Book: Icons and Idiots, by Bob Lutz

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:18pm

Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership

by Bob Lutz


Bob Lutz was a big noise in the American automotive industry. The Swiss-American retired as a vice-chairman of General Motors in 2010, after 47 years in senior positions there and at BMW, Ford and Chrysler. A tough, charismatic executive, he recorded his corporate experiences in two best-sellers, Guts (1998 and 2003) and the readable Car Guys vs Bean Counters in 2011.

Lutz's latest book is an equally engaging profile anthology of the superiors who shaped his illustrious career. Lutz draws readers into his recollections with sharp, conversational snapshots of his bosses' appearance, manner, and foibles. He also coaches aspiring managers well for corner-office unease, such as at his first meeting with Robert Wachtler, the Director of Forward Planning, GM Overseas Operations. Wachtler, a "big man" with the "congested appearance of a former wrestler", was ordered to engage him. Lutz helpfully explains how he learned to know and then respect the "profane", ageing "pit bull in a room full of poodles".

He also portrays the wife of the heavy drinking Opel chairman Ralph Mason as "lovely (if slightly leathery)" and "a major alcoholic", but might have added more on the company's whisperings about their binges. Lutz also warns how boozy bosses can suddenly turn on the underlings who sidle up to them after hours, and colourfully describes a party incident in which Mason "was not a benevolent drunk".

The author reveals how knocks can have lasting positive influences, however. Recalling his studies at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Lausanne, Lutz describes the scathing criticism of his teacher, Georges-Andre Chevallaz, yet reminds managers how his own leadership style was shaped by the future president of Switzerland's "ability to use humour as an instrument of praise and to inflict slight embarrassment as a form of punishment".

Lutz is at his best when he describes the Machiavellian antics of Eberhard von Kuenheim, the wily, well-connected head of BMW, and the vulnerable boldness of Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca.

The author reveals glints of his bitter clashes with both, but mellows his criticism with the wisdom of an 81-year-old who perhaps realises that bad bosses can offer life lessons as well as sleepless nights.

Penguin omits photographs, and critics might wonder if Lutz has gone soft on Iacocca, who blocked his promotion, and Bob Eaton, "the gullible fool" who merged Chrysler with Daimler, but the author provides rare, lucid counsel for executives half his age, with practical perspectives from both sides of the big desk.