimes bumbling but has managed to mostly stay true to its past. Especially as Ive departs Apple, I hope Jobs’ legacy meets the fate of Disney and not that of Chrysler.
This first appeared on my weekly newsletter dated July 7, 2019. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.